There must be few people who have not heard of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. This recent publishing phenomenon has sold over 7 million copies and been translated into 40 languages; not bad for a work of fiction written in prose that limps a long way behind Ian Fleming’s thrillers or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Why then has it been so popular?
The answer is that its author has cleverly exploited the gap in most people’s minds between credulity and incredulity to produce a hybrid form of lurid “faction”, where facts and fantasy blur and overlap on almost every page so that an ignorant and unwary reader, led by the nose down a path of outrageous speculation, never knows for certain what is truth and what is a distortion of truth i.e. a downright lie. Brown has concocted a formidable formula, combining sex, androgyny, sensationalism, feminism, anti-Catholicism and the occult, that is designed to appeal on different levels to readers hungry for mystery, romance, conspiracy theories and a spiritual quest. Add the Holy Grail, the Templars and the Kabbalah – all the junk on the shelves of occult shops – to this heady mixture and the publishers, Doubleday, are laughing all the way to the bank.
Why the need for a 300-page refutation?
Because, judging from the response to Brown’s book, many readers believe its preposterous claims about the Catholic Church to be true. Briefly, these “claims” – it is embarrassing to relate them in all their cheap and tawdry worthlessness – state that for 2,000 years the Church has been concealing an explosive secret, viz. that Christ and St Mary Magdalene were married and that their bloodline continues to this day. She, not St Peter, was intended to be the first head of the Church; the Order of Knights Templar knew the secret; so did Leonardo Da Vinci, who encoded it into his painting of “The Last Supper”; the “Priory of Sion” ( a bogus organisation) apparently continues to guard it, even as I write. For devout Christians, who believe that Christ led an exemplary sacrificial and celibate life on earth, this is blasphemy as well as nonsense.
Who on earth would believe such a farrago of absurdities? Too many, it appears. Christians are often woefully ignorant of their faith; most of their contemporaries, who have no formal faith at all, are easily seduced by the dangerous glamour of Gnosticism, beckoning towards secrets that only initiates may know and the promise of psychic power that strange knowledge brings. “You shall be as gods” whispered the serpent in the Garden of Eden — and how much easier it is to drug the imagination with a quick-fix concoction of sacred sex and Vatican villainy (the Code includes a sinister albino monk who is a member of Opus Dei — there are no monks in Opus Dei) than to follow the prosaic, unglamorous splendour of the real Christian pilgrimage. Orthodoxy is seen as narrow and dull, heterodoxy as exciting and dangerous. As Chesterton pointed out prophetically, it is fatally easy to fall “into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom”.
This refutation of the Code is commendable in its wide and painstaking research. All the claims of Brown’s book are taken apart, analysed and shown over and over again to be ludicrous; a misrepresentation of the truth through “wilful ignorance or purposeful malice” or, in my view, a steely understanding of the publishing market. The chapter on the history of Gnosticism is particularly good. The true role of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels is explained: that of the reformed sinner whom Christians honour as the first witness of Christ’s resurrection.
The real history of the Templars is given: “How did they become such darlings in occult circles?” One might well ask. Brown is shown to have leaned heavily on two earlier books in this shadowy sub-genre: Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, who are said to be suing him for plagiarising their material; and The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. Far from having “thoroughly researched” his book so that it is “factual in all respects” as he claims, Brown’s sources are as flimsy and sensational as his own work. The selected bibliography provides a useful resource for those interested in studying the arcana surrounding topics raised by the Code.
Will this detailed rebuttal be read by those who need it most: all those gullible Code-breakers, restlessly searching for the truth and devouring meretricious pulp fiction that will never satisfy the deepest longings of the heart or intellect. Ronald Knox is quoted in this book’s conclusion: “Truth, once it is rightly apprehended, has a compelling power over men’s hearts; they must needs assert and defend what they know to be the truth, or they would lose their birthright as men.” That is why it had to be written.
Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.