Why Does America LoveThe Da Vinci Code?

Mr. Rees is Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo. He is the author of Managing the Mills: Labor Policy in the American Steel Industry During the Nonunion Era (University Press of America, 2004) and co-editor of the Voice of the People: Primary Sources on the History of American Labor, Industrial Relations and Working-Class Culture (Harlan Davidson, 2004).

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"[D]on't read and don't buy The Da Vinci Code," pleaded Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a close advisor to the late Pope John Paul II, in a Vatican Radio broadcast last month. If you are not one of the estimated 20 million people who have read author Dan Brown’s thriller about murder, art and the true nature of Jesus Christ, this appeal might have seen strange to you. After all, it’s only a novel, right?

Yet, according to the Cardinal, the Brown’s book "falsifies the figure of Christ and the events central to the Christian experience, namely the passion of Christ, his death and Resurrection." While I am in no position to judge the accuracy of the scholarship which Brown relied on when constructing this work, I do think the Cardinal has a point, as he asserted to an Italian newspaper, in that, "There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true."

I believe that the notion that the book somehow speaks to a long-suppressed “truth,” is at the root of The Da Vinci Code’s status as a cultural touchstone. Although they have sold as many or more books than Brown, nobody gets this worked up over Stephen King or Danielle Steele. The book seems to have generated as many responses, both favorable and unfavorable, as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense did upon its release in 1776.

Before going any further, I think it’s important to mention that I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code a lot. Sure the prose was a little purple in places, but I found it to be an interesting and engaging read. I have plans to go back and read Brown’s first book featuring the same hero, Harvard Professor Robert Langdon, and I can’t wait to see Tom Hanks play the Langdon role in the upcoming Da Vinci Code movie.

Yet there is something about the way Brown wants readers to judge his book that disturbs me. Immediately following the title page is a page labeled “FACT,” which describes aspects of the book which Brown claims are factually accurate. On his personal web site, Brown explains the relationship between fact and fiction in the book more fully:

The Da Vinci Code is a novel and therefore a work of fiction. While the book's characters and their actions are obviously not real, the artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals depicted in this novel all exist. . . . These real elements are interpreted and debated by fictional characters. While it is my belief that some of the theories discussed by these characters may have merit, each individual reader must explore these characters' viewpoints and come to his or her own interpretations. [emphasis added]

In other words, Brown is advocating a particular interpretation of history through the medium of a fictional narrative. He goes on to encourage a dialogue about aspects of early Christian history, yet undoubtedly most readers will only learn about this history by reading Brown’s book.

Interestingly enough, Brown is not the only bestselling author who has recently taken up the defense of a controversial position in fictional form. Michael Crichton has been pumping out bestsellers for years, many of which have bibliographies at the back for those who want to pursue further reading about the settings and subjects of his stories. In his new book, State of Fear, Crichton goes one step further and challenges the theory of global warming. "I'm saying that environmental organizations are fomenting false fears in order to promote agendas and raise money," he told ABC News

Alarmed by the potential that readers might take Crichton’s work of fiction as truth, the National Resources Defense Council has put out a fact sheet in response entitled “They Don’t Call It Science Fiction for Nothing:”

State of Fear , the new offering from novelist and master of disaster Michael Crichton, is more silly than scary. What is scary is when some media and policymakers take a work of science fiction and confuse it with science. That’s what’s happening with State of Fear, in which Crichton builds a fantasy world where global warming is not a real threat, but global warming scientists are.

At the end of the day, both these works should serve as reminders that the act of research does not necessarily lead to conclusions that should be taken on faith.

But do these books offer any lessons for historians? Brown seems to be channeling postmodernist thought when he has one of his characters declare, “By its very nature, history is always a one-sided account.” Indeed, what Brown does in his novel is no different in some ways from what historians do all the time. Historians all possess biases that inevitably get expressed in their work whether through advocacy or in an unconscious manner. These biases determine key components of any scholarship such as the subjects historians choose to research and how they structure their texts. Brown has simply expressed his chosen theory of early Christian history in a more compelling form than most historians could ever hope to emulate.

However, at the same time, there are crucial differences between fiction and academic history. Historians are under a professional obligation to present the information they gather in the most accurate form possible. If historians find compelling evidence that their biases are incorrect, they need to change their depictions to fit the evidence rather than just ignore what they find to be inconvenient.

Usually, a professional historian’s work has to go through peer review before it can be published. Historians are also under a professional obligation to document their evidence through the use of complete footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography so that other interested parties can examine how they drew their conclusions. And if anyone chooses to contradict their scholarship, they are under an obligation to defend their positions so that others can benefit from the ensuing academic dialogue. This may not generate an ultimate truth, but it is a system that should lead readers to respect the profession’s collective judgment more than that of a lone novelist.

The recent New York Times obituary of Saul Bellow contains a quote from the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist that suggests limits which writers such as Brown and Crichton ought to respect, “I cannot exceed what I see. I am bound, in other words, as the historian is bound by the period he writes about, by the situation I live in.” Luckily, even if these authors believe that they are somehow privy to a truth that others have not seen, their readers can always opt to treat their books simply as enjoyable works of fiction.

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More Comments:

Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/25/2006

Dear Arnold,

I've been gone on business but, please see Disinfo.com for the series "The Historical Jesus.

Jesus was Jewish. Lived in a time when life expectancy reached 30 to 40 years. Jesus very likely was 'married off' at 13. Jesus, basically disappears from biblical record between the ages of 12 to 30 although, the Gnostic Gospels report on Him during this period. Time enough to raise a family. At 30 He begins His ministry. At 33 He is put to death and raised. Mary Magdalene is with Him throughout this entire passion.

Brown's book is pure fiction. Jesus and the times He lived in are fact.

Arnold Shcherban - 4/28/2005

"There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true."

Many people already believe the fables preached by a religion, so what's the difference?

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