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May 12, 2006

Anyone for Opus Dei? What makes The Da Vinci Code such a bestseller? Myles Harris finds out

Posted by Myles Harris

Myles Harris decides to find out what makes The Da Vinci Code such a bestseller.

Fifty million people have bought Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Probably a further one hundred and fifty million have read it, and millions know the story even if they have not read the book. Its message, that the Catholic Church's teaching on the life of Christ is a hoax perpetrated by a sexist male clergy will be reinforced by a film which will soon play to packed houses worldwide.

The book tells how Christ was not celibate but married to Mary Magdalene. She had a little girl and fled to France with her after he was crucified. The little girl married into a royal family of ancient France connected with the Knights Templar. Finding mention of the Knights Templar brings to mind Umberto Eco's remark:

A lunatic is easily recognised… ..sooner or later he brings up the Knights Templar.
The story of The Da Vinci Code makes it possible that Christ's physical descendants are living today. The whole purpose of the Catholic clergy over the centuries has been to keep this quiet.

But the book has another surprise. The story begins as the pursuit of the Holy Grail in which the secret of Christ's descendants have been hidden by the Templars. But, we soon learn, the Grail is not a chalice but the sacred pudenda of the descendants of Mary Magdalene. (Dan Brown coyly calls these "The Sacred Feminine.") The villain of the piece through the centuries for not allowing this life enhancing truth to see the light of day has been the male priesthood of the Catholic Church.

Brown writes:

The power of the female and her ability to produce life was once very sacred, but it posed a threat to the predominantly male church.
In order to prevent this secret being revealed by a secret society called the Priory of Sion, several of its members, including the grandfather of the heroine, are murdered by assassins hired by a secret Catholic society called Opus Dei. (The Work of God)

If the message "Phallus bad – Pudenda good" is not clear, try this. In the book a taxi passes the Eiffel Tower. Pointing to the tower the taxi driver asks the hero:

"Did you mount her?"
The hero rolled his eyes:
"No I haven't climbed the tower."
The taxi driver replied:
"She is the symbol of France. I think she is perfect."
Then our hero nods absently. The text goes on:
Symbologists often remarked that France a country noted for its machismo, womanizing and diminutive insecure leaders like Napoleon and Pepin the Short, could not have chosen a more apt national emblem than a thousand foot phallus.
Does it matter that Dan Brown's novel is nonsense? After all the various Harry Potter books have far outsold it, but, apart from a few small boys, nobody believes that Hogwarts exists. But The Da Vinci Code is not a book like Harry Potter. It masquerades as a fictional but scholarly re-interpretation of the original gospel story: That Christ was Divine, lived a life of abstinence from sex and worldly temptations, and by rising from the dead showed that he was beyond the physical law. Not so, says Mr Brown. Christ was married and had a child.

There is another book on the same subject, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln which tries to support this thesis. This book is written as a non-fiction work but I found it equally tedious and its conclusions as far fetched as Brown's fiction. Baigent and Leigh recently fought and lost, to much legal feasting, an action against Brown's publishers Random House who they accused of pinching the idea for his book from theirs. The trial, with lawyers, vulture like, crowding in on the kill, is said to have earned m'learned friends over £1.3 million.

Brown's book also reinforces the message that although his book is a novel it is based on serious scholarship. It does so by confronting the reader with a short preface entitled "Fact". On it Mr Brown (or his publishers) explain that two of the main players in the novel, a European secret society called The Priory of Sion and an organisation called Opus Dei actually exist. Opus Dei is described as:

a deeply devout Catholic group that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brain-washing, coercion, and a practice known as corporal mortification. Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.
Are these accusations true? Up to a point, Lord Copper. The Priory of Sion did exist, it was founded in 1956; a medieval monastic order of a similar name, the Abbey of Sion, did exist. A central claim in The Da Vinci Code that Leonardo Da Vinci was head of the Priory of Sion is clearly nonsense.

Opus Dei, which promulgates Catholic doctrine, does exist but to describe its activities in the way portrayed in the book – for example that it uses hired assassins, (although it appears a rather an attractive organisation when you consider some of the characters involved in this sordid episode, where can I join?) - is as ludicrous as suggesting that the Boy Scouts are a branch of the SS. Opus Dei protested to Sony, the makers of the film, that they were being treated in a way that no similar ethnic or religious minority has been treated but received the corporate brush off.

Although I believe there is about as much historical evidence for the book's plot as there is for the existence of Hogwarts, such "facts" placed so conveniently at the front of the book help to persuade the reader that there is some truth in what he or she is reading. And it is a long read. By the time I had waded through its six hundred pages I was fighting to keep awake. I felt like a character in a fifties movie who has taken an overdose of sleeping pills and has to be walked around his room by his friends and given innumerable of cups of coffee.

My interest in this book is not religious but in the power of modern myth spreading. Why have millions of people read this book? I believe it is for three reasons. Firstly it is written like a TV screen play so people who watch four or five hours of TV a day will have no difficulty in following it. Secondly it offers the reader a series of clues so it is like doing a cross world puzzle. Thirdly the clues lead to the unmasking of a politically correct enemy – the Catholic Church. In the west it is ok to hate the Catholic Church, Nazis, white males, old people if they are ugly, drug companies and big business. (Politically correct societies have politically correct enemies.)

Lots of people hate the Catholic Church, especially in America, where it has been racked with scandals over paedophilia. In addition its use of unmarried priests, condemnation of homosexuality and stand on abortion and contraception set it squarely against the liberal zeitgeist. It stands for everything the modern world loathes. Never mind that paedophilia in the sixties was just as common in other churches, schools, youth organisations and social clubs, it is the unmarried clergy of the Catholic church that has attracted the attention of the modern world. If a priest does not marry he must be interested in little boys.

Moreover the divinity of Christ has always been an insult to liberals, that Christ was male equally upsetting and while the book does not specifically deny Christ's divinity, the idea he was driven by the same lusts that the rest of us poor mortals - only a couple of evolutionary steps away from the bonobo apes - are afflicted by, pleases rationalists. It makes the idea of Christ being the Son of God a joke. For how can a man be God if he takes his trousers down?

The Da Vinci Code has been described as "pernicious" by a famous authority on Leonardo, looks like a final kick in the head of the Catholic Church which in the west is rapidly disintegrating - not as fast as the Church of England maybe, but fast enough. Vocations have fallen by 50% and despite the showbiz techniques of the modern papacy, congregations are dwindling. The Catholic church, a badly wounded animal trying to take cover in the undergrowth of modern life, has been set upon by a beast which many organisations have been destroyed by, the astonishing power and speed of the global market. Other belief systems and polities beware.

Twenty years ago The Da Vinci Code might never have seen the light of day. Then even fictional books had to have some factual basis. You could not claim, even in a novel, that Hong Kong was ten kilometres from Paris. Brown's book is full of errors, but I particularly savour two, very small in their own way, but showing how careless Mr Brown is with his facts. Here is Mr Brown describing St James' Park, London, a city where I live:

Despite the morning fog, the park afforded splendid views of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
Since the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 there have been no fogs in London, and while you can just see Big Ben from one very awkward spot in the park, to see the Houses of Parliament you would need to be a giraffe with a two hundred and fifty foot neck.

It used to be said that you could not tell a book by its cover, but now it is only the cover that counts. It will be awhile before the church dies, it will lie panting in the bushes for a few years yet, but its lifeblood is, like all the other churches, slowly draining away. The Da Vinci Code and similar books will prove mortal wounds. None of their contents have to be true for, as with all things today, we only gauge an object by its marketability. If the public wants a particular product, then the market will satisfy it. Truth has no meaning. Who was it who said "What is the truth?" before they brought him a bowl of water to wash his hands? Mr Brown has had a very profitable wash.
© Myles Harris

Myles Harris is a doctor and a journalist living in London. He has worked in England, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Canada and Africa. He has written for The Spectator, Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Evening Standard and Daily Mail. He is the author of Breakfast in Hell (Simon & Schuster New York, Picador London), an account of his work as a doctor in a relief camp during the Ethiopian famine of 1984.

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It matters very much to me that Brown's novel is nonsense, but it matters more to me that the rest of world doesn't seem to care ... I can't say definitely that it is pure garbage because I would never waste my time or energy reading it .. I hope beyond all hope that movie just tanks horribly

Posted by: Keith Demko at May 12, 2006 10:43 PM

"It will be awhile before the church dies, it will lie panting in the bushes for a few years yet, but its lifeblood is, like all the other churches, slowly draining away."

Maybe in the West. But the West's lifeblood is draining away anyhow, and in the rest of the world the Catholic Church is going from strength to strength.

Posted by: j mc q at May 12, 2006 11:00 PM

The book is the most incredible excersise in cheap conspiraloonery, surely. If I were a catholic cleric I should ignore it- it was ignored for quite a while. When it comes to mass audience though, the cardinals respond.

Perhaps what's particularly irritating ( if we can be bothered!) about the whole shenanigan is that the catholic church does hold some superb inexplicables and historical treasures obviously worthy of research time.
Cheapskate responses to them such as Dan Brown's ultimately nullify their effect and bury them deeper in lost history.

Still, since when has a good investigator been put off by that.

Posted by: fjl at May 13, 2006 11:38 AM

"It will be awhile before the church dies... The Da Vinci Code and similar books will prove mortal wounds." This is a rare and marvellous case of piffle being written about other piffle. Some reviewers apparently have no compunctions about humiliating themselves.

Posted by: s masty at May 13, 2006 11:47 AM

What makes the book irresponsible is not so much that it contains a lot of fiction in historic settings, but that in describing, and lecturing about history about religion or art, Brown seems completely indifferent to the truth of what he is saying. Historic facts, mathematical truth, pseudo-philosophy and outright bunk all intermingle. I wouldn't call it lies or 'fiction', but his indifference to precision is quite literally, bullshit, following Harry Frankfurt's precise definiton.

What bothered me most were not so much the main plot line or its claims, but trivialities, like calling the Dead Sea Scrolls a gospel, or when entering the code at the bank, Sophie says "no, that was begging question, assuming the conclusion", (to take the code at face value, rather than rearrange it.)

Brown doesn't care about the meaning of the terms he uses! Begging the question means something quire precise when criticizing someone's argument or methodology, in say, philosophy. Taking something at face value is not what begging the question means, but then again, why would Brown care. This is bullshit, not lies, in practice. Television writing for people with short attention spans.

Posted by: Benjamin Bilski at May 13, 2006 04:06 PM

I like it that a commenter sees fit to dismiss centuries of catholic treasure collecting and secrecy as 'piffle'.
Has he ever been to Rome?
There isn't room for arrogance and limited effort in this line of research.

Posted by: fjl at May 14, 2006 11:31 AM

...I should add that there's no heavy criticism of commenters intended , it's just that one comes across arrogance in the research alot. On the one hand, there's alot of spin and 'conspiraloonery' about secret history associated to the churches; on the other hand, people arrogantly dismiss the research field as 'piffle', which is inappropriate.
The upshot is that there's still alot of interesting research to be done, which can't be a bad thing.

Posted by: fjl at May 14, 2006 11:55 AM

I thought that " a rare and marvellous case of piffle being written about other piffle" referred to the piffle of Myles Harris' review (a little harsh, I thought, aside from the wrong headed "the Church is just fading away anyhow" stuff) about the piffle of Dan Brown's approach, rather than the Church's collecting of artifacts et al.

Posted by: j mc q at May 14, 2006 12:27 PM

Yes, alright, but let's not miss an opportunity to sling both the conspiraloons and the dismissives in one shot, even if it hasn't absolutely presented itself.. ;-)

Posted by: fjl at May 14, 2006 01:13 PM

I am wondering about the “begging the question” bit in Benjamin Bilski’s comment. Doesn’t it actually mean something like “assuming the conclusion” as part of one’s argument? So it appears that Sophie (whoever she is) has the right definition, but is using the term in an inappropriate situation. She doesn’t appear to be adopting the modern usage which is something like “provoking the asking of a particular question”.

In terms of modern changes, what about “Devil’s Advocate” which has been turned round from its original Roman Catholic usage of someone trying to find fault in one who is being proposed for official sainthood into someone who tries to exonerate a known baddie.

But if Dr Bilski has slipped up a bit, maybe it’s because he is “Browned off” with the whole business. I wonder, could one make a saleable novel-film combination on the thesis that Elvis shot JFK, and that there has been a great conspiracy to cover it all up?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 14, 2006 02:34 PM

I'm not yet a Dr. professor Olley, but still working on my PhD dissertation. Begging the question is indeed the same, logically, as assuming your conclusion.

In the book, there is a sequence of numbers scribbled on the ground in a murder scene by a dying man. Later on, when the hero and the girl need to enter a bank account number, they are both inclined to enter the numbers in the sequence, they're first inclined to enter it in the sequence given. And then the girl yells, 'no that would be begging the question, assuming the conclusion' and she rearranges the sequence of numbers in linear progression, and enters that as the bank account number.

To my mind, taking something at face value is not the same as 'begging the question', which is often a logical or philosophic critique directed at the structure of an argument. None of that applied in the situation in the book, which simply revealed that Brown, as a writer, doesn't care about getting the meaning of words or expressions right.

Indifference to the truth of what you're saying, be it true or false, is what Harry Frankfurt defines as bullshit. I recommend that little booklet 'On Bullshit', that's sold for 6 pounds next to every cash register at every Waterstones.

And no, I couldn't write anything that could make that much money. I never criticised THAT particular skill!

Posted by: Benjamin Bilski at May 14, 2006 06:20 PM

To Benjamin Bilski, thanks for clearing that one up. Sophie’s ‘analysis’ – perhaps a hangover from a low grade GCSE in philosophy – was too far-fetched for me to see what was meant. But I’m not Professor, only Mr.  I’ve managed to survive in academia for decades without even a PhD, like some relic from a former age when the young people were fed up with the old folks telling them how much better fresh mammoth was than frozen.

Here’s a thought. What about a spoof cartoon – The Da Vinci Codswallop, maybe?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 15, 2006 08:27 PM

To flj and others: I meant (and wrote) that the author of the novel provided piffle, and that the reviewer who thought that such crappy novels would bring down the Catholic Church responded with piffle. Jesus wept. J McQ, many thanks!

I have not read the novel, since I have useful things to do in life, and anyway, after reading a one or two sentence synopsis, who has such time to waste on such obvious bilge?

Dr Olley is right, as ever, but I worry that the 'expose' on Elvis & JFK is only weeks from publication somewhere. Presumably Elvis was jealous that JFK had stolen the heart of Marilyn Monroe.

Posted by: s masty at May 16, 2006 02:38 PM

Not just JFK but also Bobby, who carried on an affair with her after the White House party that started with "Happy... Birthday... Mr.... Presi...dennnt...." which lasted until she was found overdosed on sleeping pills.

It's a great story for a conspiracy-cover-up-thriller.

Let's call it Da Bobby Marilyn JFK and Elvis Code.

Posted by: Benjamin Bilski at May 16, 2006 03:26 PM

Has anyone twigged to the rumour that Osama bin Laden is hiding out in Graceland? And why hasn't the Catholic Chuch commented on this? Are they part of the cover-up?

Posted by: s masty at May 16, 2006 09:12 PM


Am Anfang war das Wort.

Posted by: unionsbuerger at May 20, 2006 10:14 AM

If, as unionsbuerger suggests, God is German, then it was singularly ill-advised of the German theologians to offend Him with their Higher Criticism. But “vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord”, and He had a secret weapon in the form of Queen Victoria, who sent her favourite laryngologist to the Emperor Fredrick III who was suffering from the early stages of throat cancer. Sir Morell Mackenzie’s well-intentioned but misguided intervention most likely ensured the emperor’s early death – see this article. As a result, Germany fell into the clutches of Kaiser Bill, and the rest is history . . .

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 24, 2006 07:45 PM
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