Death by Da Vincititis: Of Professorial Pimps and Humanist Harlots

Time to step back, back from the reviewers, the fuming bishops, the evangelicals struggling to keep pace with a history they never learned, back from the lawsuits, the dud movie that sent Francophiles and Paneuropists sniggering into the fragrant Cannes night. It’s time to blame the real culprits for this most recent outbreak of Malaria Americana: But who? The self-effacing New England prep school teacher with a knack for churning out a thousand words an hour? His co-conspirator wife, Blythe Newlon, said to be an art historian, though she has no degree in the subject and has never worked in the field? The 80,000 yahoos per week who buy the book and come away thinking “So, that’s the way it happened.”? The millions of catachrestics who haven’t read a book, religious or otherwise, since middle school, but will see the move just to make up their minds?

I envy Dan Brown. Not for the money he’s made, though I would trade his cash flow for mine any day. I envy him because he has succeeded by accident, and in the course of 489 pages (Anchor paperback) of some of the worst pulp fiction and dialogue ever fashioned, in proving Barnum’s last theorem: “More people are humbugged by believing nothing, than by believing too much.” The Da Vinci Code, in other words, succeeds gigantically because it is playing to a world in which Brown knows a lot of wrong things, but no one, neither fans nor critics nor detractors, knows very much more. The success proves the Economic Correlate of Barnum’s last theorem: “Every crowd has a silver lining.”

In the religious conspiracy sweepstakes, Brown has won where others have lost because he has inadvertently tapped into the confusion of modern Christianity. An analogy: In 1972 a real life Dr. Robert Langdon was asked by the government of Yemen to investigate a puzzling manuscript find: The pages were written in the early Hijazi Arabic script, matching the pieces of the earliest Qu’rans known to exist. There were also versions very clearly written over even earlier, faded versions. What the “Yemeni Qu’rans” indicated was an evolving text; what they proved is that the Quran as we know it today, and despite orthodox Muslim teaching on the topic, does not date from the time of Muhammad. What a book that would make! what a movie! But it’s not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen because Muslims are not especially confused about what they believe. Message: Real discoveries of great historical significance do not create fan clubs. Gerd Ruediger Puin is not a name on everyone’s lips.

The Da Vinci Code, as anyone knows who has been following the paper thin discussion of the “sources” mentioned in the book, draws on the so called Coptic Gnostic gospels – ones attributed to Philip, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and (alas, poor) Judas, to name but a few of the notables to whom these pseudonymous (read: forged) documents were ascribed by the very weird culties who traversed upper Egypt and Syria until well into the fifth century. Most Christian believers have never heard of the gnostics. That is as it should be since the bishops of late antiquity spent a great deal of ink and energy trying to shut them up. As the distinguished New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmyer once wrote, think what you will of the early bishops: at least they had the sense to know madmen when they saw them. And the heretics’ (unfashionable term) attempts to squeeze their bizarre theosophical teachings into a Christian mould give us the peculiar, historically worthless and not even remotely readable contortions called the gnostic gospels. If ever a class of literature was valuable only because it reveals the religious absurdities of which the human spirit is capable, the gnostic gospels are it. So, do not blame a religiously illiterate public. Not even the schoolmasters of the Reformation blamed the early Catholic Church for saving orthodoxy from the intellectual rabies of Gnosticism.

And don’t blame the poor priest interviewees who are being asked whether the Church really kept these things secret, and end up hemming and hawing with unconvincing “Well, yes sort of but….” Nuance is not a selling point when a billion people have just learned that there are ancient stories about Jesus having sex with Mary Magdelene (false) or survived the crucifixion (false: the gnostics believed he didn’t have a body, hence never died). The Evangelicals are better off; for them church history begins with the birth of Jesus, ends with the Acts of the Apostles, and then skips frames to the twenty first century where, no thanks to the Catholics, the Bible has been marvelously preserved. It is easy for fundamentalists, however the discussion is sliced, to reject Da Vinciism outright since “this isn’t about the Bible.” Who in surfing past innumerable “expert” interviews and schlock specials on the “truth” behind the Da Vinci code has not noticed that the clueless Protestants seem to be standing on a rock, Word of God aloft, while the Catholics are caught shuffling ancient papers as the flood water encircles them?

That leaves the secularists, who seem to be speaking in unknown tongues about the matter. Of course, some would argue, why should there be a “humanist” position on Da Vinci? Why should smart people care about dumb books? People who don’t believe in God can scarcely be bothered to worry about Jesus. But the humanists I know have been passionately interested in the unfaithing potential of the controversy, with the result that they vie with the Catholics for the Numbness of Nuance award. Always happy to see rocks thrown at nonsense (than which there is none greater than the ossified dogmas of Catholicism) the shortsighted atheist few had not counted on Da Vinci creating a new form of superstition, a Religio Da Vinci that blends historical implausibility with a modern passion for intrigue and a postmodern indifference to truth. Magic, codes, rings, and cryptographs, naifish spirituality, the occult, and the unbelievable are the pillars that prop up the symbolic roofs of Narnia, Middle Earth, and Hogwarts Academy. In tapping into a rich vein of early Christian eccentricity famous for its contempt for the historical Jesus, Brown has been able to mine the riches of a darker period, our own, known for its historical illiteracy.

But a question is nagging: Who’s to blame? We are to blame: the scholars of early Christianity who discovered some twenty years ago that Barnum was right – about crowds, I mean – and that there is a small treasure to be made from exploiting the public appetite for the sensational. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, scholars were ponderously slow in reaching conclusions about their significance. The gnostic gospel codices, discovered two years earlier at Nag Hammadi (Egypt), created no such stir, partly because fewer people read Coptic than Hebrew: It took twenty years to assemble teams to translate them, and until the late seventies to produce a serviceable translation into English. Serious scholars (I have too many friends to name names) impressed with the antiquity of the gnostic sources nonetheless greeted their content with the yawning indifference that accorded with their reputation in the church fathers. Younger scholars – myself included, then – looking for the rush of excitement that always accompanies academic immaturity, made extravagant claims for them, including the desperately silly suggestion that they are as old as the canonical gospels – or even earlier. Almost all the news reports on Da Vinci mention “sources” from the second century; the manuscripts discovered in Egypt have been reliably dated to the late third and fourth century.

Whatever the outcome of paleographical and manuscript disputes – discussions in which even most New Testament scholars are incompetent to participate – the disservice of overstatement has now set the tone for a whole generation of largely American academic tabloid-mongering. Dan Brown, like the people who now read his impossible detective history of the Jesus dynasty, is only serving a dinner prepared by feckless scholars who seem to see the difference between fact and fiction as a matter for a CNN viewer poll.

I once cringed to read Robert Heinlein’s judgement, that, “The difference between science and the fuzzy subjects is that science requires reasoning while those other subjects merely require scholarship.” Yet what hope is there even for the fuzzy subjects if specialists market their wares with an indifference to “certainty” – imperfect as it may be in history – and a contempt for judgement? And what hope for the fuzziest of thinkers outside the academy when scholars at some of our best universities convince themselves that their badly reasoned judgements are as good as true because they conform to a social matrix in which truth is a negotiation about facts. The Da Vinci Code says nothing so loudly as that the academy, which once rewarded caution as much as originality, has arrived at Hannah Arendt’s endpoint, where the choice is between the original and the irrelevant, and where what passes for learning “is the development of a pseudo-scholarship which actually destroys its object.”

We can hardly blame Dan Brown, Dan Brown’s wife, Opus Dei, Leonardo, the marginalized evangelicals, the stammering Catholics, and the voiceless humanists for this state of affairs. It involves all of us.

R. Joseph Hoffmann is Senior Fellow & Chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion at the Center for Inquiry, Amherst, NY

Comments are closed.