Friday, December 02, 2005

Why I'm thankful for the DaVinci Code

Mention the DaVinci Code in evangelical circles and listen for the grinding of teeth and muttering of imprecations that inevitably follow. Christians may devour this fanciful page turning adventure, but they only do so in the dark of night with the shades drawn and behind closed doors.

I knew this book would make waves when I saw the push marketing at Barnes and Noble. Congregation members asked me about it. I read it and quickly developed a class that answered the claims of the book from a biblical historical perspective. See the notes here. I went back to the writings of the early church in the 1st-3rd centuries, before the Council of Nicea, before the faith was officially institutionalized by Constantine. To address the claims of the book, I had to look at what the early church writers were actually saying.

Please understand, Dr. Hill at RTS encouraged us to take study of patristics (that is, the study of the writings of the early church) seriously. After all the books are readily available on CD-ROM (I got mine from Galaxie Software's Theological Journal Library-- including the now public Domain Schaff edition of the Early Church Fathers, a classic work for any scholar). Truth be told, I didn't heed Dr. Hill's advice until the Da Vinci Code came out. Now with the film scheduled to come out next year, I read the early church fathers. Perhaps if more evangelical Christians would find their way back to these writings, they'd see that the shallow challenges of the New Age movement and contemporary syncretism were already addressed centuries ago -- clearly there is nothing new under the sun.

Just last night and this morning, I was working through the first apology of Justin Martyr (c 110-165). He wrote to emperor Antoninus Pius to ask that persecution of Christians be stopped. Contra the DaVinci Code, Justin makes clear that the early church thought that Jesus was the fully divine, pre-existent as the Logos of God. Justin makes clear that he believes in the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and a final judgment.

What is so lovely about Justin's first apology is how he openly acknowledges the similarities between the Christian understanding of Jesus and the mythical stories of the sons of Zeus (Hercules, Bacchus, Aesculapius, Bellerophon, etc). He then goes to great length to show how Christ is a historical figure who really died and rose, rather than a mythical archetypal story.

Why is this lovely? Consider the work of Joseph Campbell, the famous scholar of myth and religion who posited that all the great religious traditions and myths pointed back to universal archetypes. Basically, the truth of the stories lay in the universal themes rather than the historicity of the events. This is the concept behind the Da Vinci code -- myth and symbolism and stories point us to deeper archetypal truths that have little to do with the historical reality of the stories. According to the DaVinci Code, Jesus himself taught this kind of archetypal understanding of spirituality. It wasn't until Constantine that there was a "takeover" of Christianity for the more orthodox understanding that we have today.

And then we read Justin, writing in the first half of the second century -- within 100 years of Christ's death and resurrection. Justin not only lays out a belief in Christ's actual divine nature, but he also makes very clear that Christians BEFORE Constantine were quite settled on the importance of the historicity of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. The comparison with the sons of Jupiter anticipates Joseph Campbell and the Da Vinci code by 1900 years and deflates it outright.

Even better -- the DaVinci code posits some kind of "sacred feminine" that is sweet and benevolent and life affirming. Interestingly, Justin mentions the "sacred feminine" as well -- not addressing it outright, but rather addressing the popular pagan custom of leaving infants exposed to the elements. Justin asserts that such infants are routinely taken up and raised to be temple prostitutes -- a quote from chapter 27 of the First Apology illustrates:

"...we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And as the ancients are said to have reared herds of oxen, or goats, or sheep, or grazing horses, so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use; and for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation. And you receive the hire of these, and duty and taxes from them, whom you ought to exterminate from your realm. And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with
his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods, and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent, a great symbol and mystery."

So the "sacred feminine" that is supposed to be so life affirming is actually associated with sexual abuse and a ritualized form of slavery. Of course, this account doesn't tell the whole story -- Justin may be exaggerating for his own purposes -- but remember, he's writing a defense of Christianity because Christians are being persecuted. He's not in the position of an oppressor trying to suppress some upstart faith. Also, he's writing to the emperor in Rome, who knows very well the religious practices of pagan faiths. So even though we must not take Justin for the final word on the actual practices of goddess religions, his testimony does carry weight.

And all that to say, we should be thankful for the DaVinci Code -- for it drives us to take a look at the real evidence of what's there. When we look at the evidence, the classical understanding of the Christian faith comes off looking pretty sound. (right on Dr. Hill!)

(as a partially related aside -- check out the article on Anne Rice in the Dec 3 issue of World -- it talks about how she returned to faith in Christ -- and as she did, she confronted all the scholarship that discounts the historical faith -- a quote "'The skeptical New Testament scholarship tries to prove to you that the Gospels don't hold up. It takes great fortitude to subject yourself to that kind of literature, to seriously take notes, to follow the arguments, to draw conclusions. You could come out destroyed.' But she came out concluding the skeptics were wrong, perpetrators and victims of some of the worst scholarship she'd ever seen, built with poor research and reasoning on a foundation that presumed the Gospels weren't true." WOW)

Soli Deo Gloria