SAN DIEGO — By any objective measure, The Da Vinci Code is a beach read for conspiracy theorists. But because Dan Brown claims that all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in his novel are accurate, many readers greet even the book’s dubious historical assertions with less skepticism than they otherwise might (as was demonstrated in this space March 11). What people forget is how narrow and clever Brown’s defense actually is: one can describe a painting accurately without knowing the first thing about how to interpret it.
The pass given to The Da Vinci Code by people grateful for its entertainment is problematic because Dan Brown’s interpretation of history beats Christianity into a pudding of pagan and feminine wonderfulness sprinkled with the moral teachings of a charismatic Jewish prophet. Scholars in Brown’s novel believe that things went pear-shaped in the year 325, when the emperor Constantine allegedly appropriated the legacy of Jesus for his own cynical purposes.
The Da Vinci Code blames Constantine for promoting the divinity of Jesus as a means of consolidating his own power, and claims that Constantine’s meddling — ratified by a “close” vote at the Council of Nicaea — distorted the New Testament, subverted the influence of Mary Magdalen, and wrote a blank check that Christianity’s more patriarchal factions still use to justify their alleged fear of the “sacred feminine.”
With a thesis like that down range, it’s no wonder that taking shots at The Da Vinci Code has become a cottage industry among Christian writers. If Brown’s revisionist reading of history were true, it would be even more astounding than the way that Jacques Cousteau went from being a legend in spear fishing to being an environmental activist. But almost everything Brown writes is bunk. Enter Amy Welborn, author of De-Coding Da Vinci, who fillets Brown’s novel with the enthusiasm of a sushi chef on her first day of work at a waterfront restaurant.
As a former high school teacher and a lay Catholic theologian with several books to her credit, Welborn is admirably suited for the task she undertakes, which is to make epistemology accessible to the general public by exposing the termite-ridden foundations of Dan Brown’s unwitting Gnosticism. Keenly aware of the critics who say, “relax, it’s only a novel,” Welborn explains that culture matters, and that “in The Da Vinci Code, imaginative detail and false historical assertions are presented as facts and the fruit of serious historical research, which they simply are not.” Every chapter in De-Coding Da Vinci ends with suggestions for further reading and lists of questions for review and discussion.
Some of the evidence that Welborn marshals in defense of truth will be familiar to informed Christians. She reviews texts that show how belief in the full humanity and divinity of Jesus predates the Council of Nicaea, notes that what Brown calls a “close vote” in that assembly was actually 300 to 2, and quotes experts who prove that characters in The Da Vinci Code are as ignorant of Jewish history as they are of Christian history and art history.
TWO THINGS SEPARATE Welborn’s book and its publisher, Indiana-based Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., from other general interest titles now taking issue with Brown’s bestseller. First, Welborn leaves more comprehensive refutation of Dan Brown to books like Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, Breaking The Da Vinci Code, and The Da Vinci Hoax. She prefers to concentrate on the big picture, which is that Dan Brown ignores primary (first-century) sources like the New Testament to quote exclusively from discredited third and nineteenth-century sources.
Second, Welborn has comic timing. In volleyball terms, she is a master of the bump-set-spike formula, where the bump is a scrupulously accurate summary of some outlandish claim made in the novel, the set is a hard look at the implications of that claim, and the spike is just what it sounds like.
The chapter in her book debunking what the novel’s characters say about the influence of mystery religions on early Christianity shows her form to good effect. In the bump, Welborn suggests, “You might have heard this one before: Christianity’s motif of a dying-and-rising god, a water initiation and sacred meal, were by no means unique. You’ll find similar beliefs and practices all around the Mediterranean during this period.”
This is followed by the set: “We can safely conclude, then, that Christians simply copied their resurrected Son of God, baptism, and Eucharist from what was in the air, to remake what was originally nothing more than a philosophical system into an exciting, attractive, new religion.”
From there, the spike (“That would get you thrown to the lions”) is effortless. Welborn then reviews the problems with “mystery religion remix” scenario, reminding her readers of the big fact that Brown’s condescending scholar characters miss, to wit: “There is no evidence to suggest, as Brown does, a direct adaptation of the fundamentals of Christian thought and practice from pagan mystery religions. The roots of Christianity are in Judaism.”
While you probably already know that, it’s good to have it reinforced by a writer who understands that freedom is a means to truth, not an end in itself. Even people who haven’t already read the novel that it trounces would profit from reading De-Coding Da Vinci. In a perfect world, Welborn would have written a bigger book, but this slim volume from a winsome polemicist who points unmistakably back to the Gospel is still worth your time.