Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Christianity Behind the Grassy Knoll

The Da Vinci Code premiered today at Cannes. Those worried about how it might rattle the faithful are probably in much better shape today than yesterday, with the BBC reporting that critics actually laughed at the film (which is not a comedy) at several key junctures, with some whistling at the end. What to make of the book's success, and the strenous efforts made to turn it into a summer blockbuster (even at the apparent expense of artistic quality)?

First note that the author of the book, Dan Brown, appears to be something of a crank conspiracist. He gives mixed signals in interviews, but often appears to believe that the Christian church, particularly the Catholic Church hierarchy, has been able to knowingly peddle a lie (as opposed to naively or uncritically believing something that is not true) for two millennia. One is reminded of the diagrams that conspiracists draw up, with lines going this way and that to show how the many perceived players in some perceived plot are really connected. The historical facts with which he leavens his book are probably true more often than not, but connecting the dots in this peculiar fashion is another thing altogether.

That such a theory (but remember, it’s just a work of fiction) could become a best-seller says a few things about the culture. (That it is made into a movie after the giant success of the book says only that Sony Pictures is trying to maximize profits.) First, there is a certain tone-deafness to the sensibilities of global Christianity, which is one of if not the fastest-growing religion on earth. (The ways Asian and African Christianity might ultimately change the Chritsian faith is a fascinating topic in its own right.) One is hard-pressed to imagine a major motion picture and novel positing that the foundations of Islam or Hinduism are purely mythical. That a novel and film that do precisely that about Christianity suggests two things: that those who brought them to market are untroubled by offending believing Christians, and that they see Christianity as in need of being taken down a peg. There is also the question of ignorance about how American Christians see the world: CNN has an earlier piece with an entertainment reporter, Sibila Vargas, in which she contends that, absurdly, Sony planned to pitch Da Vinci as it would The Chronicles of Narnia, i.e. to the same audience that turned out in unexpectedly huge numbers for The Passion of the Christ. If true, it is a pretty grim marker of how removed at least some at Sony Pictures are from this broad current of the American culture.

But this is unsurprising. For at least 150 years, sections of the intellectual community in Western society have had contempt for mainstream bourgeois culture, which rewards only the value of what you bring to the table as your trading partners see it rather than any intrinsic merit you have because you possess a particular number of years of schooling, a particular family history, etc. The rise of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. in recent decades, its resultant scary flexing of its political muscles, and perhaps even the growth of Christianity overseas make it part of the hated middle-class enemy, along with Wal-Mart and McDonald's. The popularity of Da Vinci (to the extent it was not motivated by the quality of the writing as readers saw it and the suspense of the story), particularly for Mr. Brown and those in the culture and ideas industry who facilitated it, may have something to do with this longstanding struggle. A quick Google search indicates over 28,000 results for the book title and “syllabus.” Although the majority of these are extraneous, some university courses as workaday as Italian Studies and freshman English have incorporated the text, however uncomfortable the fit.

And so is this a major threat to Christianity? Almost certainly not. Religion has been fair game in the Western public square at least since the French Enlightenment. While the decline of religion to almost nothing in Western Europe is often noted, this probably has more to do with state church monopolies and the collapse in faith brought about by Europe's 1914-1945 suicide attempt than with anything coming from the surrounding culture. Christianity is vigorous in the U.S. and growing explosively in Africa, Korea and China (although, curiously, it has never taken much in Japan). While The Daily Telegraph reports that two-thirds of those who read the book believe that Jesus fathered a child, and 17 percent of them believe the somewhat secretive and ritual-laden Catholic service group Opus Dei is involved in murders, this might just as easily be a selection effect – those who were predisposed to believe such things are those who buy the book. I am not aware of any evidence that Christians have been leaving the faith in large numbers because of the book.

And yet for all that some religious leaders believe that it is a threat; there have been calls to ban or slap a disclaimer on it in India and in some East Asian countries. (Ironically, in the Indian case it was a Muslim leader was quoted on the BBC calling for a ban; Muslims view Jesus as a prophet, although neither the ultimate prophet nor divine Himself.) The Archbishop of Westminster was interviewed on the BBC today and clearly had memorized his talking points; he twice went out of his way to refer to the movie as “Pythonesque.” My advice to the archbishop and to others similarly fearful is to relax: the movie will have its 15 minutes in the sun and then fade away, to be seen ultimately as another example of the sorts of strange ahistorical, conspiracist thinking that periodically seize public opinion in the U.S. and elsewhere. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a movie.


Post a Comment

<< Home