Editorial May 2006 : Da-Coding the Past by Hilary Williamson
I finally read The Da Vinci Code on Sunday - I know, I know, well behind the times. After I got past the evil albino villain Silas (who seemed to have popped out of a James Bond novel) I was engrossed in the thrills of the chase, the regular unveiling of riddles, and the biblical mystery. Aside from Silas, the only thing that stuck in my gullet was a depiction of the Knights Templar as guardians of 'the sacred feminine' (having grown up on stories like Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe that depicted these same Knights as a mysoginistic bunch of zealots, this new portayal seemed odd to me.)
Though I figured out who the the bad guy (the Teacher) was well before disclosure, Dan Brown snuck in other unexpected surprises to tie off a satisfying ending. I now understand the book's success and look forward to seeing the movie (surely Tom Hanks is perfect casting for Robert Langdon).
Despite his thriller's controversial premise - and (hopefully) his exaggeration of the dark side of Opus Dei - it seems to me that Dan Brown deals sensitively (and objectively) with Christianity in The Da Vinci Code. He defines faith through his hero Langdon as 'acceptance of that which we believe to be true, that which we cannot prove', going on to say that 'Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory, and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school. Metaphors are a way to help our minds process the unprocessible. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors.' Who could argue that, when we've seen the casualties of fundamentalist factions of all world religions mount through the ages and still fill newspaper front pages today?
Though The Da Vinci Code has had a meteoric impact on the publishing world, many books reflect new knowledge - and a resulting flurry of speculation - about early Christianity. Here are some (paired fiction and non-fiction) titles I've come across. To go with Brown's novel, let's open Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, in which Bart D. Erhman gives a cogent analysis of the implications of a long-running battle of - and for - minds as Christianity evolved. Erhman does an excellent job of covering a literary battle for supremacy, in which rival groups traced and promoted particular apostolic sources, and fought hard for specific interpretations of sacred texts.
Kathy Reichs' latest thriller, Cross Bones, takes forensic anthropologist Dr. Tempe Brennan to the Holy Land. She follows a trail of bones and corpses to Israel, where she stumbles across tantalizing clues to the location of relics of Jesus' family. Like Brown, Reichs comments on world faiths through Tempe, who says 'They're all just trying to provide a formula for orderly, spiritual living, but somehow the message gets twisted, like cells in a body turning cancerous. Self-appointed spokesmen declare the boundaries of correct belief, outsiders are labeled heretics, and the faithful are called upon to attack them. I don't think it was meant to be that way.'
Reichs credits her colleague, Dr. James Tabor with the facts behind the plot, as documented in The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. This stirring search for truth is as fascinating - though perhaps not as exciting to the casual reader - as The Da Vinci Code. Tabor pieces together puzzle fragments and describes the historical context of first-century Judaism, that must have strongly affected Jesus' family and beliefs. He reminds us that it gives a whole different perpective on the Christmas story to know that brutal Roman occupiers had just ruthlessly crushed a Jewish revolt and burnt down the city where Mary grew up.
Tabor, chair of religious studies at UNC-Charlotte, speculates on Jesus' parentage and siblings, John the Baptizer's formative influence, and Jesus brother James' role in carrying on his teachings after the crucifixion. Of course, as discussed in Lost Christianities, Paul defined Christianity today - Tabor tells us that 'Jesus became a figure whose humanity was obscured; John became merely a forerunner of Jesus; and James and the others were all but forgotten.' He portrays John the Baptizer and Jesus as partners in a 'movement that sought the spiritual, social, and political redemption of the Jews'.
Simon Mawer's Gospel of Judas is a compelling novel of intimacy and betrayal starring a Roman Catholic biblical scholar whose mid-life crisis of faith coincides with the amazing discovery of a new scroll written by 'Youdas the sicarios'. For the historical perspective, we have The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel by James Robinson, who poses the question, 'Judas Iscariot ... was one of the Twelve Apostles who stuck with Jesus through thick and thin to the bitter end, until the night of the Last Supper when he led the authorities to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Was Judas just fulfilling prophecy, implementing the plan of God for Jesus to die for our sins, doing what Jesus told him to do?'
Looking for more on the topic? David Klinghoffer's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History examines how momentum built up after a small number of Jesus' followers broke away from Judaism to form the Christian church. In The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History, Michael Baigent examines Jesus' life and times - surrounding events, the cultural context, and influences (such as Egyptian spirituality) - and 'asserts that Jesus and the circumstances leading to his death have been heavily mythologized'. Baigent calls the Church's later assertion of Jesus' divinity 'a construct that 'silenced' the historical Jesus'.
For a fictional account of Jesus in Egypt, read Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, a novel that portrays Jesus' childhood in Egyptian exile and eventual return to the family's homeland under Roman rule. And, for another view of what Leonardo Da Vinci was trying to convey in his painting of the Last Supper, read The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra, in which Father Agostino (an agent of Rome) 'navigates uneasily in a world of subterfuge, esoteric writings, aesthetic duplicity, and murder.'
All these books - which cover a wide range of fact, speculation, and fiction - give fresh perspectives on the life of Jesus of Nazareth. All the authors speak, directly or indirectly, against dogma and the misuse of religion in both ancient and modern times, and encourage readers to question for themselves. James Tabor calls Jesus a 'political revolutionary', but of course all the great spiritual leaders were rebels against the social order of their times, who spoke for the poor and the oppressed. How, I wonder, would they judge the religious institutions that took over their messages and embellished them over the centuries?
Seeking the truth about the life of Jesus seems to me analogous to seeking to know who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. They're still great literature whoever actually penned them, and the core messages of world religions are still important spiritual truths no matter the details of their origins. Historical truths, as they continue to be revealed, can never detract from that, but can only shed fascinating light on the very human struggles in which these messages were born.
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