Universalis

Should Catholics read the Da Vinci Code?

I remember when the Catholic News first posted a writeup on The Da Vinci Code, it included a priest (can't remember who) who implied that a good Catholic should not read the book because we should not expose ourselves to falsehood. I disagreed very strongly with that point. A good Catholic should read the book (borrow, don't buy), because many, many people, Christians and non-Christians, have read the book and have formed opinions based on it. To be a Christian in touch with the world is to understand and be able to correct these misconceptions should the opportunity present itself. After all a true, strong faith is one that is forged in fire, and not one sheltered from infancy. It's ironic that the second article by CN is subtitled "some advice from Father Henry Siew to people who cannot resist reading the book".

Just as a point interest, my students in NJC are very much still interested in the book. We set them a response paper asking them to critique a summary of the arguments in the Da Vinci code. Many had excellent responses while some truly believed Dan Brown's arguments.

Also, being very much knowledgable of early Christian belief in the Eucharist, why did Leonardo Da Vinci leave out the chalice in The Last Supper?


Detail of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci

8 comments:

irene said...

wow, that exercise you set sounds interesting. do you think you could send me a copy?

i've read the book and i find it very interesting. not merely the arguments but also the way that dan brown presents the story. i was almost convinced that he was actually on to something with the holy bloodline. (waiting for the day when "holy blood and holy grail" is not on loan at the library so that i can borrow it.)

and the leonardo da vinci thing. maybe da vinci was painting from a practical point of view. it's not practical to hold a dinner/supper/meal with only 1 cup between 13 people. after all, he painted his painting very realistically, researching the facial expressions and all. and the cup wasn't his main focus in the painting, if i'm not wrong. the focus was the reaction after jesus said "one of you will betray me." and there are cups present in the painting. one of those cups, presumably the one nearest to jesus, would be the cup.

or perhaps, da vinci was really trying to impart some secret.

ChrisYeo said...

The assignment went something like this:
Passage 2: The Da Vinci Code
Caveat: attempt this passage only if you have read and are comfortable with The Da Vinci Code. This presupposes that you are aware of the popular notions about the Holy Grail and Jesus of Nazareth.

"The Holy Grail is not what Christians have assumed it to be: it is not the cup allegedly used by Christ at the Last Supper. Rather, it takes the form of the person of Mary Magdalene, the wife of Jesus, who carried on the royal bloodline of Christ by giving birth to His child. This is supported by the following:

Jesus as a married man makes more sense than our standard biblical view of Jesus as a bachelor: Jesus was a Jew, and the social decorum during that time (according to historians) virtually forbid a Jewish man to be unmarried. According to Jewish custom, celibacy was condemned. If Jesus were not married, at least one of the Bible's gospels would have mentioned it and offered some explanation for His unnatural state of bachelorhood, but they didn’t.
Moreover, the bible itself may have been altered by the early church to hide the fact that Jesus was married, and was married to Mary Magdalene. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which were later to be officially recognized as part of the New Testament Canon were intentionally altered and embellished in the fourth century at the command of Emperor Constantine. This is what one historian recently suggested. Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. This suggests that in reality, Jesus may have been more humanlike, to the extent of having a wife. And his wife may not have been a prostitute, as she is popularly known to be. This is in fact the result of a smear campaign by the early Church in order to defame Mary. The church needed to cover up her dangerous secret -- her intimate relationship with Jesus –- so that Jesus’ divinity would be preserved.
Finally, Leonardo Da Vinci's painting (The Last Supper), contains a coded message that reveals the truth about Jesus and the Grail. In that painting, the cup -- from which Jesus is described by the bible to have drunk -- is missing. Instead, Jesus is depicted as sitting next to a very effeminate person (who is usually thought to be the apostle John, but may in fact be Mary Magdalene). This is proof that the Grail isn't a material vessel, but may be in the form of Mary Magdalene’s person. Da Vinci’s painting should be considered as evidence because Da Vinci was himself a member of a group called the Priory of Sion, a real organization officially registered with the French government. Although the Priory is conventionally seen to have had political motivations, its motivations could have been religious and it could have been involved in guarding an ancient secret that, if revealed, would undermine the authority of the church."

Sources: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and http://www.probe.org/docs/davinci.html, http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/persecution/pch0058.html.
Note: the above is a summary statement of the claim in Dan Brown’s fictional work which had to be condensed in order to fit here, but the main argument above should for this exercise be treated as accurate. Dan Brown never claimed his work to be anything but fiction, although he did claim that all the descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in his novel are accurate. For the purpose of this exercise, evaluate the above argument based strictly on the passage only.

Evaluate the claims in the passage.
You should critically analyze and evaluate the argument in the passage, first making clear the structure of the argument (logic diagrams may be helpful), and then explaining the grounds on which you accept or reject the argument.

irene said...

i wrote an answer to that assignment. keeping in mind that i haven't written an essay for half a year...here goes:

In this passage, the author is trying to bring across his theory that the traditional notion of the Holy Grail as being a cup, is inaccurate. his theory claims that the grail is actually Mary Magdalene, the wife and carrier of the bloodline of Jesus Christ.

The author begins his argument by stating that it was against Jewish traditions of that time for a man to be unmarried. So Jesus, being a Jew, would have been expected to be married. And yet, Jesus is traditionally portrayed as being unmarried. This does not tally with the social conventions of that time. The author suggests that because the bible never put forward any mention of Jesus’ marital status, nor explained why he was seemingly against the social conventions, it may be assumed that Jesus was indeed married. This omission or lack of information gives the author a strong basis for his argument. However, opponents may say that this argument lies on the assumption that in the absence of information, anything could be assumed true. Opponents may counter argue that because of the lack of information, it could also be assumed that Jesus remained unmarried for reasons of his own. Perhaps the authors of the gospels found it unnecessary to mention that information, wanting to focus on Jesus’ ministry rather than his personal life.

Both these arguments have their strengths. However, it seems that the proponents of the bloodline theory have the upper hand. Keeping in mind the time period and the audience which the gospels were written, people of that time would assume Jesus, a Jew, was married. They would have no reason to believe otherwise. If Jesus had not been married, it would have been necessary to inform their audience. Offering no reason for Jesus’ apparent bachelorhood would put him and his teachings in a different light. Audiences would have called his character into question. Doing so was probably not the intention of the gospel authors. Hence, the assumption that Jesus could have been married.

The next argument the author presents is that the early Church deliberately tampered with the contents of the gospels. The editing, by order of the Emperor Constantine, was done to enhance Jesus’ status as god and to downplay his status as human. Mary Magdalene’s true role could possibly have been edited and reduced to the level of prostitute. This argument is plausible in some ways. Firstly, the gospels were written millennia ago. It is very likely that edits were done, perhaps not just by Emperor Constantine. These edits may have changed much of the original gospels. Secondly, Emperor Constantine wanted to focus on Jesus’ divinity rather than his humanity. Perhaps this was to convince converts to Christianity that their new religion is truly The One. He would thus have manipulated the contents of the gospels for this purpose. However, trying to prove Jesus’ divinity without a doubt seems to contradict the idea that Jesus, as the Christ, was both human and divine. There is a belief that Jesus’ humanity, life, suffering and death, is what bonds mankind to god. If Jesus was married, it would just have been part and parcel of his humanity.

In this case, while the author presents a plausible argument, it seems unlikely that Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ marriage has to be covered up. There are other occasions where Jesus’ humanity was portrayed in the gospels. These emotions indicated in those occasions, temptation, anger, sadness and fear, are just a small part of the myriad of human emotions Jesus could have experienced while on earth. Could he not have experienced love as well? If it is true, then why should there have been a need to hide it? Therefore, it creates doubt as to whether or not there were actually things that were hidden from the Church.

Finally, the author claims that Leonardo da Vinci knew the secret of the bloodline, through his connections with the Priory of Sion, and encoded it in his painting of “The Last Supper”. The absence of a material cup and the supposed presence of Mary Magdalene suggest that the Holy Grail is not what it seems. After all, the main issue in the Last Supper is traditionally the turning of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, much of the evidence presented in the passage is flimsy and circumstantial.

Firstly, the issue of the missing Cup. It is observed that cups are present at the table, though none are outstanding. This may be the case because it is not logical for only one cup to be shared between thirteen people during a full meal. The Cup is there. It is just not highlighted. A possible explanation for this is da Vinci’s unconventional depiction of this scene. Instead of the traditional Holy Grail focus, da Vinci focuses on the scene just after Jesus says that one of the disciples would be his betrayer. At this point, it is not possible to know da Vinci’s intentions in selecting this focus. However, it is unlikely that his intention was to pass on coded information about the Holy Grail.

Secondly, the supposed presence of Mary Magdalene in the painting. Whether or not the effeminate person seated next to Jesus is Mary Magdalene cannot be confirmed. To assume that the person is the apostle John, or Mary Magdalene, can be considered speculation. Even if it is assumed that the person is a woman, her identity is uncertain. She could have been Mary Magdalene, or she could have been Jesus’ mother. It would have been possible for both women to have been present at the meal. Next, it is a big leap to connect the female presence to the Holy Grail. Making that connection would necessarily mean that other assumptions have to be true. Unfortunately, the truth, or lack of, in these assumptions remain unproven. Given the uncertain identity of the person, and the impossibility of verification, it would be inaccurate to assume that da Vince meant for viewers to interpret his painting in this manner.

Thirdly, da Vinci’s membership in the Priory of Sion. Whether or not his membership may be considered as proof of his knowledge of the bloodline depends on the motives and aims of the Priory. The passage states that politics could have been the Priory’s main focus. At the same time, the author suggests that there are religious motives present. However, he does not present any evidence in support of his claim, nor does he give any logical theory that might allow the reader to make that allowance for the claim. The Priory and da Vinci’s knowledge of the bloodline does not mean that they would have wanted to pass on the secret. The secret of the bloodline is a secret that would undermine the church. It is not something that can be lightly divulged or treated. Because the Priory’s true motivations are unknown, this piece of evidence may not be entirely valid.

In conclusion, the arguments presented in this passage are largely unreliable. The arguments are based on the premise that Jesus was married and had a bloodline. The author, however, is unable to prove this basic premise. Because of this, his following arguments are shaky and will collapse if the basic premise is proven false. Furthermore, the author himself claims that his theories are fictional. As such, his arguments cannot be taken wholesale and treated as truths.

ChrisYeo said...
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ChrisYeo said...

A very good article on what we should know about the Da Vinci code by Opus Dei priest Fr José Lopez Carpio. From the webzine ThePrompt.

Only Fiction?
The Da Vinci Code or The Da Vinci Hoax? An Opus Dei priest says Catholics have to respond to Dan Brown’s novel even if it claims to be ‘only a story’.
by Fr José Lopez Carpio


PLUS!
A Quick Guide to The Da Vinci Code

Numquam Satis said...

Independant of all religious controversies, Da Vinci Code can hardly be qualified a "well-written" novel.

The portrait of Paris is ridiculous. One has to have some degree of ignorance of this city to be dupped. Dan Brown pretended to do researches on details, and he got even the basics wrong. Going to the wrong rail station to take the wrong train is just too hilarious....

Also the writing style is so poor! Brown can hardly develop a full-grown paragraph: short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters. I feel like watching an MTV, not a book.

Last but not least, the argument that Catholics should read it because others have read it does not convince reasonably. I am not supporting the priest who said that we should NOT read it. But by your logic, I can also argue that Catholics should watch pornography because many have seen it and have formed opinions about it. So to be a Catholic in touch with the world, we should see pornography in order to correct the misconceptions?

ChrisYeo said...

I think you are right. It's just that it is so much harder to form a proper opinion about the book without actually reading it. I suppose than that what people should do is read about the book (see my previous post) so that we can respond to others about it. My disagreement lies only with people who insist on putting on blinkers and pretending that the book doesn't exist.

eothen said...

Hi! Surfed by this site, recognised one of the contributors (hi Chris Y!), read some of the posts and thought, Aha! Some of the things we've talked about with D and J and sometimes G during those long lazy lunches in the colourful-pillared canteen.

anyways, here's an interesting (to me) article by lapsed Catholic Umberto Eco on why pple are so ready to believe stuff like the da vinci code.

http://www.arts.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml;jsessionid=WIFVKH3A4A0YHQFIQMFCFFWAVCBQYIV0?xml=/opinion/2005/11/27/do2701.xml&sSheet=/portal/2005/11/27/ixportal.html