Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Da Vinci Code, part 2

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown takes a skeptical tack toward the historical accuracy of the Bible and the lordship and preeminence of Christ, and his alternative view of morality uses a liberal reading of Scripture as just one of many influences. My natural response to reading it was to want to answer his criticisms in detail. In 2003, when the book first came out, many Christian writers did just that, in articles like "Dismantling The Da Vinci Code" and "Breaking The Da Vinci Code" that employ detailed, point-by-point rebuttals.

If reading the book troubles you, or if someone should bring it up in an effort to question your faith, my advice is to not use those techniques. Do not be drawn into a defense of some small, technical, difficult point of history or Biblical teaching. It gives your opponent-- or your own doubts-- too much credit. A better way is to turn questions back on the questioner. Brown asks "Why faith? Why trust Scripture?" Instead of reaching for an art-history book or theological tome to form an explanation, I would ask in return, "Why skepticism? Why trust Dan Brown?" The illusionist and skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi said this:

I'm highly skeptical, but what is that skepticism based on? If you're skeptical as well, have you asked yourself, "Upon what do I base my skepticism?" Are you just plain ornery? Do you just not want to go along with the status quo? Do you know some people who believe in it who are really pretty dense and you don't want to join their group? You must have a reason, I think, for yourself and for others as to why you are skeptical.

Brown is not here to answer the question for himself, but he does not hide his own personal views either. Brown seems to admire a life based on moral values. The values he proposes, though, do not come from a more accurate account of Jesus' life or teachings. In fact, they do not draw from ancient teachings at all, but from the counterculture of the sixties, the universities of today:

  • We should remove our trust from the writers, compilers, and translators of the Bible. They passed on a record that is barely usable-- certainly not to be regarded above all other ancient manuscripts, and probably less reliable than many.
  • Religion is valuable so far as it improves our lives on this Earth, but missionaries who convert people from other beliefs to Christianity are no better than those they come to save. Christians have no better claim on truth than any other past or present religion, and a worse claim than scientists and historians.
  • Christianity oppresses women; they should be elevated to a new status, officially equal to or higher than that of men. Promiscuous sex should be permitted or even encouraged.

Brown's skepticism and moral relativism do not come from understanding long-ago events better than the rest of us. They come from hipness and up-to-the-minute trendiness.

Each era's writers recast history and myth in ways that are tinted by the distinctive concerns of their time. For instance, T.H. White's The One and Future King, written between 1938 and 1958, is a novelized treatment of Arthurian legend, but filtered by then-current world events such as World War II and the nuclear arms race. By expressing the anti-war concerns of his own time and portraying the Round Table as a scheme to release England from the grip of brute force, White lends his version a recognizable coloration from his time, one it shares with C.S. Lewis' and J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy works. Fast-forward to 1983: the feminist fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley writes The Mists of Avalon, the first volume of her own Arthurian series. She retells the story from the viewpoints of its female characters, painting Arthur's rule as a clash of male-dominated Christianity and an older, fictionalized matriarchal paganism.

For one good Christian evaluation of our time's own tinted glasses, the ones Bradley, Brown and others like them are looking through, I suggest reading this whole speech. It is the 2005 Easter address of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he devotes it to challenging the skepticism of Brown and others (such as the writer of the "Judas Gospel"). His key point:

We are instantly fascinated by the suggestion of conspiracies and cover-ups; this has become so much the stuff of our imagination these days that it is only natural, it seems, to expect it when we turn to ancient texts, especially biblical texts. We treat them as if they were unconvincing press releases from some official source, whose intention is to conceal the real story; and that real story waits for the intrepid investigator to uncover it and share it with the waiting world.

Because of this, new rewritings or alternative versions of classic stories are often unfriendly toward our faith. Michael Crichton wrote Eaters of the Dead, a Beowulf-derivative in which the Christian narrator is replaced with a Muslim one. Phillip Pullman, who considers the Narnia books highly misogynic, wrote His Dark Materials, a trilogy of children's books with many of the same elements (talking animals, child heroes traveling to other worlds, etc.) but in which God is the enemy. And Brown shows us what our own religion looks like through that same suspicious, countercultural lens.

You cannot recognize the perfection of Scripture when looking through the filter of any one era's transient issues, important at the time though those issues may be. In the antebellum South, some theologians decried the Bible's endorsement of slavery while others complained of its support for abolition. Thomas Jefferson famously compiled his own edited Gospels to remove the supernatural passages and give a realistic account that fit his own beliefs, ending with Jesus in the grave. Going further back, the gnostics were so dismissive of physical reality, so eager to "wake up" from this flawed world, you could almost say they only needed the parts Jefferson left out! The Da Vinci Code is not a serious attack in need of a scholarly defense; it is a good example of why the passing trends of our day-- or any day-- are not good measuring sticks for eternal truths.

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