The Da Vinci Code and the Concept of Fact
I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code and don’t plan to see the movie, because by all accounts the book is dumb and the movie no better. Yet I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of its influence. If what I read about it is accurate, it’s another in a long line of attempts to replace orthodox incarnational Christianity with a form of gnosticism. That’s nothing new, and we’re used to making the arguments against it. A popularizing academic like Elaine Pagels writes a book for people who will probably never go near the primary sources, claiming that orthodox Christianity is just another conqueror writing history in his own favor and that the heresies of old have just as much claim to be considered “true” as any other beliefs, and anyway are much more fun. She reaches a moderately large number of people, and Christians respond, but most people never hear the argument at all.
The Da Vinci Code has changed that. Suddenly the Gnostic-Christian argument is everywhere. (People like Pagels like to speak only of competing “Christianities,” but I have no intention of giving up that ground.) And people who seem very poorly equipped for thinking have a lot of opinions about it.
What’s most interesting, and disturbing, about the phenomenon is that both the author and his defenders seem to want to have it both ways: the book is fiction, they say, and so no one should be upset about the fact that it portrays the Catholic Church (and indeed most of Christianity, insofar as it maintains core Christian doctrines) as a monstrous and murderous conspiracy. But on the other hand they insist that its version of history is in the main true, and that the reason Christians get upset about it is that they’re so blinded, rendered so mindless, by their oppressive doctrines that they can’t cope with the truth.
I didn’t fully appreciate this serene incoherence, or experience the bang-head-on-desk frustration it can induce, until a couple of weeks ago when the religion editor of our local paper published a selection of comments on the book from her readers. Over and over again the writer would sneer “It’s only FICTION!!!” and in the next sentence talk about how much the book had taught him or her about the real origins of Christianity, the real story behind the Catholic Church, and so on. (There are many similar examples in the reader reviews of the book at Amazon.)
Most bizarre of all, some of the respondents identified themselves as Christian, yet said that even if the conspiracy alleged by the book were true it would not affect their faith. Faith? What faith? Or faith in what? Can they simultaneously worship Jesus as the incarnate God and yet “be comfortable with” (as the silly phrase has it) the idea that the Incarnation was an invention forced upon the world by Constantine? Is “faith” just a synonym for “warm feeling”?
Some of the respondents were clearly pretty anti-Catholic, from both the Protestant and the atheistic sides. One woman identified herself as a member of the Assembly of God and remarked that the Catholic Church had done so many evils that no one should be surprised at or skeptical of this one. Others, clearly (although probably unconsciously) siding with the “Jesus of history/Christ of faith” dichotomous view, said that the historical facts were irrelevant, and the only thing important was what one believes and, presumably—that warm feeling again—the way it makes one feel.
Is something new happening here? There have always been obstacles in the way of knowing the difference between fact and fiction, and without doubt many of the human race have had a lot of trouble figuring it out. But this is something different. This is an inability to grasp the difference between the concepts of fact and fiction.
Perhaps this is not a new thing. But if it is, I can think of two possible causes. One is the constant disregard for truth evidenced in the advertising and marketing that surround us. Whether the product is toothpaste or a politician, everybody knows that the object of any communication about it is to avoid any definite truth and produce a favoring emotion. Is it possible that many people, inundated with this stuff more or less all the time, begin to slip into a fog where the truth no longer matters?
The other possible cause is an idea which has for several decades now been seeping down from nihilistic intellectuals into the mass mind, the idea that it’s impossible to know the truth and therefore all “truths” are equal. There is my truth, and your truth, and even though they may contradict each other mine is still true for me, and yours for you. Few people will defend this idea if it’s stated as plainly as I just did, but many seem willing to float along on it, half asleep.
This leaves Christians in a position that would be amusing if it weren’t so frustrating. Accustomed to the accusation that we are irrational and obscurantist, we find ourselves in this controversy the only party insisting desperately—and, I’m afraid, not very successfully—on the necessity of looking at simple facts in the cold light of day.