By Idris Tawfiq**
May. 18, 2006
The new film of Dan Brown’s blockbuster The Da Vinci Code is being screened in cinemas for the first time this month. Directed by Ron Howard, the film stars Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, and Ian McKellen and, even before its release, had stirred up a storm of protest throughout the world. There are many who would ban the film entirely from cinema screens, including Vatican authorities in Rome and right-wing Christian groups in America, claiming it is offensive to the Christian faith and slanders the person of Jesus Christ. Others have threatened boycotts and legal action against the film’s distributors. All too recently, Muslims bore the brunt of a concerted campaign of slander against Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). As protests flare and the controversy heightens over the summer months, we need to step back and ask ourselves just what the fuss is all about. Ought we, too, as Muslims, to be similarly enraged by what many claim to be the defamation of Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him)?
I need to put my cards clearly on the table before continuing. Before embracing Islam, I was a Roman Catholic priest. I lived and studied in the Vatican and for many years as Head of Religious Education in different schools in the United Kingdom, I taught about the Roman Catholic faith. I need to say very clearly from the outset that I hold in reverence the many good Christian people who try to live out their faith as best they can, and I would never countenance anything that showed disrespect to their deeply held beliefs. My background, then, perhaps affords me some insights, which others might not have, into the history and the workings of the Church and to whether or not this film and book are the outrage that many proclaim them to be.
The Da Vinci Code’s central plot revolves around Robert Langdon, played by Hanks, who is a Professor of Symbology (religious symbolism) at Harvard University. He is called upon to investigate the murder of the Curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris, since the body of the murdered man is stretched out on the ground in exactly the same symbolic way as Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man and has a star-shaped symbol carved out in his flesh and a message written next to it in the murdered man’s own blood. From this startling beginning, author Dan Brown leads us on a trail of murder and intrigue in which we are asked to solve clues about an alleged plot by the Church to cover up a most extraordinary secret: that Jesus Christ was actually married to Mary Magdalene and had a child by her. Not only this, but their family ultimately became France’s Merovingian dynasty of kings and their descendants live on to this day. A secret society, known as the Priory of Sion, is said in the novel to have guarded this devastating secret since the time of the Crusades, when the Knights Templar discovered proof of it underneath the Temple in Jerusalem. The code, to which the title refers, if unraveled, would lead to the resting place of Mary Magdalene and to the documentary proof that she actually bore the bloodline of Christ.
Another interesting, though slightly complex, theme that runs through the novel is the idea of the sacred feminine. This does not mean that God is a woman, but, simply put, it suggests that the feminine has always been of equal importance to the masculine in the divine will and in the history of creation. In the novel’s world of a church governed by celibate men, this sort of talk comes unacceptably close to home and the plot suggests that the sacred feminine has been covered up and discredited by the church over the centuries.
That, then, is what The Da Vinci Code is about. I have spoken off the record about it recently to priests of both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican churches. Neither group found the book remotely offensive or irreverent to what they believed, and nor did I, since the ideas contained within it have been in the public domain for centuries. Conspiracy theories about a great cover-up have been largely discredited. Other recent books, such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln; and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, have covered similar ground, but have largely passed unnoticed and caused no uproar from church groups. Although Dan Brown claims at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents … and secret rituals in this novel are accurate,” the statement could easily be discredited. While many of the ideas do have their supporters, none of them can be proved as fact beyond reasonable doubt and others have been proved to be hoaxes. The substance of The Da Vinci Code, then, remains largely conjecture — exciting conjecture though it may be!
The fact remains, though, that The Da Vinci Code has sold more than 60 million copies and has been translated into 44 languages. Dan Brown has simply used the tools of thriller-genre writing to make the narrative come alive. As a serious, scholarly work, the book is a non-starter, but then it doesn’t really claim to be one. Tom Hanks himself told the Evening Standard that the film is loaded with “hooey” and “nonsense.” As a good read, however, it is a worthy holder of the top spot on best-seller lists and it is well worth getting hold of. I, for one, couldn’t put the book down and I would recommend it without hesitation to others who enjoy a good work of fiction. If you are interested in art, travel, architecture, and European and church history, and you enjoy detective thrillers or adventure stories, then this is the book for you. You might call it the thinking person’s mixture between James Bond and The Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was vilified in those Danish cartoons as a terrorist. It may be that the feigned indignation of many groups to The Da Vinci Code is a direct response to how Muslims reacted to the cartoon episode. While Muslims would never tolerate an attack on the religious beliefs of others, the most The Da Vinci Code says about Jesus (peace and blessings be upon him) is that he was a married man. It is hardly the same level of accusation. Given the chance to see the film or read the book, people of all religions or of none would see that it does not intend to offend anyone and that, as a work of pure fiction, no offense is actually given.
My privileged time in Rome was very fruitful and it has left me, among other things, with a knowledge and love of the great legacy of art that Christianity has bequeathed to the world. In the pages of The Da Vinci Code we walk through that legacy with awe and respect. Its author shows respect for goodness and for good people. While the Opus Dei members I knew in Rome and the United Kingdom bore no relation whatever to the group’s portrayal in the novel, there has always, nonetheless, been a suspicion of secrecy attached to their society, which has been difficult to shake off. While this is by no means the best book ever written, the author just uses stuff that has been around for a long time to write a novel that combines the genres of thriller, detective novel, and conspiracy theory. There are weaknesses in the plot and the storyline, but somehow it works. The Da Vinci Code is a really good read. If one is allowed the chance to see it, I daresay the film would be good entertainment, too.