2016-06-30
Since The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown was published a year ago, more than 6 million copies have been sold, turning the novel into a word-of-mouth bestseller. As the months wore on, and the book got bigger and bigger, evangelical Protestants and some Catholics became increasingly concerned about it. The Da Vinci Code, they say, presents as truth some theories--chief among them that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene--that are considered fringe, even by liberal Bible scholars. Evangelicals began to see a "secret agenda" in the novel: to undercut Christianity. Now that director Ron Howard is making a movie based on the book, conservative Christians are even more worried.

Last fall, evangelical and Catholic publishers approached writers to produce books rebutting the theology of this puzzling novel. Among the first was Darrell Bock, a well-regarded Bible scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary who has now authored a new book, Breaking the Da Vinci Code. Beliefnet talked recently with Bock about his book. Meanwhile, there are at least 10 other new books debunking the Da Vinci theories. Included in this package are samples from several of them.

The basic reason is that there is an attempt to--and I’m going to use this term on purpose--relegate Christianity to a level that is like other religions. There are a lot of things Christianity claims are unique about what Christians believe and what Christianity is about—particularly the focus on Jesus Christ and his uniqueness. And it’s those elements that tend to be relativized by this kind of material. We have a novel that’s claiming that the divine Jesus was originally a human Jesus. That’s the major re-visioning that’s going on.

So to clarify: you’re saying that Christianity is unique because Jesus makes specific claims about his divinity?

And about his work, which puts a unique touch on the Christian faith.

And that’s what you feel this agenda takes away from.

Exactly right.

Why does this agenda take away from Jesus’ uniqueness?

Because it tries to reduce Jesus to a great religious figure, one among many, rather than being a unique figure who is uniquely divine.

Because the book posits that Jesus could have been married?

No, I actually make the point in the book that if Jesus had been married it wouldn’t touch the theology one bit. Jesus is 100 percent human. Had he been married and had he had children, all it would have done would have been to reflect his engagement with his humanity--but I just don’t think historically there’s any evidence that Jesus was married. But the important point in relationship to the novel is, had Jesus been married, the church wouldn’t have had any reason to suppress that knowledge.

So you’re saying that the movement spawned by the novel is trying to make Jesus into a sort of Buddha figure?

Yeah. Or Confucius or Moses or Elijah, Muhammad. You can pick and choose the religious great. The world’s reaction to Christianity--not people who hold the faith, but non-Christians--is that Jesus belongs in the religious hall of fame. Well, my point is that he deserves a wing all to himself, if he doesn’t deserve the building all to himself. And that’s the fundamental point of the claim of the Christian faith, and that’s why people who are evangelical Christians share this message with their neighbor--because they believe that they are sharing something precious and unique.

 

You say that there is a “conscious agenda” at work in the Da Vinci Code. What is that agenda?

The conscious agenda is an attempt to either redefine or revision the history of early Christianity.

Why do you think that there is this agenda, this claim, within the Da Vinci Code? Why would someone want to put forward this new agenda?

But here’s what I don’t get. Why do you think that the Da Vinci Code tries to take away from the idea that Jesus was divine? I’m not following that.

 

That’s interesting, because I thought the agenda was not to take away from Jesus’ divinity but just to essentially add Mary...

That would be a read that someone would have if they’re particularly sensitive to the gender issues the book raises. What you’re seeing is part of where the book wants to get to, but part of the way of getting there is by taking the focus off the uniqueness of Jesus and shifting it to some degree, to make sure Mary is in the loop.

But if she’s his wife, as the book suggests, then I still don’t get why that makes Jesus not divine.

Because the point about the “secret” documents, which include the knowledge that she was married to him, also include the idea that there are these works about Jesus that show that he was human and not divine. According to the novel, the issue of Jesus’ divinity is something that was voted on in the 4th century.

So that if the other parts about these documents are true, then the underlying idea of Jesus’ divinity is called into question.

Exactly right. This is why I ask in the first chapter, Did the church perpetrate a lie? Because the central theological point of Christianity is portrayed in the novel as having been misleading.

Why do you think this book has become so popular?

It’s the right book at the right time or the right book at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it. It touches on issues that people are particularly sensitive about right now in a very entertaining way that raises all these questions to a level of consciousness. It works with romantic locales, central themes of our culture, and it weaves it together in an interesting and a creative way.

There’s a lot of interest in spirituality and religion right now. There’s a lot of interest in Christianity generically right now. The whole issue of Christianity and Islam, for example, has brought religion forward as a topic. The other dimension of it is the way in which the divine feminine and the role of women are raised in the book.

In addition, there is an element of intrigue to the idea that we’ve got secret gospels and secret documents floating around. People like to be in the know on something that was previously a secret. Only the problem is, 1. It isn’t a secret, since we’ve known about these movements for centuries, and 2. The secret is not portrayed in a historically accurate way.

What has been the response to the book among evangelicals?

I had 850 people for lectures about it on three consecutive Wednesday nights at Northwest Bible Church in Dallas. I know that other people have drawn very large crowds for these types of things. And I think it’s because Christians are running into friends and neighbors who are asking them about the book. What often happens is that someone who doesn’t have much contact with the church reads the book, tells someone whom they know is a Christian about it, starts asking all these questions and then boom, the discussion is off and running. So people in the church are asking questions, and in some cases they’re asking questions for themselves because they don’t know this early church history.

I think evangelicals reading it realize in their gut or in their soul that there’s something not quite right, but because they don’t know the history of the material, they don’t know quite how to deal with it.

Are pastors telling people "Don’t read this book"?

No. In some cases, they’re telling people to read the book and to be aware of what’s going on and, in fact, that’s often why I’m being asking in to speak—to encourage them. Now they might say, "Don’t buy the book, get it from a friend." You know, something like that, but they’re not being told not to read the book, not by any means. Because it suggests that the traditional presentation of Christianity and the Church wasn’t historically correct. And that if we were to find these secret documents that really reflect the roots of Christianity, we would find a human Jesus--and that that’s what the church was purposely trying to keep the world from finding out. So there is a sinister undertone to what motivates this novel.

So the basic feeling that most Christians have is that they’re puzzled and interested.

There are two sets of reactions among Christians I have contact with. One is a group that senses there’s something wrong about what’s being said about Christianity, but they don’t know what the response is. So they aren’t embracing or even entertaining the idea, but they are curious and want to know what the facts are. Then there’s the second group that reads the book, who when they walk away ask, “Could this possibly be?” They’re actually entertaining the possibility that it might be true.

Could you name the top one or two outrageous claims made in the Da Vinci Code?

I go back and forth on this, but I think my first choice is the claim that there are 80 gospels. And with that the idea that there was a vote in the 4th century at the Council of Nicea, and the people in attendance picked four out of these 80.

Tell us what really happened.

We know of between a dozen and a dozen and half gospels that are alluded to in the early church writings--and we have in existence maybe a dozen of them. Four of those are the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), so we’re down to at most a dozen other candidates. So that’s the first part of the answer, that we’re only dealing with maybe 12 other gospels that we know about.

Even more important, however, is that by the end of the second century it was pretty clear that these four gospels had surfaced to the top. The others had fallen to secondary use, if they were ever used at all. And that’s a good 125 years before the Council of Nicea which is when the novel claims the decision was made.

The other one is the idea that Jesus’ divinity was voted on in the 4th century. Jesus’ divinity was something that was central to the Christian faith, virtually from any document we can get our hands on. All the key canonical documents contain it. We have extra-biblical testimony from Roman historians who talk about going into Christian groups that worship Jesus like a God and sing hymns to him. So the idea that this is some type of subsequent development of the Christian faith is one of the worst claims of the book.

Clarify for us, then, what actually happened at the Council of Nicea regarding Jesus’ divinity?

The Council of Nicea was an attempt to articulate in precise theological and philosophical language what the church already believed about Jesus. One of the issues that comes up is debate over the view of Arianism. This is the idea that Jesus was the greatest created being, as opposed to being divine. The novel suggests there was a close vote on it. The best that I can tell, the only vote taken at the Council of Nicea was on this, and it wasn’t a 52 to 48 percent deal--it was 300 to 2, which only goes to underscore the fact that the belief in Jesus’ divinity was something that was fundamentally in place by the time the council met.

We talked a bit about the idea of Mary Magdalene becoming more popular because people want to tap into the feminine divine. It’s true that Catholics, in some sense, have a feminine figure in the Virgin Mary. Protestants don’t have that and will sometimes express feelings of loss at not having that. So what do you say to Protestants, and especially maybe to Protestant women? It seems to me that the novel’s popularity has to do with an unfulfilled longing. You can say there needs to be balance between the idea of God as father and something on the other side, and in fact we do have elements of that in the Bible--even though the Bible is very clear that its portrayal of divinity has nothing to do with gender. Men and women are both made in the image of God. But we also get the picture of wisdom as female. We get pictures of God gathering his people like a mother hen would gather [her] chicks.

 

So it isn’t like there isn’t feminine imagery associated with the nurturing care of God in scripture. It’s there. The reason this is a problem is because it suggests a need to place God in gender categories, when the point theologically is that God transcends gender.

How dangerous do you believe the agenda you describe in your book could be? Could it rise up to duel with orthodox Christianity, or will it wither away?

I don’t think it’s necessarily anything new. What’s important is for people to be aware of it. The novel does this in an innocent-looking form. But it’s not as innocent as it seems on the surface. There really is something very fundamental going on. At one level I’m not worried about the threat that this represents, as much as the misinformation that it represents. Because this is an area where people don’t have much background and expertise, I think it’s important to give them some, and to fill in the information gap.