Paranoia on Main Street

The Da Vinci Code befuddles the culture warriors


The culture war is an inverted chameleon: It tries to foist its monotonous color scheme on everything around it. For proof, look to some of the early reactions to Ron Howard's movie The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown's enormously successful best seller. In the story—spoilerphobes should jump ship right now—Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, they spawned a holy bloodline, and the Vatican has engaged in a long, bloody cover-up to conceal the truth.

On cue, various spokespeople for the Red Team have declared this yet another secular Hollywood assault on Christian values. Jason Apuzzo, a conservative columnist and co-founder of the right-wing Liberty Film Festival, took the most partisan stand, writing in TownHall.com that

Red-state America already disdains Hollywood. Still, conservatives make up more than fifty-percent of a potential audience. And there is a strong possibility that conservative church-goers will not take kindly to Brown's theories about Christ's romantic life, however meticulously Brown may argue these theories in his book.

Thus, The Da Vinci Code may emerge as a sort of anti-The Passion of The Christ and ultimately enrage conservatives a la Fahrenheit 9/11.

This kind of thing is slow poison for the industry. With each passing year, Hollywood is making movies for a smaller and smaller demographic.

On his blog, Apuzzo turned up the people-vs.-Hollywood rhetoric: "I don't care to see my faith besmirched for entertainment purposes, especially by an industry that despises what I believe in and ridicules it at every turn." Elsewhere, the Catholic critic Barbara Nicolosi breezily announced, even while quoting the movie's negative reviews, that "the secular critics—who get paid for being dogmatic—are going to back off completely nailing this apparently bad film, because they like what it says." Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media aimed at a slightly different target, declaring that "you shouldn't look for the press to expose the anti-Christian bias of the coming film. The media, you see, share that bias."

All of which masks the most notable fact about the Da Vinci fan base: It isn't confined to the blue states. As my colleague Tim Cavanaugh wrote last week, "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 there's a conflict here, it doesn't pit heartland churchgoers against the Hollywood/MSM secular elites of Michael Medved's fever dreams; it's a divide between orthodox Christians and New Agers, coming at a time when the New Age has deeply penetrated Christianity itself. Look at the ranks of the Da Vinci Code believers—yes, this potboiler's thesis has attracted actual believers—and I suspect you'll find a lot of people who were high on the angel craze 10 years ago.

One group you're sure to discover is Catholics disillusioned by their church's recent sex scandals, now primed to believe in all sorts of improbable Vatican cover-ups. When pundits try to explain this book's remarkable success—over 40 million copies have sold so far—one of the first factors that comes up is its publication date. It was released in 2003, on the heels of the biggest uproar to hit the Holy Mother Church since Vatican II.

Hollywood didn't cook up this movie to insult the great American mainstream. It made it because the great American mainstream had bought millions of copies of the book, making it a genuine grassroots hit even among people who don't ordinarily read at all. (B.S. alert: I extrapolated that last claim from one solitary friend who in the last five years has read exactly two novels: The Da Vinci Code and Bergdorf Blondes. "I think she actually might have listened to them on tape," my wife comments.) This isn't some edgy indie flick from Darren Aronofsky or a subversive genre exercise by the Wachowski brothers. It was made by one of L.A.'s most middle-of-the-road directors, Ron Howard, a man whose previous efforts include the NASA tribute Apollo 13, the firefighting saga Backdraft, and the Christian right's favorite film of 2005, Cinderella Man. The movie doesn't star Harry Dean Stanton or Willem Dafoe. It stars Tom Hanks, the everyman hero of Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan.

That marks another cultural shift. Fifteen years ago, JFK made the phrase "Oliver Stone movie" a lazy synonym for vast conspiracy theories, even though most Oliver Stone movies do not feature vast conspiracies. Now the guy who played Opie is putting out a picture whose plot makes JFK look like The Sands of Iwo Jima, and hardly anyone thinks it's unusual that he's involved in the project. If you needed proof that conspiratology has gone mainstream, there it is.

I should add a few words about The Da Vinci Code itself—not the movie, which won't hit theaters until Friday, but the book, which has managed to find the sweet spot between purported fact and purported fiction. It is standard practice for thriller-writers to dress up their stories with preexisting allegations, credible or not, about the cabals that power their plots: the CIA, the KGB, the Vatican, anal-probing aliens, whatever. Some authors drop hints that parts of their story might be real, allowing readers to enjoy not just the pleasures of vicarious sex and gunplay but the frisson of believing they're getting a glimpse of some hidden truth. I assume that when Brown placed a partially accurate note at the beginning of his novel claiming that various plot points really exist, he was merely doing this standard scene-setting. If he wanted to prompt a religious reformation, he would have written a different sort of book.

Inadvertently, he landed in the perfect position to launch a cult. Since it doesn't claim to be the literal, infallible truth, The Da Vinci Code isn't easily damaged by the sort of skeptical inquiry that digs out contradictions or obvious inaccuracies in holy texts. Like many writers before him, from H.P. Lovecraft to Robert Anton Wilson to Neal Stephenson, Brown has written a yarn that will attract believers no matter how many times its author assures them it isn't true. In this case, unlike the others, the author isn't eager to make those assurances.

There are people who believe Middle-Earth is real, too. I doubt they fall neatly into camps of Red and Blue.