You're Already Part of the Phenomenon

Jesus: A conspiracy vaster than anything in The Da Vinci Code


Like millions of people around the world, I have thrilled to the phenomenon of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. I've been intrigued by the theory (borrowed, as everybody now knows, from an earlier, nonfiction book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail) that literal descendents of Jesus Christ are walking the earth today. I salute Brown's recovery of the "eternal feminine" in church history, which is long overdue even if I'm not totally sure of the evidence he uses to support it. I got a kick out of the Nabokovian puns, puzzles, anagrams, and Fibonacci sequences—and I think it's great that this kind of postmodern trickery is finally finding a popular audience. I enjoyed the revisionist tour of art history, and was even taken in by the plot, rooting for Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu to solve the mystery, clear Robert's name, and maybe hook up. Who wouldn't enjoy their bravura escape from the Bank of Zurich with the rosewood box, or get a charge out of the idea of killing a peanut-allergic henchman by slipping peanut residue into his cognac? Many critics fault Brown's crude writing style and two-dimensional characters, but the book features some interesting character twists, including the idea that Silas and Bishop Aringarosa were not consciously malevolent figures, but rather people convinced of their own rectitude. The plot reversals were an interesting blend of genuine surprises (I.M. Pei's pyramid is in plain view through most of the book, and I didn't pick up on it) and whoppers you can spot a mile away (I mean, who couldn't have guessed that Sir Leigh Teabagging, or rather Teabing, would, according to the law of sophisticated British villains, turn out to be The Teacher?).

I'm so much a part of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon that I didn't even have to read the book. Nor have I read any of the knockoff books, nor the tie-ins with titles like Secrets of the Code, nor any of the anti-Brown books with titles like The Da Vinci Hoax, nor Brown's other title (I think it's called Angels and Insects or something), nor even Holy Blood, Holy Grail itself. I haven't watched a single TV special about the book or the upcoming big-screen adaptation. I have never read a plot synopsis, though I did verify some of the information in the above paragraph at Wikipedia. (However, I made sure to look up only stuff I'd already heard about.) Finally, I have never interrogated any acquaintance who had read the book. Everything in the introduction comes from casual and/or overheard conversations with and between Da Vinci Code enthusiasts during the past two or three years.

Since The Da Vinci Code has been attacked as an anti-Christian book, I think absorbing it indirectly is an appropriate mirror to Christian pedagogy. Although I eventually read the Old and New Testaments through (and was scandalized by what I found there), like many Christians and most Catholics, I originally learned the founding text of my religion almost entirely by osmosis.

Having made the decision to enter into the Da Vinci Code phenomenon obliquely, with disciplined passivity, I am puzzled by the tagline for the upcoming film, zooming by on buses whenever I step outside. "Be Part of the Phenomenon," it reads. Is this not the stupidest tagline in the history of movie hype? You'd have to go back to another Tom Hanks vehicle, 1986's Nothing In Common, to find one that's nearly as bad: "It's a comedy and a drama, just like life." Does Columbia Pictures still believe audiences are so inert that they can be requested (in fact, commanded) to join its top-down phenomenon? I'm proof that you can be part of the phenomenon without putting another ten dollars into Opie's pocket.

And whatever else it is, The Da Vinci Code is a genuine phenomenon, one of the biggest examples of popular penetration in the last ten years. Since 2003 the book has sold 40 million hardcover copies, and when Random House finally put out a paperback edition in March, the publisher wasn't looking to address slipping sales (the hardcover edition is still in ninth place on The New York Times bestseller list) but to gin up excitement for the movie. Including translations, variant editions, spinoffs, critical studies, and knockoffs, Amazon lists more than 230 Da Vinci Code-related titles, among them: The Da Vinci Code Travel Journal, Exploring the Da Vinci Code, The Da Vinci Code And the Secrets of the Temple, Cracking the Da Vinci Code, Beyond the Da Vinci Code, Walking the Da Vinci Code in Paris, The Da Vinci Fitness Code, The Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code, and Who Can Crack The Leonardo Da Vinci Code?. And that's not even counting all the indirect attempts to make bank on the book's success—countless titles popping up (and even selling well themselves in some cases) to explore the world of the Knights Templar.

Devout Christians, who perceive the book as an attack on their faith, have not taken this lying down. Cardinal Francis Arinze recently denounced the novel, urging legal action against Brown and issuing a vague threat: "Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget… There are some other religions which if you insult their founder they will not be just talking." The Church of England has taken a smarter approach, producing a user-friendly series of documentaries and a movie trailer that shows Jesus making a funny face—always comedy gold. (Not since the Falklands War have Anglicans proven so much better in a fight than Catholics.) Among the Christian responses to Brown's juggernaut: The Gospel According to the Da Vinci Code, Unveiling the Da Vinci Code, 101 Questions & Answers on the Da Vinci Code and the Catholic Tradition, The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, and De-Coding Da Vinci.

Religious folks have found some unlikely allies in the form of art historians, who point out that Dan Brown's trail of errors begins with the very title of his book, which incorrectly treats "Da Vinci" as if it were the artist's surname. (And really, would you trust a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. that refers to its subject as "Mr. Jr."?) But so far, all of Dan Brown's opponents—including Holy Blood, Holy Grail authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, whose lawsuit against Brown was dismissed by a British court—have lost.

Whether any of those opponents have a grievance against Brown is another story. Sales of Leigh and Baignent's long-forgotten book have only been helped by the Code phenomenon; Delacorte Press brought out a new hardback edition last year to capitalize on Brown's success. For that matter, why should art historians be disgruntled, when millions of people have been moved to take an interest in their formerly recondite field?

The religious objection hangs on a misconception about audiences and popular phenomena. With its clumsy attempts to suppress the Da Vinci Code groundswell, the Catholic Church is not only behaving pretty much exactly the way Brown's book depicts it as behaving, but revealing an outmoded, Hidden Persuaders notion of audience response. Far from swallowing Brown's tangled conspiracy theories in full, Da Vinci Code fans, in my experience, simply regard the tale of Jesus and Mary Magdalene's "bloodline" as an interesting attention grabber. In fact (and again, based only on my own experience), the farther out a person is on the hipster/nonbeliever continuum, the less likely he or she is to take any interest in the book at all. The most interesting aspect of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon is its resistance to a Red State/Blue State paradigm. The book's fans are found overwhelmingly in the vital center, among the family-oriented churchgoers who have enjoyed works of religious speculation, New Age pop, and life management since time immemorial.

If anybody has a right to complain about Dan Brown's success, it's James Redfield, whose The Celestine Prophecy was the Da Vinci Code of the nineties. There's a real Rocky and Father Jerry story in the history of these two books: If Redfield had just been a few steps faster in his market timing, he might be enjoying the colossal wealth and adulation that is now Dan Brown's. As it happens, the no-budget film adaptation of The Celestine Prophecy hobbled into theaters just a few weeks ago, long after the phenomenon had passed, receiving critical pans and negative box office. Or consider Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, whose mega-selling Left Behind books ended up yielding naught but a straight-to-video film franchise that even the star power of Kirk Cameron and Lou Gossett, Jr. could barely ignite. And what of the rest of us, who might have cashed in a long time ago on the public's hitherto unknown appetite for medieval history and code-breaking? If we'd all known how popular the Templars and armchair semiotics would become, George "The Saint" Sanders might not have killed himself and Roland "Mythologies" Barthes would have looked both ways before stepping in front of an oncoming laundry truck.

So it will be, in time, with The Da Vinci Code. With hindsight it will be clear that Dan Brown, like all those History Channel producers and Newsweek writers who regularly report new findings about the "historical Jesus," was doing a great service to Christianity. Ostensibly anti-Christian works from The Secret Life of Christ to Léo Taxil's Vie de Jesus to The Da Vinci Code participate in a conspiracy more vast than anything Dan Brown has in mind: the elaborate collusion by billions of people to agree that anybody named Jesus Christ existed in the first place. If he did live (and beyond a forged passage in Josephus, there's no non-faith-based evidence that he—or He, or She—did), Dan Brown's claims about a royal bloodline look modest indeed: As the writer Steve Olson has demonstrated, most of the population of planet Earth* is already related to the savior. Most also believe that there really was a Jesus of some kind, and once that hurdle is overcome, arguments over whether he was divine or merely a prophet, a Jewish apostate or a closet Buddhist, a celibate or a father, are as intramural as arguments over Batman's origin story (though even the most shameless DC comics geek understands there was no historical Batman). In an era of audience fragmentation, Dan Brown has produced something rare—a genuine popular phenomenon. But to get Christians, Muslims, and Jews agreeing that you're worth arguing about at all—even Ron Howard and Tom Hanks couldn't pull that one off.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Steve Olson by misspelling his last name.