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Introduction: The Da Vinci Code Phenomenon

The immense success of The Da Vinci Code and its strong language about early Christianity and the Catholic Church has resulted in substantial controversy over many of the "facts" within its pages. Not only is the novel influencing the views of non-Christian readers, it is raising difficult questions in the minds of many Christians, some of whom are being asked about Brown’s interpretation of Church history and theology. One such reader recently wrote to us, saying: "I own a Catholic bookstore. We are getting bombarded daily by people who are buying into the garbage in this book. You cannot believe how many people have been exposed to this book. . . . We even had an elderly aunt talking about Opus Dei tonight and yelling at us that the book is true or it couldn’t be printed." Another reader openly admitted the doubts that The Da Vinci Code has raised in his mind:

"Honestly, [reading the book] shook my whole faith. I realize that the book is fiction, but much of what he wrote about seemed like it was based on historical facts aside from the characters. Since I am not a Christian scholar I don’t even know where to begin to refute these claims. As the Catholic church holds much of the evidence that would refute the drivel in The Da Vinci Code, I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction to a scholarly non-Christian book that might help me make better sense of the whole historical chain of events. If Christianity is nothing more than a big accommodation, it becomes relegated to a lifestyle choice and not a religion, which I do not want to believe."
We’ve heard many similar stories in recent months and expect to hear more, which is the main reason this book has been written. Just as the Left Behind books have been used to promote a premillennial dispensationalist understanding of Scripture and the end times, The Da Vinci Code has proven to be an effective tool for attacking Christian doctrine and undermining the faith of those uncertain of how to respond to the many accusations leveled against the Church.

Sadly, it’s not surprising that a work of fiction has produced confusion among some Christians about Church history and doctrine at a time when catechesis and basic knowledge of the Faith are so poor. It is even less surprising that non-Christian readers would be taken in by Brown’s revisionist history of the Church. After all, it’s a demonstrated fact that most Americans are illiterate about major events in the history of their own country. For example, one recent study of historical literacy among young Americans found that most "College seniors could not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution". So why should we expect them to be able to discern fact from fiction when it comes to early Church history and the complex debates over the divinity and person of Jesus Christ that took place in the first four centuries of the Church? An example of this is a recent online article about a Catholic discussion group meeting to discuss The Da Vinci Code at a Catholic parish. The author of the article, David Rotert writes:
"I queried several in the audience why they were there, and what their reaction was to the book and the evenings’ discussion. One woman told of her teenage son who was reluctant to go through the sacrament of Confirmation, yet after reading the book found a more believable, understandable, even human Jesus. That actually inspired him to continue the path. Another person said that such material added to the mystery, and in doing so served to strengthen her faith. For one it called into question the credibility of the teaching of the Church, yet felt that faith needs to be challenged to be pursued. Others voiced the idea that this book reinforced a disenchantment with the Church."
This group, and others similar to it, obviously emphasize opinion and feelings over careful and objective study. This ambivalent approach to the claims of the novel are summarized well in Rotert’s remark: "Fortunately the evenings [sic] participants did not come expecting Yes/No answers". The same remark could be made about religious education in many parishes and churches today, again highlighting the need for a more rigorous approach to popular works such as The Da Vinci Code.

Fiction, especially best-selling popular fiction such as The Da Vinci Code, has become a major means of "educating" the masses about many, varied topics, but especially issues that are controversial and can be easily sensationalized. The belief that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, had children, and was not divine has existed for several decades in American pop culture and can even be traced back to feminist groups in the nineteenth-century. Yet many, if not most, readers of Brown’s novel seem unaware of this–even though the novel provides the titles of several books written in the last two or three decades proposing such beliefs.