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Using The Da Vinci Code for Christ

A controversial new movie that rewrites historical truths about Jesus can provide unique faith-sharing opportunities.

Since The Da Vinci Code novel was published three years ago, Christians have found themselves thrust into many new conversations about Jesus. But what would seem like a golden opportunity can feel like a recurring nightmare.

Audrey Tautou as Sophie Neveu and Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code. The new movie contains numerous historical errors.

The scenario is all too familiar. A neighbour, co-worker or relative reads Dan Brown's bestseller and becomes an instant expert on Jesus. Suddenly we become the ones being evangelized. "Did you know Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene? Are you aware the Church covered up the true history?" The friend is strangely resistant to our patient attempts to refute each outlandish claim. Afire with conspiratorial zeal and buoyed by the thrill of discovery, the Da Vinci Code fan is in no mood to listen. We are dismissed as hapless dupes or, worse yet, part of the Church's "ongoing cover-up."

Such exchanges may become even more frequent in coming months. Columbia Pictures' The Da Vinci Code movie, starring Tom Hanks, is set to hit theatres in May. The film promises to propel the controversial content of Brown's book to even greater popularity, putting those of us who hold to traditional Christian teachings in the hot seat again.

So, how should we respond?

Christian leaders agree the Da Vinci Code phenomenon isn't all bad. The story can spark fruitful discussions on faith. But they also say meaningful interactions don't usually happen by accident. Christians who successfully engage others are intentional about their approach, sensitive with their words and knowledgeable about the topic.

In other words, they love people and they are willing to do some homework.

Loving people means appreciating their interest in spiritual things even when they're unorthodox, and encouraging the aspects of it that can lead back to orthodox Christian faith. Spiritual seeking is, after all, one of the core reasons for the wild popularity of The Da Vinci Code, according to Nancy Calvert-Koyzis, a theology instructor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

"Criticizing Christian beliefs has become quite popular [in our culture], and some are attracted to the novel simply for that reason. But many people are truly seeking," she says.

Calvert-Koyzis warns Christians against alienating misguided Da Vinci Code fans by taking a combative tone. "When you do that, you lose people," she says. "They just won't listen." Instead, she recommends a laid-back but interested manner.

That caution is echoed by John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver. "The crucial thing is to find out first why your friend or neighbour is interested. What about the novel intrigued them? What moved them?"

Stackhouse says the greatest mistake is leading with the mouth instead of the ears. "Christians too quickly wade into this conversation, attacking errors and misrepresentations without finding out why people are interested in the topic."

Rather than starting with arguments, Stackhouse advises beginning with questions. "Try to empathize with their concerns. Let them talk. Ask lots of questions."

According to Stackhouse, only after showing a genuine interest will meaningful conversation take place. Until we hear others, they can't hear us.

But Evangelicals must also speak up for truth when the time is right. The Da Vinci Code takes aim at some of the core Christian beliefs: namely, the divinity of Jesus and the authority of the Bible. And it does so with half-truths, exaggerations and blatant inaccuracies.

Some have defended the book on the grounds that it is a work of fiction and, therefore, harmless. However, judging from author Dan Brown's comments, he views his novel as more than a fictional story. In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today Show, Brown was asked, "How much of this is based on reality in terms of things that actually occurred?" Brown's reply was unequivocal: "Absolutely all of it."

Unfortunately for Brown, there is scarcely a historian alive who shares his confidence. When it comes to the facts presented in the novel, the jury is not out — the case never even made it to court, at least not in the world of scholarship. The book's subversive theories about Jesus are not even original — they come from sources that even secular scholars have dismissed, such as the 1989 non-fiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (the authors are now suing Brown for allegedly taking their ideas).

Holy Blood, Holy Grail built its case around the story of one man who claimed to trace his ancestry back to Jesus and Mary Magdalene's royal bloodline. The fantastical account was soon exposed as a hoax and roundly denounced.

Yet that didn't stop Brown from relying almost completely on the work as a resource for his novel. Brown, however, couched the tale in suspenseful, engaging prose and successfully targeted a wider and less discerning audience.

John Thompson, an authority on historical theology at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, says looking for errors in The Da Vinci Code "is like shooting fish in a barrel." He finds the liberties Brown has taken with history astonishing. "Some pages have so many errors you don't know where to start. You get compounded errors. It is wrong in so many layers it leaves one speechless."

Of course the problem isn't that academics are being fooled by the novel; it's that less informed readers are. According to Brown's website, the novel has now sold more than 40 million copies, making it one of the most widely read books of all time. The vast majority of these readers lack the tools or the desire to separate fact from fiction. They simply accept the novel's storyline as the new gospel truth. This is why Evangelicals must be prepared to respond with solid refutations.

New Testament scholar Paul Spilsbury fears that readers are taking the novel at face value. "The book makes certain statements about history. They might make sense within the fictional plot of the story; yet, it's so easy for people to think the reality described in the novel carries over into the real world."

To counter misperceptions created by the book, Spilsbury (who works at Canadian Theological Seminary in Calgary, Alberta) recommends Christians familiarize themselves with the story. "It is a good idea to do some research and be familiar with the claims made by the novel," he says. "It can be upsetting for Christians to hear these distortions, so the key is to avoid becoming emotional and, instead, focus the conversation at the level of facts."

Tackling the long list of errors can be daunting. So a successful critique seeks to counter the book's larger assertions. One of those issues is Dan Brown's handling of the so-called Gnostic gospels (later writings about Jesus). Spilsbury notes that when Brown refers to the Gnostic texts, he gets it exactly backwards. "The novel claims the Gnostic gospels reveal the humanity of Christ, while the biblical accounts show Jesus only as divine." Spilsbury points out that the Gnostic gospels actually paint a lofty picture of Jesus. The Gnostic heresy was that Jesus was not human, that he was God merely appearing to be human.

On the other hand, the canonical Gospels (the four in the Bible) give a full account of both the divinity and humanity of Christ. Spilsbury points out that Mark, widely considered to be the oldest Gospel, gives a rich account of Jesus' humanity. "We see Jesus getting tired, showing emotion, even becoming angry." Clearly, Brown either misunderstands the source materials on which he builds his story or is feigning his declared fidelity to historical records.

A second major muddle to be cleared up, according to Calvert-Koyzis, is the confusion surrounding Mary Magdalene. In the Middle Ages, church leaders mistakenly assumed Mary Magdalene was the same woman (an adulteress) who anointed Jesus' feet in Luke 7. The Da Vinci Code claims to rescue Mary Magdalene from this misidentification by making her the carrier of Jesus' royal bloodline. The novel spins this as Mary's triumph, a role that liberates her from the patriarchal character assassination that focused on her sexuality.

Besides the fact that there's not a shred of evidence for Brown's bizarre theory, Calvert-Koyzis points out that the manoeuvre ironically gives Mary a demotion. Instead of describing Mary Magdalene as the Bible does — the first witness and preacher of Christ's resurrection — "Brown resurrects her sexuality," making her reproductive abilities her primary means of worth. No longer the "apostle to the apostles," she's useful only for bearing a secret lineage.

The Gnostic gospels and Mary Magdalene are only the beginning. The list goes on. And, clearly, the experts are not calling Christians to memorize all the details about the Council of Nicea and Opus Dei and the rest. But taking the time to read The Da Vinci Code and at least one book critiquing the novel does seem worth the time. (Or visit, by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

After all, there's much at stake. People who are truly seeking for Jesus must be directed to the Bible. There they will find the true story of Jesus for themselves and the real "code" to life's meaning!

Recommended resources

Know the Truth as Believers. Share the Truth with Skeptics. Rob Bedard. (32 pages). Cost: $2.00 per copy (plus shipping and handling). Order today: (250) 245-8221, (250) 245-9996 (Fax), Email:

Counterfeit Code. James Beverley (100 pages, BayRidge/Augsburg, 2005).

The Da Vinci Hoax. Carl Olson & Sandra Miesel (329 pages, Ignatius Press, 2004).

The Gospel Code. Ben Witherington III (252 pages, InterVarsity, 2004).

Discussing the Da Vinci Code. Lee Strobel and Garry Poole (a small group resource that includes a DVD: HarperCollins/Zondervan 2006).

Drew Dyck is a freelance writer from Red Deer, Alberta, currently studying in Pasadena, California.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2006.




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