davinci and mclaren and the church

(pardon me if this sounds too much like a paper--i just finished writing a 50 pager) Poaching back from Andy's poach. I think all the comments are insightful and thought provoking. You (plural) seem to be pointing to an important underlying framework for McLaren's article. There are two things going on here: (1) a conversation about a popular book, regarding why it's popular; (2) a criticism of the Church. As C.S. Lewis used to say, get nervous when you start criticizing the Church as a whole. It's much more important than we know. First of all, it's just plain false to say (as McLaren hints and others have said outright) that the popularity of Da Vinci Code (DVC) illustrates the ambivalence people in this country have toward religion. This country is by far both the most religious, in some bland sense, and the most churched. I've been to cities in Europe where there are no churches within a reasonable distance of the city center. I've been to neighborhoods where old beautiful cathedrals are boarded up or, like in Newcastle, England, made into nightclubs, for crying out loud. So if there's one thing that we're not afraid of in this country--a country afraid of many things--its religion. The popularity of Da Vinci Code must come from something else. Second, I'm not sure how to think about Christianity--about following Jesus--without thinking in terms of particular institutions. It's the case that we talk about following Jesus independently of Christianity (just me and my Bible), but what we really mean when we talk this way is that we're not committed to any particular labeled group of people. We feel that we are free to pick and choose between being Baptist, Presbyterian or non-denominational megachurch. Or, best of all, "Emergent." But this ability to choose doesn't mean that we're free from constraints. We still "convert" from varieties of Christianity that are seen as substantially socially different from one another--from Lutheran to Catholic or Episcopal to Eastern Orthodox, for instance. Some historians talk about the Protestant reformation as a switch from a "body of believers" to a "body of beliefs". But I don't think this can be entirely true. Our beliefs are formed by our bodies--our own and the bodies of others. We think and act a lot like the people who we're around. We oppose ourselves in word, thought, and deed to those that think or act or look substantially differently than ourselves. And then we go further--judging these thoughts and actions by a moral code, labeling them right and wrong. Or structuring the whole system of right and wrong so they look just like our beliefs and thoughts and actions--those of our communities, I mean. I think what Zena and others are trying to get at, however, is a mere Christianity that we can all consent to. And it is this mere Christianity (being like Jesus or whatever) that we should demonstrate to others. I largely agree with these thoughts, as long as we're talking about relationships in the Christian Church. We should be focusing on our agreements rather than on our differences. But when we're talking about the face we should to show to those outside of any Christian community, I'm not sure that there is a set of doctrinal "basics" that we should lay out before them. (Of course, this is not what Z was saying--but I do think it is part of the conversation surrounding the Emergent Church: just get to the basics.) If being a Christian was essentially about having a right set of beliefs--which is how it was explicitly taught to me and how the majority of evangelicalism talks about Christianity--then we should be worried about having exactly the right model and method of evangelism. It's not just about beliefs, however. It's about communities. Communities and who controls them. McLaren gets it right when he says that what non-Christians (and many Christians) find repugnant about organized Christianity is the clearly unethical or even immoral practices that are part of the community of believers--sexual abuses of priests, cheating televangelists, authoritarian pastors. But I don't think that's primarily what makes Da Vinci Code so popular. DVC tells us a plausible half-truth. It is at least half-true that there are aspects of the lives of Jesus, the Apostles, and the other members of the early church that the later Church has traditionally kept out of the public eye. These things are "exposed" from time to time--witness the hubbub over the Dead Sea Scrolls, the "falsifications" of the Turin Shroud, the "James, brother of Jesus" Ossuary, etc., or even the "scandals" in the late Middle Ages when pieces of the True Cross or body parts of saints were found not to be legitimate. The reason these things are so appealing to those inside and outside of the Church is because they cut at the notion of authority that has been attributed to the community of believers from the very beginning. They (i.e., the ideas attacking the authenticity of the Church) implicitly set up the importance of the individual--the reader of Da Vinci Code, for instance--as an authority unto themselves. "Everyone their own Pope," was the battlecry of the Reformation popularizers (though not the reformers themselves). And this is the legacy of evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, and every offshoot of Christianity that isn't either Catholicism or Orthodoxy. As I heard someone on NPR say when reviewing Brown's book, "The only socially acceptable form of prejudice today is Catholic-bashing." So McLaren has it half-right. The Da Vinci Code makes us feel better about not being subject to the authority of the Church--a church that we have all kinds of reasons to mistrust, certainly, because it is made up of corrupt people and has exercised its influence on behalf of all kinds of terrible atrocities. But it makes us feel better by tearing down the authority of the Body of Christ and elevating (implicitly) the Church of Self. What does this mean for the Church? I think it means that we need to be aware of the consumerism that's part of Protestantism and the Emerging church movement, for instance. In as much as we can select the portions of our faith practices that we enjoy/find powerful and collect them together under one roof, we need to be aware that this is part of that individualistic/consumeristic streak of our times rather than a throwback to the "true original Church". It is choosing a community of people who think substantially the same way as ourselves about these beliefs. It's choosing to take certain parts of Christianity that we like and marginalizing the rest. In saying this, I don't mean to imply that we should all become Catholic or Orthodox or Reformed or something like that. Nor do I mean that if we only had more authoritarian churches that we'd be better off. I just think that we should suspect the entire concept that it's ideas that we're primarily responsible for believing. Christianity is a commitment to a community as well as a God who is being worshipped by that community. What books like DVC are playing into is our deep-seated dislike of really being responsible to a community, complete with authority structure. We like to choose who we want to be around every day of the week. We liked to be liked, to be chosen by others. DVC shows us that, when it comes down to it, the Church isn't the final arbiter. We are, in this life, and--if Brown is right and Jesus was just like any other guy--perhaps in the next. We're willing to take our Jesus faith as far as the marketplace and Sunday morning. Can we make it further with this? Beyond a set of beliefs to a set of practices and a community of believers?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


i like this discussion thread and hope that people openly discuss the questions you raise.

for me, dan brown and opie want to portray the community of believers over history as people who naievely believed a hoax. i dont think they would have gone as far to open the moive on June 6th 2006. (6-6-06 would have been too much fun for numerologists.)

all joking aside, dvc presents people an excellent opportunity to discuss history as well as faith. by asking questions about whether brown and howard could possibly be thoughful historians regarding a world faith should be a priority. does anyone know if brown and howard are presenting this as a work of literary fiction, or trying to uncover historical roots? i think this is relevent in the way one would approach a critique of this work.

a friend at work told me that it should be treated as a movie meant to entertain, not be considered as a literal statement.

as far as your question goes, i think that ones character witness gets compromised when we make our faith limited to sundays and the market. i dont know how one would practice "santification" outside of the community so that we could look and be more Christ-like. that rings too much of christianese, but i dont know of anyway to say it.


5/12/2006 10:12 AM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

I want to come back to Erik's many excellent points and questions, but I have some thoughts on Matt's question on wheher we should view DVC as "a movie that provides entertainment, and should not be taken too literally" (I'm paraphrasing, but I think that's the gist).

I think the faithful do, too. But there is a large group of people who fit neither within the "faithful" category nor within the "those who seek to reinterpret or ridicule Christianity" category. And those are the people I worry about with "The DaVinci Code."

I have little concern that Christians will suffer serious damage to their faith through the book or movie. But there are many unchurched people in this country. Europe has an even higher percentage of such people. For many of these folks, "Christianity" means televangelists, and some mysterious guy in Rome called the Pope, and "A Charlie Brown Christmas." There are several unchurched members in my extended family, and they've read "The DaVinci Code," and they reacted as I feared they might. They viewed it as the stunning revelations of a courageous journalist exposing the insidious cover-up that the Catholic Church has been trying to hide for millenia. They have no particular ax to grind against Christianity. The Christians they know -- my family, and other members of our extended family -- are held in high esteem. But they are almost blank slates when it comes to the faith. And they simply took "The DaVinci Code" at face value.

And for that reason, I have concerns about the cultural imapct of DVC. Yes, this is nothing new, and yes, we seem to go through these cycles every few years or so. The difference is that "The DaVinci Code" will reach a far broader audience than The Jesus Seminar or The Gospel of Judas. And that has some major implications for the overall cultural impact of the book/movie, and how we should respond as Christians.

5/12/2006 11:51 AM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

Sorry, that second paragraph was left over from a previous response on another forum to this topic. This is what happens when you cut and paste on blogs. :-)

By the way, the Word Verication for this comment is cmpfcky. The mind goes in interesting directions.

5/12/2006 11:57 AM  
Blogger Scott Sloan said...

Here is a quote from what you just wrote about:
"What does this mean for the Church? I think it means that we need to be aware of the consumerism that's part of Protestantism and the Emerging church movement, for instance."

Tom P. who is now a missionary to Kazikstan confronted me 13 years ago about not commiting to a certain church family or body, but picking and choosing the best from many bodies kind of like a Christian Smorgasbord. Many of us do look at our faith in the eyes of consumerism which is all about the self, than God.

Some of my co-workers are reading the DaVinci Code right now. I am going to give to them some of my early church history books to bring clarity to answer some of the questions they may have that Dan Brown has raised through the DaVinci Code

5/13/2006 7:32 AM  
Blogger e said...

more good comments.

I agree with Matt and Scott that the movie presents a good opportunity to talk about faith with people. But it's even a better opportunity to talk about community in the form of the Church.

My guess is that people are more or less comfortable talking about personal beliefs, much less comfortable talking about being committed to a group of people. Like Scott pointed out--this is walking against the whole notion of smorgasbord. I don't think we like that. We like choice rather than committment.

For that reason, I agree with Andy that DVC represents a more significant challenge than the Jesus Seminar. It not only makes Jesus look very human--itself not a very bad thing...just a terrible misunderstanding--it makes the Church look evil.

I don't know what "grieving the Holy Spirit" means, but portraying the Church as the evil opposite of gospel-bearer seems like it might bother God.

Of course over its long history, Christians have done their best to make the Church look stupid. I guess this is just a little more ridiculous outside-in attempt at doing that.

5/13/2006 4:17 PM  
Blogger Annie said...

I have read the Da Vinci Code, Holy Blood, Holy Grail and other books - fiction and non-fiction about this subject, and I am still wondering why all the uproar?

Whether Jesus was married, or not, does not affect his divinity. As a good Jewish boy - I would be surprised if he was not married. In fact, one account that I researched stated that the wedding at Cana was his wedding - which is why his mother would come to him when the wine ran out.

The big issue is the Catholic Church's cover up. Please note that I did not say the Christian church.

The Christian Church, by definition, are those who believe in God's plan of salvation through his son, Jesus and his teachings.

The Catholic Church - although there are Christians in the Catholic Church - is a world wide group of ornate buildings managed and directed by an elite hierarchy, and financed by assuming adherents.

The pope is not the head of the Christian church - Jesus is the head. Priests and bishops are not intermidiaries between God and man - Jesus is the intermidiary. Martial sex is not forbidden to the holy by God; only by the Catholic church.

And the biggest lie - you do not receive forgiveness by penance - you received forgiveness by repentance.

I am angry that Christians are lumped together with Catholicism - they are not always the same thing.

5/18/2006 10:09 AM  

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