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.

In addition, these texts offer hope for anyone who's felt rejected or marginalized in their lives, by rehabilitating figures such as Mary Magdalene--considered for centuries by the church to be a prostitute--and even Judas, the betrayer of Jesus (the first in various Gnostic texts and "The Da Vinci Code," the latter in the Gospel of Judas, an ancient manuscript published for the first time last month). "There were people who were champions of these outcasts," Meyer says. "The marginalization was not the last word."

Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary and one of the conservative Christian scholars oft-quoted in relation to the "Da Vinci Code" phenomenon, agrees that the story, like Gnosticism, presents "the easiest move into spirituality," with its seemingly simple message that the divine spark is within all of us and we can move from ignorance to knowledge.

"It's nondescript and nondemanding," Bock says.

He points out, however, that "The Da Vinci Code" and the Gnostic texts are at odds with each other on one key point: Jesus is presented as fully human in the novel, but Gnosticism, contrary to many popular conceptions (including, apparently, Dan Brown's), sees Christ as transcendent, a redeemer-spirit inhabiting a human body.

In all of this, Bock adds, people are forgetting one key aspect of traditional Christianity: "The church has basically confirmed and confessed Jesus' humanity since Day 1." He's referring to the fact that traditional Christians believe Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, a principle formally declared in 451 C.E. by the Council of Chalcedon, which was affirming pre-existing beliefs.

But instead of launching an offensive against "The Da Vinci Code" movie and calling for boycotts--as they did with the 1988 movie "The Last Temptation of Christ"--Bock and many other conservative Christians have taken a different tack: using the story's widespread popularity as an opportunity for evangelism.

"The book put discussion of Christianity and faith into the public square in a way that made the discussion accessible to many," he says. "Millions of readers are asking questions they weren't asking before"--questions about who Jesus was, and the nature of faith and religious authority.

It's the substance of those questions that makes the debate interesting and controversial. If Dan Brown had made up the story entirely, "Da Vinci" probably would have attracted fewer enthusiasts, and detractors. But instead, the story offers a mix of fictional invention (such as an ancient Priory of Sion), lingering legends (Mary Magdalene in France) and stereotypes (nefarious Opus Dei), historical facts (existence of the Knights Templar), and defensible but controversial assertions based on ambiguous ancient texts and some scholars' beliefs (Jesus' relationship with Mary). It's a potent combination that gives some readers and moviegoers food for thought, and others, fodder for battle.

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