There are more than 170,000 books published in the United States every year--meaning that consumers can choose from several million titles in circulation at any moment. Of those, any number deal with faith, challenge preconceived notions, or open a window (real or imagined) into unknown chapters of history. Many become bestsellers and spark discussion.

Yet there's only one "Da Vinci Code."

Something turned this book from a mindless beach read into the megablockbuster cultural touchstone it has become. But identifying that something--or more likely, things--is a bit of a Grail quest of its own. The trail starts with Jesus--books examining his life from every angle and viewpoint are perennial bestsellers--but given the sheer number of Jesus books out there, popular but not to this extent, there's more to this story.

Demystifying 'Da Vinci'Then there's Dan Brown's assertion in the "Da Vinci" preface that his novel is based on fact. Couple that with a human love for conspiracy theory. Now consider the battered reputation of the Catholic church in light of the priest sex-abuse scandal of recent years. The result: The moment is ripe for a story about a church willing to go to any lengths to protect a secret.

Beyond that, identifying why this story in particular has sparked such massive interest--and protest--is a matter of disagreement. Some (mostly conservative) scholars believe the "Da Vinci Code" is taking advantage of widespread biblical illiteracy and our culture's casual acceptance of anything critical of Christian belief. Other (mostly liberal) observers say the story taps into a void left by the waning authority of traditional Christian teachings, offering an exciting new way to think about the faith. The novel appears at a time when Christians are particularly open to the sort of alternate interpretation of Jesus and Christianity that the story offers. For many Americans, religious teachings no longer carry a sense of ultimate authority; it's not only religious rebels these days who are seeking deeper answers to important questions than "because it says so." In seeming to provide new ways of thinking--about Jesus, about relating to God--the appeal of "The Da Vinci Code" is similar to that of mysticism and Gnosticism, two out-of-the-mainstream approaches to Christianity that are popular today.

"This idea of access to God directly is very appealing for Americans who are used to having autonomy and not going through elaborate layers of mediation, whether it's in politics or religion," says Elaine Pagels, a religion professor at Princeton, author of "The Gnostic Gospels," and the preeminent authority on alternative early Christian groups.

Conservative Christians, however, chafe at the notion that Jesus is presented in a more compelling manner by a novel--especially this novel--than by the Bible. In their eyes, the "Da Vinci Code" tidal wave is driven less by the content of the story--a humanized, married Jesus--than by Americans' biblical ignorance, which leaves them hungering for spiritual guidance and vulnerable to the power of a good story grippingly told.

"It [a fully human Jesus] is a novel idea for most people because they haven't been in the halls of academia. This hits people as brand new, and it fascinates them," says the Rev. James Garlow, senior pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, Calif., and author of "Cracking Da Vinci's Code." "People don't have the apparatus with which to understand it."

This misunderstood story, he continues, comes at a time when people are suspicious of institutions and tradition. "We have become a nation of cynics," he says, "assuming that true motives are always hidden"--and therefore willing to believe a story about a historic cover-up.

That's especially true, he adds, when the alleged wrongdoer is a Catholic church still recovering from a real-life scandal and alleged cover-up. And even absent that, Garlow says, our culture is receptive to "anti-Christian or anti-Bible" messages in a way that we don't tolerate when directed at other faiths.

But it's not all ignorance and cynicism that's driving "Da Vinci Code" sales. Love them or hate them, "The Da Vinci Code"--along with the "Lost Gospels," ancient documents that tell of Jesus' life but were not included in the New Testament canon--help fill in the blanks about Jesus and early Christianity, and show that there was--and is--more than one way to believe.

"The so-called Gnostic Gospels have a much more mystical approach to spirituality, that we can find the spark of the divine within, and I think that appeals to many people," says Marvin Meyer, a professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and an expert on noncanonical texts about Jesus.

According to Meyer, in turning to Gnosticism--or "The Da Vinci Code"--people are reacting against the fact that the singular "truth" has been handed down from authority figure to authority figure over the generations. Today, instead, people are exploring the diversity of early Christian belief and practice.

Meyer, author of "The Gospels of Mary," calls this a reliance on "Peter's story," which he describes as "a line through a male God to a man named Jesus to a man named Peter." In contrast, Gnostic texts and a certain 21st-century novel purport to tell "Mary's story"--one in which gender doesn't matter, and sexuality is a natural, even a celebrated, part of life.
At a time when sexual ethics and the definition of the nuclear family are changing for many people, this alternative vision of Christian can be very attractive.