We asked philosopher and theologian Dr Richard Umbers to answer some of the questions rising from the Da Vinci Code.

Da Vinci Code author Dan BrownWhat do you think about The Da Vinci Code?
It’s a great read (and a plodding movie) but most of the facts are wrong.

Like what?
Like Constantine inventing Christ’s divinity. The first Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead. This was taken as proof that He was God and not just a man. In the Bible Paul and John say he was divine – remember Thomas placing his hands in the holes in Jesus’ hands and saying “my Lord and my God”? Early Christian writers like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons also wrote that Jesus is God.

Don’t you think that resurrection story is a bit hard to swallow in today’s world?
It was difficult to accept in the early world too. People would laugh at Paul for preaching about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But then as now it is the bedrock of Christian belief. The Apostles gave their lives for that message. I’m not aware of anyone who says they have seen Elvis at the Laundromat give up their life for that belief.

Didn’t Jesus get married?
In a sense he did. Catholics have always believed that the bride of Christ is His Church. On the Cross He gave up His life for the Church. We celebrate that at Mass every Sunday -– a day that commemorates the day Jesus rose from the dead, the Lord’s day, the first day of the week. Justin Martyr (100–165) tells us that it was the day Christians went to Mass, and he wrote more than 100 years before Constantine was born. If you look at the symbolism of the Mass you can see this more clearly. The altar represents Jesus Christ. The first thing the priest does when he comes in is to kiss the altar!

Wasn’t Mary Magdalene the head of the Church?
Jesus is always the head of the Church. For that reason, Jesus’ mother, the better known Mary, is known as the Mother of the Church. It was to Peter, not Mary Magdalene, that Jesus said you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. That said, the Church has always venerated Mary Magdalene as a saint and taken note of the fact that she was the first person to see Jesus risen from the dead.

But that is from the Bible Constantine edited. There are other Gospel stories that tell a different story.
Constantine commissioned 50 copies of the Bible but he didn’t edit it. The four Gospels were well known at the turn of the first century. The Gnostic gospels were written 50 years later, over 100 years after the time of Christ and attributed statements to characters mentioned in the original Gospels. To believe that those characters said what they are supposed to have said is like attributing a speech to Queen Victoria in which she talks about her CDs of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The Jesus Papers says that Jesus made a deal with Pontius Pilate, took drugs and survived the cross.
The author of The Jesus Papers, Michael Baigent, tried suing Dan Brown for plagiarism. He lost his case and ended up with a ₤1 million bill to pay. The success of the film may boost sales of his books enough to pay his debts.

The judge of the case of Baigent & Leigh v Random House, Justice Peter Smith, had this to say about Baigent: “Mr Baigent was a poor witness. Those are not my words: they are the words of his own Counsel in his written closing submissions (para 111). Those words do not in my view do justice to the inadequacy of Mr Baigent’s performance… he was a thoroughly unreliable witness… he is either extremely dishonest or a complete fool… I can place no reliance on any part of his evidence” (para 231, 232).

Maybe the Church has something to hide — that’s why it is so worried about these books and the movie.
Most people’s knowledge of William Wallace comes from Braveheart (there is even a statue of Mel Gibson in Stirling, Scotland with sword raised shouting “Freedom”). Most people’s knowledge of Christianity and the Church comes from The Da Vinci Code, which in some homes occupies the place once taken by the Family Bible. The Church has every reason to be concerned about the DVC’s bigotry.

Justice Smith notes: “Of course merely because an author of fiction describes matters of being factually correct does not mean that they are factually correct. It is a way of blending fact and fiction together to create that well known model ‘faction’. The lure of apparent genuineness makes the books and the films more receptive to the readers/audiences. The danger of course is that the faction is all that large parts of the audience read and they accept it as truth” (para 81).

Surely the Church had something to hide if it was hunting down heretics who were passing on secret truths? What about the Inquisition?
The Inquisition didn’t begin until the Middle Ages. Its original task was to suppress the Cathars, a destructive suicide cult. It was a war on terror — not a cover up. So-called “heretics” over the last 2,000 years have believed any number of things; there was never one key teaching which was being passed on.

In 2006 we all realise that everyone should be free to follow the religion of their choice but this is quite a modern idea. And it is not a universal one, either, given the religious discrimination that is practiced today in countries like China or Saudi Arabia.

Dan Brown says that despite the Vatican suppressing goddess worship, heretics have hidden symbols of it everywhere.
Spotting errors in The Da Vinci Code is as hard as getting wet in the sea. Let me give one example. The “pentagram” motions of the planet Venus have nothing to do with the length of the Olympiad. The ancient Olympic games were celebrated in honour of Zeus Olympias, not Aphrodite (Venus), and occurred every four years. The five linked rings of the modern Olympic Games are not a secret tribute to the goddess. Each set of games was supposed to add a ring to the design but the organisers stopped at five.

Furthermore, the Templars did not represent cathedrals as the anatomy of women’s bodies. They had nothing to do with the cathedrals of their time, which were commissioned by bishops throughout Europe. Not all of the Templars’ churches were round and roundness itself was not a sign of protest in honour of the goddesses. It was in honour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. If you look at Gothic churches and their predecessors, the notion that the contain female symbolism evaporates. What part of a woman’s anatomy does a transept represent? Or the kink in Chartres’s main aisle? Both Gothic and Romanesque churches inherited the long, rectangular nave from basilicas of the late Roman times, which were ultimately derived from public buildings.

How about Opus Dei — monks obedient to the Pope’s personal command?
For starters Opus Dei doesn’t have any monks. There are a handful of priests but most of the members are married men and women. The faithful of Opus Dei are not perfect — some have made big mistakes — but the idea of mums and dads roaming the streets in search of the Priory of Sion is just fanciful. The Priory of Sion itself doesn’t even exist. It was a hoax set up in the 1950s by a group of pranksters. The BBC exposed the fraud back in the late 1990s.

What is Opus Dei anyway?

Opus Dei is an organization of the Catholic Church. It helps people bring their Catholic faith into every part of their life. It means being a Christian 24/7, especially in the work place. What the gym does for your body, prayer and sacrifice do for your soul.

I thought it was a mysterious sect.
Nothing mysterious about it; it was on the front cover of TIME recently and you can visit its webpage at www.opusdei.org. Taking the Catholic faith seriously doesn’t make you a fanatic.

Do they really whip themselves?
Saints like Mary MacKillop (of Australia) or Mother Teresa have done so as a way of sharing in Christ’s own pain. Celibate members of Opus Dei continue that tradition of the Church. It may not be easy for many people to understand, but traditionally it has been regarded as a kind of suffering for love. At any rate, it’s nowhere near as dramatic as what Silas gets up to. Losing sleep to a crying baby is a far worse mortification and every mum (and dad) does that.

Has the Church asked you not to read the book?
I’m a grown up; I make my own decisions.

Why shouldn’t other people read the book or see the movie?

The Anangu people of Central Australia ask tourists not climb Uluru, out of respect for the spiritual significance that it has for them. But you are still free to climb it or not. They inform you and then make your own choice. As good hosts they are saddened to see someone get hurt. Catholics believe that the Catholic Church is their mother. They are saddened when people read or see a pile of dirt about their mother -– even if it is only fiction. They are especially saddened when that leads to people forming a false impression of the Church.

The Catholic Church is a sign of contradiction. Practicing Catholics are a sign of contradiction. They unsettle people. There is a lot of money to be made out of exploiting that tension. Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code takes every swipe he can, exaggerating some defects and simply making up others. Some people go to jail for writing that kind of religious bigotry. Brown has made $500 million and the money is still pouring in.

Why doesn’t the Church just ignore The Da Vinci Code?
People who would never otherwise read a book have read The Da Vinci Code. How often have people told you: “you must read this”? It doubles as a tourist guidebook (people actually look for blood stains in St Sulpice in Paris). Even intellectuals have succumbed -– much to their chagrin. (The London Times described it as “written in peanut butter prose, with plastic characters and a plot so clunky it rattles”. ).

What’s the secret formula for a successful novel?
A shadowy organisation, an expert, a treasure, a moral grey area -– is the Vatican for us or against us? And all within 24 hours. Above all, Brown writes what people want to hear -– even if it is blatantly contradictory:

  • Men do all the talking about the sacred feminine.
  • There is a prudish romance set to the backdrop of sacred sex rites.

There have always been fanciful works about the power of the Vatican, most famously Dostoevsky’s Jesuit Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov who would condemn Christ himself. Brown, however, has struck a chord with today’s religion-lite. It’s for people who feel that they like symbols and meaningfulness, but nothing too heavy, nothing that would interfere with a comfortable materialist life style. This is a literary version of muzak pumped into funeral parlours.

What are Dan Brown’s sources for his claims?

Lets hear it from Judge Patrick Smith: “Mr Brown is a fiction writer. As a device to writing fiction he is perfectly entitled to dress up factual scenarios to give an illusion that supports his fiction. He is not… going into deep and detailed research for these factual matters. Indeed as he said in his evidence that would be counterproductive; he wishes to create ‘grey’ areas not black and white. He simply needs therefore a mystery and a series of unanswered questions. He can do that without deep research and that he has done” (para 348).

Brown shows no familiarity with the Gospels. He does not know the Catholic Church in general nor Opus Dei in particular. His terminology and tone betray ignorance of the subject matter. His official website flaunts a review from the New York Daily News — “his research is impeccable” — but the New York Daily News is better known for celebrity gossip than historiography. In fact, Brown’s is not impeccable research. It was largely his wife’s research on the internet. She left print-outs on his desk as he started typing away at 4 in the morning. She used three sources:

  • Gnostic writings that are not historical works and are of almost no historical value as regards Jesus and the early Church. They are readily available on the internet.
  • Feminist works like The Goddess in the Gospels in which Margaret Starbird argues from silences, fleeting references and her own imagination.
  • Hoax material perpetuated by the pseudo-histories related in The Templar Revelation or Holy Blood, Holy Grail which in turn are grounded on the self-confessed hoax of the Priory of Sion.

If your faith is so weak that The Da Vinci Code shakes it, maybe you never had any.
Faith is not a straightforward matter and religious illiteracy is a global problem deftly exploited by The Da Vinci Code. While we should appreciate this spur to learning more about faith and revelation, it must still be said that everyone has a right to a good name. If someone took your name and address out of the phone book and wrote a novel of lurid lies about you and included your real name and address -­ how would you feel? What if Sony Pictures was implicated with September 11 or the gunman who shot Pope John Paul II? Would their lawyers be impressed by the defence that the book was only a novel in the fiction section and that those who know you shouldn’t be swayed by mere hypotheses?

Dr Richard Umbers, originally from New Zealand, is a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in Sydney.