Opinion writers know all about letters.
We know, for example, that most of the letters we receive from readers will be negative. You quickly learn not to take it personally, and recognize that the same burst of energy that inspires a column when you're annoyed courses through the reading public as well.
Paid pontificators also know that a fair share of correspondents will be...a little nuts. As a columnist for the Catholic press for 15 years, I've developed a fool-proof technique for gauging the sanity of my so-called fans: stickers.
They put them on the outside of the envelope: pro-life and Marian stickers mostly, and you can bet that the more there are, the higher the chance that the contents of the envelope will be three or more pages of hand-written, single-spaced, double-sided exhortations, usually ending with a prayer for my soul.
They are True Believers, and God bless them, but of late, I've come into regular contact with another, completely different, but no less intense brand of True Believer: the Codephiles. As in The Da Vinci Code.
OVER THE PAST FEW MONTHS, I've written a bit on Dan Brown's blockbuster that completely reconceptualizes the origins of Christianity in the context of a turgid not-very-suspenseful novel. I wrote a snide review of it back in June; a more detailed FAQ on the book's historical howlers this fall, both published in Our Sunday Visitor; and I ranted about it some on my own website.
And so, I get letters. They bear no stickers, because they come via e-mail, but they are indeed the equivalent of the single-spaced, double-sided prayer for my soul. To wit:
Secrets and lies will all come into the light one day. Which side will you be on? Your review of The Da Vinci Code tells me you are on the WRONG side. The Dark Side, as it may be called.
As a women, you should know better in your heart. It's clear someone has poisoned, and controlled your thoughts in this matter. Enough is enough, so think for yourself. OPEN your mind now, while you still can.
That a negative review of The Da Vinci Code can only be the fruit of a closed, fearful mind, is a constant them in these letters. One reader asked me "as an obviously duped Catholic (is there any other kind?)" if I accept nothing outside the dogmas of my own church and, oh, here, let's let him ramble for a bit:
The historical documents Brown references...are not fables. The death-toll is verifiable. The debate surrounding the edited contents and origin of the accepted Bible is centuries old. The Magdalene-connection has been well documented...As soon as all "followers" realize this, the world can again move forward. At least we'll see what lies before us with clarity, reality and inner strength, not through a veil of clouds fanned by zealots and charlatans... and editors.
Now, in case you're not following this, let me explain. The Da Vinci Code posits an entirely alternative history of the Christian faith: Christ not only chose Mary Magdalene as the first of the apostles, he married her, and sired a child before his crucifixion. Peter was jealous, and sought to elevate his own role by suppressing Mary's story and the true gospel, which was focused on retrieving and celebrating the "Sacred Feminine."
I know, I know. It's all a mish-mash of some hoary esoteric hypothesizing, the kind found in the best-seller Holy Blood, Holy Grail, as well as some of the more recent ideologically-driven theories about Gnostic writings from the first four centuries of Christianity.
SO YOU CAN SEE where these correspondents are coming from: the Truth is out there, and it can't possibly be in orthodox Christianity. The odd assumption behind many of these letters is that pious Christians are working out of blind, unthinking faith -- that we've not worked through our own doubts, that we don't take history seriously, and that we're not really interested in truth.
This is, I think, more than just the result of a couple of centuries of Enlightenment-inspired religion bashing. The picture of the Christian indifferent to history who simply accepts received wisdom is also the fruit of the American believer's general disinterest in history. We often don't appeal to the truth of the kernel of our faith that took place in time and space -- the life, death, and resurrection of Christ -- when we present ourselves to the world, because talking about things like personal inner peace is so much more, well, peaceful.
Also, churches have done a disservice by avoiding discussions about the complexities of their history. The Da Vinci Code plays on the human aspect of Christian origins: the determination of the canon of Scripture, the doctrinal decisions of church councils -- and shoves it all into a political paradigm.
Oh, the book fairly screams, you thought the Bible was given to you from On High? Well it wasn't -- human beings rejected and accepted books. How can that not be politics as usual?
Of course, this is not news. Catholic theology embraces this interaction of human and divine and deals with it. Although in recent decades, the points are rarely made from pulpits or in schools because, well, we'd all rather talk about being our best selves and finding financial peace.
Which then leaves a big fat opening for breathless theorizing. The history is there, it makes sense, and the orthodox Christian account is actually reasonable. But few in churches talk about it, so hardly anyone knows, and more people than I can say report to me of life-long Catholics waving The Da Vinci Code in their faces and asking, "Did you know?!"
More people than I can count write letters like this to me:
What you may not have realized is that Dan Brown's book has made people who were turned off by Christianity and Catholicism see Jesus in a new light -- not as the Son of God, but as someone real and worthy of being followed. Maybe, as I hope, he did marry and have children...Would Jesus care if a book was wrong about the details of his life as long as it got his message across, especially to people who formerly blinded themselves to his message because religion tries to tie all of its rules and ideas to it?
And this one, which I award the prize for Absolutely Most Frightening Letter of 2003:
I recently read your review of The Da Vinci Code and I am writing to inform you that I wholeheartedly disagree with your views. Mr. Brown has done a tremendous amount of research into the earliest history of the Christian church, most of which is easily accessible and is considered fact, by both Christians and non-Christians alike. I am a middle school teacher at a Catholic school, teaching the Old Testament to children between 11 and 12 years of age.
The Way, the Truth, the Life, whatever.
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