Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The biggest cover-up of all time?

After seeing the film based on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and not having read the novel, I was somewhat prejudiced against his work as being just another kind of thriller, spruced up with a high-art context in which the action unfolds. Until I read his novel, Inferno, named after the first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, having received a copy from my son, who attended its launch in London. Because ecological philosophy is one of the fields in which I work, upon reading Brown’s Inferno – which deals with the virtually intractable problem of overpopulation in the world today – I realised that, although it is a fast-paced thriller, his research on the ecological effects of overpopulation (which features prominently in the book) is accurate. This prompted me to write a brief piece on it, and since then I have read his other novels too, including The Da Vinci Code – probably the most controversial among them. In fact, it is so explosive in its implications that more than half a dozen books have been written to refute its claims, not to mention the number of “guides” for reading it, for example Michael and Veronica Haag’s The Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code (Penguin, 2004).

To anyone reading the novel it should be obvious that, its thriller-status notwithstanding, it addresses, and questions, serious historical, theological and religious issues that go to the heart of Christianity itself, specifically the claim that Jesus Christ was the “Son” of God, and therefore divine, instead of having been mortal. That it is not the first time this has been questioned will be known to those people who have read books like The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (Baigent and Leigh, 1991) and especially Australian theologian Barbara Thiering’s Jesus the Man (1992), followed by Jesus of the Apocalypse, based on her reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls as confirming that Jesus was a human being, was married and had children.

Needless to say, Thiering’s work has received a very negative reception in the scholarly theological world, which should surprise no one; after all, Foucault has demonstrated incontrovertibly that a specific use of language, or what he termed “discourse”, with all of its conceptual underpinnings and implications for action, functions in an exclusivist manner, and that this operation is most rigorous in so-called “societies of discourse”. The conservative reaction to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code can be understood in the same way – it does not sit well with centuries of conservative Christian theology and religious practice, particularly its patriarchal, if not downright misogynistic bent.

So what does it claim, in-between all the riveting action? In Michael and Veronica Haag’s book (p. 16), they refer to an ABC television interview with Brown: “’This is a novel’, the interviewer said, but then he asked: ‘If you were writing it as a non-fiction book, how would it have been different?’ To which Dan Brown answered: ‘I don’t think it would have. I began the research for The Da Vinci Code as a sceptic. I entirely expected as I researched the book to disprove this theory [about Mary Magdalene being the wife of Jesus and the mother of his child]. And after numerous trips to Europe and about two years of research I really became a believer. I decided this theory makes more sense to me than what I learnt as a child.’”

It is not as simple (but explosive) as that, though. The question is why the church would have suppressed this information, if it was available to it in the early centuries after Jesus’ death – and Brown, as well as other sources of information, like the Nag Hammadi Gospels, which were hidden in a sealed jar, in a cave in Egypt during the 4th century CE (or AD), and only rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century, leave one in little doubt that it was indeed available. Leonardo Da Vinci certainly knew about it: in his famous painting, the Last Supper, Mary Magdalene, with long red hair, is shown sitting on Jesus’ right hand side.

This was the case at least before the Council of Nicaea, convened by converted Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in 325 CE, where the “official” (discursive) position of the “universal” church about the divinity of Christ was decided and formulated in the Nicene Creed (still the accepted creed of all Christian churches today). The Nag Hammadi Gospels, which were in circulation until around the meeting of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, include gospels by Philip, Thomas and Mary Magdalene herself, and – like the Dead Sea Scrolls – provide information about Jesus and Mary Magdalene being married, which obviously goes against the grain of orthodox church teachings across the spectrum of Christian churches.

Although the Haags, in their Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code, demonstrate that Dan Brown availed himself of poetic license in the novel regarding his interpretation of many of the relevant aspects of church history, at least this much seems convincing to me: from the time when the church was officially unified at Nicaea on the question of Jesus’ divinity, femininity as a principle of equal value to that of masculinity was censored in the church, with disastrous consequences for the standing of women in the Christian church generally, and particularly so in the Roman Catholic Church, where to this day they cannot be ordained as priests.

I also believe that Brown is right, that the church (or rather, ordinary people in the church) would have benefitted from retaining the equal value of the feminine principle in the church, even if it had happened at the cost of believing in the divinity of Jesus. But, as Foucault has shown, more than most thinkers, the exclusivist power of discourse is not to be underestimated, and historically it has been in the church’s interest to drum an ideological belief in the divinity of Jesus into people’s heads.

Why, you may ask. Simply because people are aware of their finitude and mortality, although (as Heidegger showed in Being and Time) they “run away” from this subliminal knowledge most of the time. To counteract this awareness of the fact that we all have to die, it is easy to fall for a belief in an afterlife, on condition of accepting church dogma about Jesus’ divinity and all the rest of it. (Fortunately, as a philosopher, who always has more questions than [dogmatic] answers, I don’t need the church.) Considering this it is easy to understand why Jesus’ humanity was written out of the church, and with it the role of Mary Magdalene. The plot of The Da Vinci Code is constructed around these issues, and it is, to say the least, immensely thought-provoking, apart from being what is usually described as “un-put-downable” because of its sustained “life-or-death” narrative – Dan Brown is a gripping story-teller. I won’t spoil it for prospective readers by revealing too much about its specifics.

Another book that deals with what Brown describes as the “sacred feminine” is Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet versus the Goddess (Penguin, 1998), which is one of the most persuasive books on the origin of patriarchy that I have ever read (see: Images, language, women and patriarchy). It is not a novel, but Shlain’s superb writing makes it read like one. In the book he uncovers the link between patriarchy and alphabet literacy, demonstrating that, wherever the alphabet (in various forms) appeared historically, patriarchy soon followed, if not misogyny. He uncovers in detail the unspeakable crimes of the church against women when thousands, if not millions, of women were burnt at the stake during the witch-hunts of (mainly) the 16th century. Like Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Shlain leaves one in no doubt that the loss of the “sacred feminine”, in religion as well as other areas of culture, has been to the detriment of humanity (and of nature, as ecofeminism shows), but concludes the book on an optimistic note about women’s liberation from these ancient shackles.

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