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FIRST-PERSON: Why is Da Vinci so successful?

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–One of the questions I get asked regularly as I speak on “The Da Vinci Code” is, “Why do you think the book is so wildly successful?”

With the clock ticking down as the world awaits the movie’s release on May 19, it seems appropriate to pose this query. At first, it seems counter-intuitive that a novel with as flawed a logic as “The Da Vinci Code” would resonate with the American (and worldwide) reading public. After all, this is a book about a non-existent code (the “Da Vinci code”) to provide clues to uncover suppressed evidence about a marriage (Jesus and Mary Magdalene) that never took place. But why cover up evidence that does not exist? In fact, how does one cover up non-existing evidence? And why cover up evidence about a relationship that never existed in the first place? The answers to these questions are hard to fathom. Then why has “The Da Vinci Code” been so successful?

The answer lies, at least in part, with the American penchant for conspiracy theories. As Dan Brown himself writes, “Everybody loves a conspiracy theory.” In a perceptive recent essay subtitled “Postmodern Conspiracy Culture and Feminist Myths of Christian Origins,” David Liefeld makes a compelling case that American culture is virtually obsessed with conspiracy theories, no matter how implausible. This, in turn, is part of the new, subjective, postmodern view of history, according to which history is nothing but one person’s version of reality. Truth, for postmodernism, is provisional and constantly evolving, subject to revision as new facts surface that need to be incorporated. In fact, there is no absolute truth, only truth “for you” and truth “for me.”

The other major reason why “The Da Vinci Code” has been such a success has, I believe, been suggestively presented by the British New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright. Wright contends that the thesis underlying “The Da Vinci Code” is part of the mainstream liberal American “myth of Christian origins” that is found at elite educational institutions such as Harvard, moderate churches, and leading scholarly societies such as the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. According to this “myth of Christian origins”:

— Besides the four canonical Gospels there are hundreds of other documents about Jesus that present him as a human being and that tell us the “real truth” about Jesus. In order to know what Jesus really was we must expand our horizons to include these other, more pristine, sources.

— The four canonical Gospels are later products of the church that seek to elevate Jesus to the status of deity and that claim power and prestige for the church. The deity of Jesus is not so much a sincere, early theological belief grounded in Jesus’ own divine self-consciousness and the testimony of His first followers but a function of ecclesiastical power and control.

— In fact, however, Jesus was not at all who is portrayed to be in the four canonical Gospels. Rather, He is much more like the person depicted in those alternative documents: He was a mere human, a teacher of wonderful, lofty ethical and moral teaching — oh, and He may have been married, maybe with a child on the way when His career was tragically cut short.

— Christianity as we know it is based on a gigantic mistake. Mainstream Christianity, including Roman Catholicism as well as all other mainline denominations and other forms of institutionalized Christianity, is sexist, anti-women, and anti-sex. This, incidentally, goes over particularly well with those who are trying to escape from fundamentalism or certain forms of Roman Catholicism.

In this understanding of Jesus, you give up — as historically unwarranted, theologically unjustified, and spiritually and socially damaging — the traditional understanding of Christ and Christian origins and instead get in touch with a different form of spirituality based on religious feeling. Discover whatever faith you find that you can believe in. Rather than destroy Christianity, liberal theologians actually believe this will revive the truth for which Jesus lived and for which He died. This spiritual quest, according to liberalism, will also involve reconnecting with the “sacred feminine” that the church suppressed in its early goings.

“The Da Vinci Code” will come and go, but this liberal “myth of Christian origins” will persist. It will persist because it is part of this esoteric blend of New Age spirituality, neo-Gnosticism, feminist scholarship, an anti-supernaturalist, critical, post-Enlightenment stance toward Christianity, and a postmodern, subjectivist approach to history and truth. It is this more abiding and pervasive phenomenon that should concern all serious, Bible-believing Christians.

Yet we will have failed if all we do is decry the inaccuracies of the book and present evidence that much of its reasoning is fallacious. The call of the hour is to present a positive and constructive case for the truth of Christianity so that people will turn from skepticism and unbelief to faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Savior and Lord.

In one of his psalms, David reports the taunts of his enemies who say, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). Their answer: nothing but “flee like a bird to the mountains” (v. 1). But David refuses to accept this analysis. He contends that God is on His heavenly throne; He observes everyone on earth and examines them. At a time when blasphemy is splattered all over the media and unrighteousness seems to prevail, it is comforting to be reminded that “the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face” (Psalm 11:7).
Andreas Köstenberger is the founder of Biblical Foundations (www.biblicalfoundations.org) and professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. His booklet on The Da Vinci Code can be ordered by calling the LifeWay campus bookstore at 919-556-3481.

    About the Author

  • Andreas J. Kostenberger