The Da Vinci Code

by Dan Brown

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Christian Themes

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It is important to be aware that The Da Vinci Code is literary fiction; the appearance of historical accuracy is only superficial. Brown’s book is a minefield of disinformation for the unwary reader. He disturbs scholars of history and theology alike with his claims to legitimate scholarship, when evidence suggests that his sources are often from latter-day mystics rather than from reliable academic research. There is, however, a consistent reality behind Dan Brown’s fictionalized Church and art history: For instance, the Church has, indeed, suppressed alternative Gospels, many written by sects denounced as heretical a few centuries after Christ.

The discriminating reader may notice that the book is a somewhat formulaic mystery, and not a notably executed representative of the genre. Still, it was on TheNew York Times best-seller list for more than two years and was made into a film starring Tom Hanks. Brown’s achievement is that he has made ecclesiastical history exciting for the general public. He has also created a cottage industry of refutation against his claims regarding apocryphal writings. While these early writings do suggest that Jesus intended a more active role for women than what subsequently developed, none claim that Jesus was married as the novel does. A married Jesus is, at best, an unlikely possibility among serious students of early biblical history.

As a story, The Da Vinci Code considers the relationship of authority and conscience. All the characters transgress at some point, but the outcomes depend on their motives. Sir Leigh Teabing, although apparently heroically supportive of reinstating the divine feminine in Christianity, is the true villain of the novel, arrogating divine authority to himself. Opus Dei’s tortured Silas, although a victim, chooses to descend to the level of brutality that he experienced in his youth to gain status. Yet Bezu Fache, also an Opus Dei member, does not abandon his conscience, even though his professional standards as a detective oblige him to support those whom he considers heretical: Langdon and Neveu. Langdon challenges his students not to fear truth, and Langdon’s disarming sincerity tempts the reader to accept his account of early Christianity in the novel. However, unquestioning acceptance of any form of authority is being challenged. Like Fache, readers must follow their consciences yet be open to fortuitous revelations (especially those available outside of the book) of what authority to trust with the truth.

Sources for Further Study

America 189, no. 20 (December 15, 2003): 15-17.

Booklist 99, no. 13 (March 1, 2003): 1148.

Burstein, Dan, ed. Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind “The Da Vinci Code.” New York: CDS Books, 2004. Burstein, a journalist, has created a compendium of scholars and popular writers discussing pros and cons of the novel. The glossary is especially recommended.

Ehrman, Bart D. Truth and Fiction in “The Da Vinci Code.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. This is a balanced rebuttal of Brown’s book; the author is a distinguished scholar from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Estruch, Juan. Saints and Schemers: Opus Dei and Its Paradoxes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. This is a scholarly report on Opus Dei published before The Da Vinci Code came out.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 1 (January, 2003): 5.

Library Journal 128, no. 18 (November 1, 2003): 138.

The New York Times, March 17, 2003, p. E8.

Newsweek 141, no. 23 (June 9, 2003): 57.

People 59, no. 11 (March 24, 2003): 44.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 5 (February 3, 2003): 53.

Robinson, James McConkey.  The Coptic Gnostic Library: A Complete Edition of the Nag Hammadi...

(This entire section contains 607 words.)

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Codices. Boston: Brill, 2000. Brown consulted this resource for The Da Vinci Code. It is worthwhile to compare the contents with what was made of them.

Themes

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Four intertwined themes run through The Da Vinci Code:

1. The human world is encoded with meaning.

2. The centrality of human relationships, especially male-female relationships.

3. The power of belief, and the need to believe.

4. The influence of the past upon the present.

1. The human world is encoded with meaning.
This theme is found everywhere in the novel from the title through the epilogue. Names of individuals and places, the physical positions of bodies, the architecture of buildings—all of these have hidden meaning that can be read with an informed eye, as, of course, can the actual puzzle-like codes with which the Grail seekers grapple throughout the novel.

This theme transforms the world of The Da Vinci Code. There are no random or meaningless events in the world of this novel; each detail contributes to a grand overall meaning. This theme marks the novel as spiritual in intent, though many of the meanings play out on the personal, psychological, or political levels.

It also makes each physical or intellectual action taken in the novel—each clue decoded, each barrier passed—symbolic. No one is ever simply moving through the world. Instead, he or she is moving through a symbolic landscape echoing the mind of God.

Illustrating quotations:
"'PHI's ubiquity in nature,' Langdon said, killing the lights, 'clearly exceeds coincidence, and so the ancients assumed the number PHI must have been ordained by the Creator of the universe. Early scientists heralded one-point-six-one-eight as the Divine Proportion'" (Chapter 20).

"'You will be shocked to learn what anomalies Da Vinci included here that most scholars either do not see or simply choose to ignore. This fresco, in fact, is the entire key to the Holy Grail mystery. Da Vinci lays it all out in the open in The Last Supper'" (Chapter 55). Teabing's explanation to Sophie might stand in for the way precious information is encoded throughout the novel.

2. The centrality of human relationships, especially male-female relationships.
The relationship between people, especially between men and women, lies close to the heart of The Da Vinci Code. Indeed, the central quest of the novel, for the Holy Grail, is eventually revealed to be a quest for the body of the human woman who Jesus loved and who bore his child.

The relationship between men and women is explicitly discussed as a route to the divine. It is symbolized through the ceremony of the Hieros Gamos and in the physical construction of the cryptex. However, this theme is also evident in the power of Sophie Neveu's relationship with her grandfather, her reunion with her lost grandmother at the novel's end, and in the affection which develops between Sophie and Robert Langdon.

The centrality of human relationships can also be seen in what happens to those who do not value them. Silas kills and has his heart broken as his quest fails. Leigh Teabing kills and manipulates and must watch those whom he judged less worthy leave to complete his quest, his heart's desire. That there is hope for figures like Bishop Aringarosa is shown through his choice to give his money to the families of the slain as partial penance.

Illustrating quotations:
"The ability of the woman to produce life from her womb made her sacred. A god. Intercourse was the revered union of the two halves of the human spirit—male and female—through which the male could find spiritual wholeness and communion with God" (Chapter 74).

"'The legend of the Holy Grail is a legend about Royal Blood. When the Grail legend speaks of "the chalice that held the blood of Christ" … it speaks, in fact, of Mary Magdalene—the female womb that carried Jesus' royal bloodline'" (Chapter 58). Teabing's explanation of the Grail illustrates that 2000 years of history and deception have been built around male-female relations.

3. The power of belief, and the need to believe.
The power of belief, and the need to believe is also visible throughout the novel. It can be seen from Jacques Saunière's struggle in the book's opening pages to leave a message about the hidden Grail, even as life pours from his body, through the urgent striving of the Grail seekers to find the object of their quest.

The existence of not one but several societies dedicated to fighting for their version of the truth is evidence of this power on a political level. Opus Dei (God's work) is publicly known but suffers criticism in turn for the intensity of its beliefs. They are so fanatical in their devotion that the Vatican feels the need to distance itself from them. Opus Dei, with its public power and use of violence, is balanced by the Priory of Sion. The central members of this organization are so devoted to their beliefs that they will die for them. Brown dramatizes several of the negative twists the need to believe can take, in the darker paths taken by Silas and Teabing, and suggested about the Catholic Church, but focuses on the positive, as evidenced in the novel's conclusion when Robert Langdon finally locates the Holy Grail itself.

Illustrating quotations:
"Jesus' message is one of peace … of nonviolence … of love. This was the message Silas had been taught from the beginning, and the message he held in his heart. And yet this was the message the enemies of Christ now threatened to destroy. Those who threaten God with force will be met with force. Immovable and steadfast" (Chapter 5). Silas's thoughts sum up the negative position of faith: threaten it, and the result is violence.

"'It is the mystery and wonderment that serve our souls, not the Grail itself. The beauty of the Grail lies in her ethereal nature'" (Chapter 105). Near the novel's end, Marie Chauvel voices the positive side of faith: the facts need not be disputed because it is their spiritual effects that matter.

4. The influence of the past upon the present.
Almost all actions in The Da Vinci Code come in response to powerful events that took place in the distant past. The most obvious of these events are the events of the historical past. The power struggles between the disciples to determine Jesus's true identity took place two thousand years ago, but their effects are still felt to this day. Sophie is who she is in part because she is a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdelene.

That the past influences the present in subtler ways can be seen in the Da Vinci code itself in its different variations. To be specific, the messages which Da Vinci coded into his paintings are evidence of the Grail's identity, and even speaking about them publicly now, hundreds of years later, causes ripples. His designs are used today to create the cryptex.

The personal past also determines events powerfully, such as Sophie Neveu's traumatic break with her grandfather and in how she repeatedly acts upon information which was passed to her privately outside of written history. Events in the present echo the past, respond to it, or complete it.

Illustrating quotations:
"A proof of merit. She could feel her grandfather's hand at work. The keystone is a map that can be followed only by the worthy" (Chapter 51).

"For a moment, he thought he heard a woman's voice … the wisdom of the ages … whispering up from the chasms of the earth" (Epilogue).

In addition, the following themes are present in the novel:

Sacrifice

The Da Vinci Code opens with a dramatic personal sacrifice—Saunière's death to protect the secret of the Priory of Scion—but theme of sacrifice appears repeatedly throughout the novel. It does not always require a death, however; a sacrifice can be any type of loss, from loss of integrity or freedom to the loss of a physical item. A sacrifice entails the giving up of something in exchange for something else. It is a circumstance that does not allow for two competing needs to exist together. For example, Saunière makes the ultimate sacrifice—death—that hundreds in the Priory throughout history, according to Brown, have been willing to make. Likewise, Sister Sandrine Bieil sacrifices her life to warn the Priory when Silas attempts to unearth the keystone in the Church of Saint-Sulpice. Sophie's grandmother and brother, whom she had long thought dead, sacrifice their freedom—and time with their family—to go into hiding in order to protect her grandfather's identity. Leigh Teabing, the long-time scholar of the Sacred Feminine, sacrifices his integrity and conscience in exchange for the possibility of gain; he is willing to stop at nothing in order to procure the Holy Grail. But perhaps the greatest sacrifice in the novel is not made by one of the characters, but by, according to Teabing and Langdon, the Catholic Church. They believe that in order to keep the knowledge of Christ's earthly wife and child a secret, the Catholic Church, in essence, sacrificed Mary Magdalene. Teabing and Langdon's theory is that the Church designated her a prostitute to discredit any rumor of Christ's involvement with her, in fear that knowledge of a marriage with Mary would affect Christ's divine status.

Quest

At the heart of Brown's novel is the quest, not only as a long adventurous journey in search of something, but also as one of the most archetypal elements in literature, the pursuit of the Holy Grail. Several characters are on quests in the novel for different reasons. Silas looks for the keystone that will lead to the Holy Grail for his savior, Bishop Aringarosa. Detective Fache searches for the murderer of Saunière. Langdon explores the meaning behind Leonardo da Vinci's symbols to greater understand the subject to which he has devoted his studies. Sophie seeks answers to truths about her family. In the novel, these fictional pursuits merge with the quintessential quest for the Holy Grail, a tale represented in Christian tradition literally as the search for the goblet that Christ drank from during the Last Supper and that Joseph of Arimathea used to catch Christ's blood as he hung from the cross, and figuratively as the search for Christ within one's soul. The tale of the quest actually surfaced in the twelfth century as a poem by Chrétien de Troyes, and the legend took different forms as others rewrote it. The most famous of those to invoke the legend in their art are thirteenth-century German epic poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, fifteenth-century English writer Sir Thomas Malory, English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and composer Richard Wagner in the nineteenth century. Brown's novel changes the quest considerably in proposing that the Grail is not a chalice at all, but rather Mary Magdalene herself and the texts that tell the secret of her marriage to Jesus.

Christianity

Though The Da Vinci Code appears to implicate Catholic institutions in a conspiracy to wipe out alternative Christian histories, its suggestions that Jesus was not divine, that Mary Magdalene had children by him, that she, rather than the apostle Peter, was intended to be the first leader of Christianity, and that Constantine the Great suppressed all of this and assembled the Bible at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., all relate to Christians of any denomination. Of course, history, which the narrative declares is written by those who are victorious, does not support any of these suggestions. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John repeatedly refer to the divinity of Christ, and there is no evidence that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus. The major texts of Gnosticism—the belief in the gnosis (intuitive knowledge) of the human soul, surfaced in the second and third centuries, well after early Christians deemed the four gospels authoritative, though they are said in the novel to be suppressed by Constantine. Christianity, moreover, is portrayed in the novel as a patriarchal religion built on conspiracies authored by those who want to suppress information. The Christian characters in the novel delight in masochism and thirst for power. Nevertheless, Brown carefully phrases his page of facts to state simply that the Priory of Sion exists, that Opus Dei has built an elaborate and expansive headquarters in New York and has been the subject of controversy, and that descriptions of art, architecture, rituals, and documents are accurate. Most of the claims about an alternative Christian history, furthermore, are spoken authoritatively by the novel's villain, Leigh Teabing.

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