Letters

"The Da Vinci Code": Promoter of conspiracy theory or defender of women's rights? Readers defend Dan Brown, argue about Christian history, and question whether fiction can be subjected to fact-checking.


Salon Staff
January 1, 2005 2:48AM (UTC)

[Read "The Da Vinci Crock," by Laura Miller.]

Congrats to Laura Miller on an excellent dissection of "The Da Vinci Code." It was evident to me from the get-go that it was a rip-off of the equally egregious "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" -- that is, once I gagged my way through the first couple of pages. Miller is the first writer I've seen to remark on the awfulness of the opening prose. My initial impression was that it had been written for the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

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"Fans" of the book who see it as a blow for women are, it seems to me, on a very wrong track. It is, as a friend observed, merely another version of male fantasy: A woman, be she Mary Magdalene or you or me, cannot simply be a person in her own right. She must be defined by some male, either as his whore or as his wife.

Alas, with a movie in the offing we are likely to be treated to still more of this guff in 2005.

-- Rev. Linda Maloney

Kudos to Laura Miller to debunking some of the serious bunk in "The Da Vinci Code." However, this notion bothered me -- she wrote: "To try to recast [writers of/characters in the New Testament] as people with egalitarian attitudes about the sexes is to imply that we can't improve our own society without some kind of precedent from them." I disagree on both points, as one of the women she's probably describing.

To allege that Jesus was married and that Mary Magdalene was important in his life doesn't necessarily imply equality in their relationship (indeed, the Son of God deal makes equality impossible). However, if Jesus was married, his status calls into question a great deal of the anti-sex history (and present teachings in some) of the Christian churches. While being able to soften the anti-sex bias would help women, it would not claim equality for them. Brown's amorphous "sacred feminine" was fun, and no doubt leaders of all stripes through history did their best to prop up their own patriarchal order.

As for Miller's point about it being silly to rely on precedent, though, it is not the female readers who cling to precedent to remake the churches. The churches and institutions themselves still cling to Jesus' celibacy as precedent, in the most clear case of the Catholic church, to require celibacy of its priests. I'd be all for Catholic priests being married men (and women too, for that matter), but the pope disagrees, based on the church-approved New Testament and the precedent it provides (which also works with the anti-sex bit above). For people to care about the precedents their churches use to make their rules isn't silly -- it's responsible participation -- and if the Catholic church is relying on precedents from texts manipulated long ago, it's responsible to question those precedents and how they're used.

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Maybe the precedents are still consistent with the whole history of the writings about Jesus' life, but asking the questions isn't silly at all. One need look no further than to see Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus in December to see that the Christian churches have not always replicated Jesus' life as religious historians believe it to have been. Hopefully more readers will look to more responsible sources than Brown's lightweight fiction when asking questions about Jesus' life; I appreciate Miller's work in pointing to one more.

-- Ellen Fulton

Ultimately, I don't really care if the Priory existed or if Leonardo was really from Australia. I'm just kind of happy to see the iron-bound, dogmatic religious people who regularly tell me I'm going to hell for this, that, or the other reason try to stammer around to explain why their unknowable, unprovable assumptions about Christ are any more valid than Dan Brown's unknowable, unprovable assumptions about Christ.

After all, if it puts a tiny crack of doubt in there, maybe then they will start to doubt other tenets of their faith (like, oh, that the rapture is coming so you don't have to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or worry about killing a few hundred thousand Muslims, etc.). Who knows, they might then read their Bibles, and start going around being nice to each other as Christ allegedly did.

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-- Willow Grant

Thanks for the excellent exposé of the pseudohistory of "The Da Vinci Code."

Beyond the obvious anti-papal pap of the book, it has also resulted in a phenomenon remarked by many Parisians: the flood of "Code"-carrying Americans in the Louvre!

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Several of my friends have remarked upon the upsurge in American tourists, all of whom seem to be following Dan Brown's clues. Each with the book in hand, and each carefully perusing La Joconde for evidence.

While we can condemn the literary poverty of the book, we can applaud its impact on notably insular Americans...

-- Kenneth Gorelick

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Kudos to Laura Miller for her effective debunking of the pseudohistory in "The Da Vinci Code." However, let us give Dan Brown credit for one good result that his books have accomplished with their readers: to send them in search of some of the world's great works of art, and to give people who might not otherwise have found them interesting a reason to study them closely.

On a recent visit to Italy, I met another traveler who was reading "Angels and Demons" and confessed to me sheepishly that she couldn't resist visiting the churches and monuments where the murders in the novel took place. "You too?" I replied, thinking that I was the only person to despise myself for engaging in this guilty pleasure. I understand that there are now "Da Vinci Code" tours in Paris that introduce visitors to everything from the paintings of Leonardo to the architecture of I.M. Pei. And how can a professor of art history object to that?

-- Susan Wood (a professor of art history)

As a Parisian (now living in Montreal) and a geography professor, I would like to point out that Brown's sloppy research also extends to peripheral "facts," such as those pertaining to Paris, a city that serves as a backdrop to most of the novel. For instance: 1) Versailles is west-southwest of Paris, not northwest; 2) trains to Lille leave from Gare du Nord, not Gare St.-Lazare; 3) it is impossible to see St.-Lazare's glass roof as one drives up to it; 4) the Pompidou center cannot be seen from the Place du Carrousel; 5) there is no Highway 5 passing close to Versailles -- Highway 5, the A5, goes southeast toward Troye. And so on.

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In fact, had I the time, I would probably be able to show that all of Dan Brown's Parisian geographic references are erroneous or mistaken. However, I have better things to do (such as settle down with a good book).

If Brown's geography reflects the accuracy of the rest of the book's purported facts -- which Miller suggests it does -- then I do not think that the Christian faith has anything to worry about from Dan Brown. Of more concern is how such a bad book, a book in which the main stylistic device seems to be hinting at facts and discoveries a few chapters before the reader is allowed into the secret, can have sold so many copies.

Fortunately, mine was borrowed.

-- Richard Shearmur

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It was odd to see Laura Miller, an outstanding writer and critic, repeatedly resort to the word "bogus" and others of its ilk during her trouncing of Dan Brown's book. She was so angry at being cornered at parties by literary philistines who liked "The Da Vinci Code" that I wondered how she kept her nose low enough to type.

She is so keen on debunking the book's central conspiracy -- all too easy to do -- that she overlooks Brown's accomplishments. I don't think Brown was purporting to reveal a bona fide conspiracy. Rather, he was using it as a conceit to make the reader -- particularly the Christian reader -- reconsider all the truisms that have soaked Christian culture for thousands of years. Brown's Jesus/Magdalene bloodline conspiracy seemed "bogus" to me, but I knew I wasn't reading history. That said, I certainly don't think it is far-fetched to say that there has been a conspiracy against women, often perpetuated by Bible toters, for thousands of years. That argument is, I believe, what this reader, and others who enjoyed the book, responded to.

-- Tye Wolfe

While I fundamentally agree with Laura Miller's debunking of "The Da Vinci Code" and its antecedent "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," I was somewhat taken aback by the vitriol of the article. I am not ordinarily a fan of the genre, but in spite of Dan Brown's relatively awful writing, I found this story to be entertaining purely because of its purported "facts." There is a long history of creating fiction based on false history and presenting it as factual for use as a literary device, although it might be a bit charitable to use the word "literary" in this case.

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Nevertheless, I found certain elements of the story to be clever and entertaining. In particular, and I can't be the only one who's noticed this, I think the story owes as much to a similar thriller concocted with far more art -- Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" -- as it does the pseudohistory of the Grail buffs and conspiracy theorists.

"Foucault's Pendulum" also swings around a conspiracy theory, patched together from diverse occult elements by a group of bored publishers, involving the Knights Templar and the search for a hidden secret, its touchstone idea being that at some level the line between truth and fiction becomes blurred and that fiction published as fact may end up becoming just that.

"The Da Vinci Code," this dime-store rendering of Eco's work, is entertaining fluff, but by channeling these ideas that are out of place in most potboilers, it rises above the genre to some degree. To argue with seeming anger that the book is promoting false history and is irresponsible to do so, is equally out of place in a discussion of fiction.

-- Tony Casson

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Most if not all of the biblical scholars and (mostly) right-wing evangelical ministers who have attacked "The Da Vinci Code" have missed the boat on why it has had such a huge following. The questions that it raises are far more intriguing and compelling than the "facts" that are debunked ad nauseam. The truths -- for example, that the Gospels were written 40 to 100 years after Jesus' death and most likely by followers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and that these parallel sources of early Christian thought even exist -- is news to the masses. Why this history is ignored by the conventional Christian church is the question that strikes many of us.

Yes, the secret societies, marriage and signs are necessary to make the book a compelling read, but ultimately their existence and accuracy are not the revelation of "The Da Vinci Code."

"The Da Vinci Code's" revelation is that if the Bible is a work that developed through hundreds and thousands of years, then it is a collaborative work of men and not the sole source for all that is holy and righteous. Christianity can be released from the stranglehold of the conventional church's creeds and controls.

Those of us who have always felt that the emphasis on the acts and miracles of Jesus' birth life and death was misplaced feel empowered by "The Da Vinci Code" and feel betrayed that the church has failed to discuss these matters until now.

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-- John

OK, Laura Miller's article on "The Da Vinci Code" may certainly expose some of the factual issues with the novel. But let's make no mistake: "The Da Vinci Code" is fiction.

"The Da Vinci Code" is completely atypical of the type of novel I would read, but I enjoyed the heck out of it. It's fast-paced, it doesn't require a whole lot of brain power to process and, most importantly for me, it raises the heretical yet very believable notion that people have been swallowing a big lie for over 2,000 years.

I would suggest that Ms. Miller write about even less believable written texts. Such as those suggesting that there was a man who was the son of God and possessed supernatural powers. Come on. How ridiculous is that?

-- Brett Goldstock

Sheesh, get over it already!

I know it's become fashionable of late to slam Dan Brown's bestseller, but repeat after me: "The Da Vinci Code" is a work of fiction. A work of fiction that a lot of people enjoyed reading (I know I did). What's next, analyzing the historical veracity of the latest Danielle Steel bodice-ripper romance?

If you really have nothing better to do than pick apart Brown's novel, I have a bag of M&Ms that need alphabetizing.

-- Laura Haywood-Cory

Do you realize you just spent 4,000 words debunking a work of fiction? Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" was also a bestseller revolving around an essentially unconvincing conspiracy theory; will you be explaining why that was false, too? And how about "Charlotte's Web"? Surely people need to be told that spiders and pigs can't really talk to each other.

The book Laura Miller has an issue with is "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," which at least claims to be nonfiction. However angry she is that Brown's "Da Vinci Code" has "so outdistanced the work of his betters," it doesn't make any sense to shake her fist angrily that a novel contains things that aren't true. Because I don't know if you've heard, but I think there are some historical inaccuracies in "Macbeth," so maybe that can be the next subject of thousands of words of misplaced anger.

-- Monty Ashley

Although "The Da Vinci Code" is a pile of trash, that does not excuse Laura Miller from perpetuating naive ideas about the early history of Christianity. She says: "Early Christian texts excluded from the New Testament did not depict Jesus as human rather than divine; in fact, quite the opposite. The emperor Constantine was not involved in establishing the New Testament's canonical texts; it was a process that began before his reign and continued after his death." Those are only partial truths.

The question of Jesus' nature was hotly debated. According to Paul Johnson's "History of Christianity" (pp. 89-90), the Gnostics tended to regard Jesus as a manifestation of God. For instance, the Docetists held that the body of Jesus was a phantasm; his suffering and death were mere appearance. An extreme version of this, Patripassionism, held that God entered Mary and became Jesus. Others, such as the remnants of the Jerusalem Church (the Ebionites) stressed the manhood of Jesus. Arius believed that Jesus had a beginning, that he was neither part of God nor derived from any substance. Many other examples could be given.

Emperor Constantine did exert substantial influence on the development of Christianity. For instance, he presided at the Nicene Council in 325 and insisted on inserting the phrase "consubstantial with the Father" in the Nicene Creed, thereby putting an end (more or less) to the debates over the nature of Jesus.

The first 300 years after Christ were a time of great turmoil and dispute as to what Christianity was. Ms. Miller does no service to her readers by trying to simplify the origins of Christianity.

-- Richard Shekelle

Wow! I just read Laura Miller's nasty diatribe against Dan Brown and "The Da Vinci Code." Talk about having an ax to grind! I could have enjoyed her refutation of the novel better if her critique didn't exude so much disgust with the author. It seeps in every line and shows in the way she exclusively hangs on to one author to refute Brown. Miller needs to take a chill pill. Her critique of the novel borders on the histrionic.

I have to say I enjoyed Brown's novel, but I agree with her: The language was trite, the characters thin, and the action pure clichés lifted from the cheapest murder mysteries. I also agree that some of the theories and conspiracies displayed in the novel (let me repeat that again: novel, as in fiction) are quite far-fetched, most notably the Priory of Sion and the Merovingian line. Nevertheless, there are many points in Miller's angry article that she does not get right. I would even say she is dead wrong in some specific areas. The same can be said for Brown.

Miller hangs on blindly to the book by Bart Ehrman, "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code," and embraces all his theses without even considering the fact that some of Ehrman's points are contradicted by other historians. Laura Miller is simply wrong when she says that Ehrman does not have a bias, which is easy to see after reading his book. It may not be as obvious as that of the evangelical authors she cited, but it is a slight bias nonetheless.

Although deciding which books became part of the "official Bible" was a lengthy process that did not end with Constantine (it continued all the way into the 6th century), many other historians point to the historical fact that the politically savvy and certainly cynical emperor Constantine did in fact have a great deal to do with banning scriptures that didn't rub well with the powers of Rome. Furthermore, it's a historical fact that Constantine also modified Christian dogma to better fit the needs of Rome, as it became the new official faith of the empire. And yes, pagan rites were meshed with early Christian faith in the Nicene Council.

It's better to read several authors and scholars when studying an ancient historical event, since records of it may be faint (as it is the case with Jesus and Christianity). You get a better idea of that event as you further study and contrast different theories and contextual studies. Here's a list of books that I have read and personally recommend on the subject of early Christianity. Mind you, these tomes are written by academic specialists on the subject:

  • "The Birth of Christianity: Reality and Myth," by Joel Carmichael
  • "The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus," by John Dominic Crossan
  • "When Jesus Became God," by Richard E. Rubinstein
  • "The Lost Books of the Bible"
  • "The Gospel of Thomas"
  • I suggest Miller spend some time reading these books (all of them pretty enjoyable) before going hysterical on Brown. Let me repeat again: While lots of elements of Brown's novel are fantasies or "novelized" pseudohistory, there are many elements he actually gets right, particularly those relating to how early Christianity turned out to be, and how it was molded into what it is today. And yes, the parts about Constantine are pretty fair.

    -- Julius Civitatus

    I'm sorry Laura Miller has taken such a virulent dislike to the popular bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code." Unfortunately for her and many critics like her, I am not an unsophisticated reader who needs educating by doctrinal traditionalists. I am quite capable of deciding for myself what is verifiable and what may be questionable, as are many other readers of this book. I believe that the reasons many of us found the book fascinating, and decided to talk about and research what was verifiable and what was not was a rational decision that does not qualify us as naive. To label people who choose to believe the ideas proposed with the empty phrase "conspiracy theorists" is in itself a naive attempt to quash debate. Miller's heavy-handed protests and vitriol in "debunking" the fictional claims of author Dan Brown makes me think there is something a bit personal about her attack.

    A message to Miller: I know this is an editorial page, but I find your narrow-minded attack on one book of fiction to be troubling. Nothing holds complete truth, and history is no more accurate than the people who write it. And people are always fallible. Yet most history, especially religious history, is far too frequently presented as infallible truth. There will always be competing theories about what "really happened" in all areas of history. Why I should believe one theory over the other is contingent on the reliability of all sources, and that means the "experts" Miller points out as well as the sources Brown points out -- they all bear scrutiny. The small errors pointed out about the origins of specific texts does not reduce the ideas into complete nonsense. The Gnostic Gospels do exist, and what I have read of them point to Christ's overwhelming humanity. If another person's interpretation does not, so be it. But try to keep in mind that all scripture is open to interpretation; otherwise, why would there be so many denominations of Christianity?

    So spare us the insults and patronizing remarks about the naiveté and unsophistication of readers and accept that a myth with more than a grain of truth to it has captured the imagination of millions everywhere. If nothing else, it's opened a much-needed dialogue about what our Christian history is really all about. And if you really want to know about Constantine's involvement in the establishment of canonical text and doctrine, Edward Gibbon, among many others, is a good start.

    -- Elaine Guice

    Laura Miller's attack piece on "The Da Vinci Code" is as much crock as the book and a lot less entertaining. Her bias and lack of knowledge on the subject is revealed when she puts the well-known spiritual concept of the sacred feminine in quote marks and calls it "a foggy spiritual principle with roots in 'paganism,'" again "paganism" in quotes. Apparently Miller uses quotes whenever she comes up against a concept with which she's unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Is the concept of "God the Father and God the Son" (the sacred masculine) a foggy spiritual principle for her?

    Miller correctly points out that the main attraction of the book is probably its non-patriarchal take on early Christianity, but dismisses that viewpoint by stating, "While some of the early Christian texts excluded from the New Testament honor Mary Magdalene and Jesus' women followers, others emphatically do not." As a product of Catholic schools which taught that Mary Magdalene was an insignificant whore, I am fascinated that some early church leaders respected and honored her. But according to Miller's logic I should reject this view because it was not unanimous, which means I am free to accept that Jesus lived and died, about the only things early church leaders unanimously agreed on.

    -- Mark Meredith

    Miller's brilliant debunking of Dan Brown's Da Vinci crock doesn't mention -- perhaps intentionally -- that no number of fraudulent French fops brought to bay by investigative reporters for their parts in "Priory of Sion" shenanigans will sway the believer. Facing confessions, the conspiracy buff merely shrugs: "Of course they'd say they made it up. They're protecting the conspiracy!"

    This is a basic logic error found throughout Dan Brown's novels and elsewhere. In a more familiar and easier-to-recognize version, it runs like this:

    Inquisitor: "Are you a witch?"

    Grandma: "I am not a witch."

    Inquisitor: "Of course you'd say that! All witches deny being witches! Bring out the dunking chair -- if she drowns she's innocent!"

    -- Shannon Roy


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