The Da Vinci Code and Its Success in Popular Culture

by B. J. Oropeza, Ph.D.

While visiting Australia and the South Pacific this summer, I took an Aussie Greyhound to various locations, stayed at a number of hostels, and met numerous backpackers. To my amazement, virtually every traveler I ran into was reading the same book: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

A year earlier, I attempted to see The Last Supper when visiting Milan, Italy. To my disappointment, it turned out that tourists had to make reservations days or sometimes weeks in advance just to see the painting. “Da Vinci Code fever” may best capture the current attitude toward this fictional best seller. Now published in more than 40 different languages and selling literally millions of copies worldwide, a soon-to-be-released cinema version of the story will star box-office favorite Tom Hanks. Perhaps the most controversial point of this murder mystery is the author’s claim that the documents, rituals, and other aspects found in it are factual. Among many of its sensational assertions, the story claims that Mary Magdalene – not John the Beloved Disciple – is the person sitting next to Jesus in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting. According to the book, the Church concealed the truth about the Holy Grail’s association with Mary Magdalene, who was married to Jesus and gave birth to his child. And the Gnostic gospels, which the Church suppressed, reveal Mary’s true relationship with Jesus. Their descendants founded the Merovingian dynasty in France, and Sophie Neveu, the heroine of the story, discovers that she is a blood-relative of Jesus. As a fictional piece, many would affirm the book as an intriguing and suspenseful read. As historically accurate, however, it fails miserably – a point amply demonstrated by numerous critiques.1 Then what makes The Da Vinci Code so popular and why has it become a global best-seller? First, the story blends reality with fiction. The plot and characters such as Sophie and Harvard Professor Robert Langdon may be imaginary, but Harvard University, Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the Roman Catholic Church, Opus Dei, and a fascination for discovering the location of the Holy Grail are real. Brown interweaves historical figures and actual locations with crime, conspiracy, scandal, and suspense. The blurring of boundaries between reality and fantasy remains one of the hallmarks of this age of virtual reality. Second, the book empowers women. In the novel, Mary Magdalene rather than Peter was supposed to lead the disciples after Jesus died. Sophie turns out to be a descendent of Mary and Jesus, making her an heir of the most influential person of all Western history. While the book’s data remains misleading, it does raise important questions concerning why certain denominations, even in this so-called postmodern age, continue to forbid women leading the Church, instead of equipping and encouraging women for such roles. Third, the book confirms pop culture’s disdain for religious institutions. The villain in the plot is not Jesus but the Church, Roman Catholicism in particular. The story’s attitude against religious institutes mirrors our own culture, especially that of Generations X and Y, where it has become cliché for the individual to claim oneself as “spiritual, but not religious.” In general, everyone seems to like Jesus, but many hate and distrust His Church. Hence, those who dislike the Church or have been hurt by its priests and parishioners may feel a sense of vindication after reading the novel. Fourth, The Da Vinci Code paints a very human picture of Jesus. He is a husband and father who experiences sexual relations with Mary. For many, such a savior seems more real, more approachable than the transcendent and deified Son codified through the Nicene Council and later creeds. Seekers want a Jesus who can sympathize with their failures, weaknesses, and sexual longings. The book blends sexuality and spirituality not only through Jesus and Mary, but also via the strange sex rituals of the Priory of Sion. The unspoken assumption the book makes is this: the Church hypocritically suppresses sexual desire and denies human pleasure as sinful. Truth be told, the Bible affirms and even celebrates the human body and sexuality (e.g., Song of Solomon). Conversely, Gnosticism, which Brown ironically upholds in the story, actually denounces and downplays the human body, sexuality, and the human Jesus. As we anticipate the film version of The Da Vinci Code, its popularity will not diminish any time soon. But rather than censure such productions because of their inaccuracies, Christians should view them as welcome opportunities to dialogue truthfully with those who might have misgivings about Christ and His Church.

1 See for example, Gerald O’Collins, “Sensational Secrets,” America 189.20 (2003): 15-17; Mark S. Burrows, “Gospel Fantasy.” Christian Century 121.11 (2004): 20-23; Linda Kulman, Jay Tolson, Katy Kelly, “Jesus in America.” U.S.News & World Report 135.22 (2003): 44-49; Stone Phillips, “Secrets to the Code,” NBC Dateline (Aired April, 2005).

B. J. Oropeza, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biblical studies in APU’s School of Theology.