JUST A FEW SHORT YEARS AGO, SNOWBOUND AIRPORTS FORCED MY WIFE ROMKJE TO TRAVEL BACK TO HOLLAND BY CAR WITH A COUPLE WHO HAD A STRANGE TALE TO TELL. They were totally convinced that somehow Jesus and Mary Magdelene had had a child who had grown up in France and from whom Europe’s royalty had descended.
At the time we thought this was one of the wackiest tales we had ever heard! Yet today that tale has become a fully-fledged best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, a worldwide phenomenon with global sales of over 16 million, and translated into two dozen languages. Filming of the book begins this summer in the Louvre in Paris, starring Tom Hanks. A sequel novel, The Solomon Key, will also be released in the summer. This wacky tale will be around for the forseeable future, it seems.
This is not just a fad to be ignored. Many Christians readers find themselves confronted with questions they have never asked or answered before. Author Dan Brown builds his novel around the central premise that ‘almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false’. Christianity – meaning the Roman Catholic Church – has been developed on a conspiracy to suppress the truth about Jesus and Mary Magdelene, truth that would destroy the power and prestige of the church. Constantine, at the Council of Nicaea, was the big culprit who imputed divinity to Jesus. No one before that time believed that Jesus was anything more than human, so the book implies. Secret documents retrieved by the Templars from beneath Solomon’s Temple during the Crusaders’ occupation of Jerusalem, now reputedly hidden somewhere in England, are the target of the quest for the Holy Grail. If – or when – revealed, they would shock the world with irrefutable evidence of the false foundations of the Christian faith.
Brown’s highly implausible yet gripping narrative weaves a clever tapestry from multiple strands of non-biblical spiritualism, including secret societies, sex rituals, free masonry, kabbalah, the sacred feminine, eastern monism and gnosticism.
A whole industry has grown up around this phenomenon, with countless websites, books and articles analysing fact and fiction in Brown’s book, detailing upset responses from the Vatican, and even offering touristic guides to Paris, London and Scotland for fans who want to follow in the footsteps of Robert Langdon and Sophie Nevue, the book’s main characters. Central to much discussion is the claim that Leonardo da Vinci coded messages into his paintings, including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Along with Sir Isaac Newton, Da Vinci, it is stated as fact, was grand master of a secret society called the Priory of Sion, which guarded this secret truth about Jesus and Mary. While they probably did belong to secret societies, others claim it is highly unlikely this particular society was involved. Numerous other ‘facts’ are strongly disputed by these books and articles. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Actually, there is much truth woven into the fabrications of The Da Vinci Code, and very little is new. Brown puts several real titles on the library bookshelf of a chateau outside of Paris where some of the action takes place: The Templar Revelation – secret guardians of the true identity of Christ; The Goddess in the Gospels – reclaiming the sacred feminine; and Holy Blood, Holy Grail; each expounding the theory that Mary Magdelene was the mother of the royal bloodline of Jesus. I read somewhere that the author of the last title was trying to sue Brown for stealing his plot.
But the truth is not in that theory. It lies in Carl Jung’s much-cited observation that Europe is like a Christian cathedral built on pagan foundations. As the book’s heroes enter cathedrals and ancient churches in both Paris and London, various narrators accurately explain the links with Europe’s pagan past, overlaid by centuries of Christendom. Secret societies, intrigue and power struggles involving the Vatican and church leadership in general, and fascination with codes and mystical symbols are a very real part of Europe’s spiritual history.
I found myself identifying strongly with the lead characters when they were discovering the hidden layers of meaning behind the symbols and architecture of church buildings. I recalled my own experience of being led around the cathedral in Budapest by a woman who called herself a ‘pagan, Jungian, feminist, archetypal psychotherapist’, and who explained the pagan fertility symbols embedded in the architecture and decorations to me. She was also a proponent of the sacred feminine and the ‘goddess within’.
THE GNOSTIC REVIVAL
A key to understanding what this book is about is found on the acknowledgements page: in Brown’s reference to the Gnostic Society Library. For the theory about Jesus and Mary Magdelene is built on passages from the Coptic Gnostic ‘gospels’, including the Gospel of Mary (Magdelene), the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Philip. These last two were only discovered sixty years ago in Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt. The Gospel of Philip is quoted in the book depicting Jesus as often kissing Mary on the mouth, provoking resentment among the other disciples. I never learnt that at Sunday School.
The Da Vinci Code, with its emphasis on secret codes, hidden messages and esoteric wisdom, unpacks a gnostic message. Gnosticism taught that the key to salvation was not faith or works but the acquisition of secret knowledge, gnosis. Although the early church fathers identify Simon the magician (see Acts 8) as the first Gnostic, gnosticism did not fully bloom until the second century. Nevertheless the ideas that later became known as gnosticism were prevalent enough in John’s day to cause him to warn against them in both his gospel and his letters.
The Bible affirms that we can now know God truly, if not fully; and that what may be known about God is plain for all (Romans 1:19). While we recognise that the creation is fallen due to mankind’s rebellion, God’s goodness can still be seen in his ‘Book of Works’ (Psalm 19:1-6). The mystery of Jesus has now been revealed. God wants all men everywhere to share in this revealed mystery. We are to make him known, not keep our secrets to an enlightened elite. Followers of Jesus are to walk in the light, be transparent and to be humble servants.
Gnosticism is basically salvation by enlightenment, the mastery of hidden knowledge. While Gnosticism embraces a kaleidoscope of ideas, it basically accepts a dualism in which material creation is viewed as evil. Sparks of divinity are present in a select few, who are given secret knowledge, gnosis, in order to attain their next level of divinity. By spiritual evolution, the elite are enabled to transcend time and the physical, and to rise above the crowd of ordinary mortals. True divinity is inaccessible and unknowable in our present limited state. The creator God of the Old Testament, the God of history, is rejected – along with conventional morality, which belongs to the lower order of things.
Gnosticism has re-emerged in various forms throughout history, including Mormonism with its spirit guides and secret revelations. Secret societies like the Priory of Sion and the Free Masons are all based on hidden knowledge and the advancement through stages of enlightenment to elite status. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst quoted above, has popularised many gnostic ideas such as the mankind’s native divinity, and the gnostic sense of God as the inner, directing presence. Jung believed that the West was destined to reject the outmoded spirituality of the Judaic-Christian tradition, and the destructive tendencies of monotheism, in favour of an eastern inspired religious synthesis. He believed the West was on the threshold of a new spiritual epoch.
James Herrick, in The Making of the New Spirituality (IVP, 2003), sees a natural union between gnostic thinking and science fiction, especially space stories. L
. Ron Hubbard’s science fict
ion books led to the development of Scientology, a worldwide religion with strong gnostic elements. Star Wars and The Matrix are other examples based on a gnostic cosmology: spiritual secrets, hidden meanings, modern tales of the gnostic version of salvation history denying the goodness and reality of God’s creation.
Space and time does not permit a fuller response to The Da Vinci Code here. But there are many resources available, including:
· Articles from Christianity Today listed under: www.christianitytoday.com/history/special/davincicode.html
· Resources quoted in www.Damaris.org
· Nicky Gumbel’s recent sermon on the subject, soon to come out in booklet form: www.htb.org.uk/features/2005/january/davinci.htm
· Books such as The truth behind the Da Vinci code, Richard Abanes; Decoding Da Vinci, Amy Welborn; The Gospel Code, Ben Witherington III.
We do well to ponder seriously the implications of this resurgence of interest in Europe’s pagan past. I believe Carl Jung is right: barring a biblical revival, Europe is headed towards a neo-pagan future. The interest is huge, and is being awakened by such best-sellers as the Harry Potter books and now The Da Vinci Code. I believe this is a greater challenge than that of Islam in Europe, as it holds a strong fascination for the post-Christian western mind.
Over ten years ago, I heard Sir Fred Catherwood, former vice-president of the European Parliament and an evangelical believer, warn a gathering of leaders that Europe was like “a house swept clean”. Having been swept clean of fascism and communism in his day, he said, the question remained what might fill the vacuum. Would it be biblical truth, or would Europe be possessed by ‘seven worse demons’? And what might they look like? The Da Vinci Code gives us a clue.
As does Keith Hopkins’ book, A world full of gods (Plume, 1999), describing the world in which gnosticism first emerged, a pluralistic, multicultural world offering multiple choices in pagan religions, a world increasingly resembling ours today. This secular book is subtitled, ‘The strange triumph of Christianity’, and tells how despite the boldness and brashness of the opposition, the story of Jesus emerged to be the greatest influence in shaping Europe’s future.
It happened before in history. Could it not happen again?
Next week I’ll tell you how you can order my book, Living as people of hope, now available in English as well as Dutch, in which I tell my own wacky tale of ‘enlightenment’ concerning Europe’s pagan past and potentially pagan future – and how we can respond.