Movie Review: The Da Vinci Code

I recently had an opportunity to see The Da Vinci Code, the movie based on Dan Brown’s novel that alleges a sensational plot by the Catholic church to cover up the truth about the origins of Christianity.

First things first: Yes, I did enjoy the movie, and I do recommend it. Without a doubt, its plot mixes historical fact, speculation and pure fantasy in a slipshod way, and anyone who believes events literally happened that way is taking it far too seriously and giving it credibility that it does not deserve. (To be fair, I think the same thing about Christianity.) However, when viewed as the work of fiction it is, it is well worth seeing. Its plot is coherent and fast-paced, not at all boring, and the filmmakers manage to keep up a sense of portentous dread with every new revelation. I do not know why the reviews have been as heavily negative as they were; perhaps the reviewers were piqued at not being granted advance screenings.

However, a few poor reviews are nothing next to the worldwide protests, boycotts and censorship the movie has attracted. The Catholic church has urged a boycott, imploring its members not to read the book or see the movie; one Vatican archbishop deplored the fact that the book’s “lies” remain “unpunished“. Lebanon and Pakistan have banned the film altogether, as have parts of the Philippines and India. Even communist China banned it, after a brief but successful run in that nation. (Evidently the state-run church wants to show lay Catholics that it can be just as paranoid and censorship-happy as the Vatican.) Other countries have demanded that certain parts of the film be cut or that disclaimers be added stating that it is a work of fiction. Fortunately, in the United States our strong guarantees on freedom of speech prevented religious authorities from censoring the movie, although some individual theater owners made a game effort:

Speaking of the South and that strong literalist view, The Smoky Mountain Cinema — Waynesville’s only theater — will not now or ever show “The Da Vinci Code.” A recorded message explains: “A lot of people have been asking us when we’re going to be playing ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ The answer to that is never. No way. No how. The reason? We feel that this movie mocks God. We feel that this movie calls the Bible a book of lies…. To this movie we say ‘kiss my grits.’ Hollywood, you’ve gone too far on this one for this Southern Baptist boy.”
—Dave Russell, “Russell checks in on old friends, Gallup polls and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ again“, from the Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times, 24 May 2006

Why this fearful reaction? The movie’s popularity (it has now exceeded Passion of the Christ in worldwide gross) is part of it, but that would not explain anything unless some churches already sensed a threat.

The explanation, I believe, is that The Da Vinci Code presents a competing narrative, one that seeks to explain the events at the origin of Christianity in a different way. This, more than anything else, is what the churches fear. As a general rule, I find that Christian religious leaders are not afraid of rational arguments against their faith, because most believers’ minds are not structured or encouraged to think that way. Our society does not value critical thinking and skepticism highly, but rather steadfast faith and decisions based on emotion. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that rational arguments against Christianity or any other religion have made relatively little headway.

On the other hand, what can and does flourish in such an environment is another story, one that appeals to people on the same emotional level as Christianity and taps the same feelings: the emotional appeal of the triumphant underdog, the sense of being part of something greater than oneself, the idea of great and sacred mysteries that will be revealed to the initiate. The Da Vinci Code competes with Christianity on its own turf, so to speak, and so it is no wonder the churches fear it as they do.

Even more so, these Christian groups do not just fear an alternative story; they fear an alternative story that turns one of their most effective and insidious tactics against them. It has always been part of Christianity that those who believe differently are not just seekers on a different path to God, or sincere but misguided souls, but rather agents of evil trying to hide the truth and trick the believer into straying from the true path. This belief is strongest in cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who view everyone and everything outside the Watchtower as under demonic sway, but appears to some degree in every Christian sect. It is little wonder that this tactic has proven effective: by convincing believers that any deviation from the party line is a Satanic deception, churches arm their flock in advance with a powerful reason to ignore external criticism regardless of its content.

The Da Vinci Code uses the same tactic, but reverses it: it portrays the secret cult of Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail as the virtuous insiders who possess the real truth, and the Catholic church and orthodox Christianity in general as the villains who are out to suppress that knowledge and must not be believed. Again, it is no wonder that churches fear this. When believers are not taught how to reason logically or critically analyze evidence, one delusion will look as good as another, and the only way to ensure their allegiance is by inculcating a strong a priori allegiance to one belief that will cause them to dismiss all others (which is why the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain verses strongly proclaiming that theirs is the last ever revelation from God and no other gospel should be believed). When a religious meme enters the mind through the loophole created by a lack of critical thinking skills, it naturally tries to seal that gap behind itself so that no other can enter the same way and oust it. (Some computer viruses do the same thing.) But that gap can never be entirely closed. There is always the possibility that another meme will gain entrance the same way, and that is what we are now seeing.

In the long run, will The Da Vinci Code be a good thing for atheism? Certainly, to the extent it fosters competing views on the origin of Christianity and weakens the influence of rigid, unbending faith on society, it will help our cause. But in the long run, it is not solving the basic problem of faith being used as a basis for decision-making, only adding another alternative to the multiplicity of faith systems already in existence. What we really need is a movie that draws on the same narrative themes to teach the virtues of skepticism and the value of decision-making based on evidence.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://franksatheisticramblings.blogspot.com frank

    anyone who believes events literally happened that way is taking it far too seriously and giving it credibility that it does not deserve

    I am reminded of Ebert’s review of the movie where he said:
    I know there are people who believe Brown’s fantasies [are true]…This has the advantage of distracting them from the theory that the Pentagon was not hit by an airplane

    Thought you’d enjoy that quote. link.

  • SpeirM

    I like the post, Adam. I’d just like to underscore caution against taking DVC too seriously. I’m seeing too many Christians charging that “atheists believe that stuff.” We do not. We believe a thing when the evidence is of sufficient quality and quantity to warrant a belief. The whole notion that Jesus was married, etc., is founded upon flimsier evidence than the Gospel stories themselves.

  • Quath

    I read the book and then went and saw the movie. I think the main complaints about the movie owe to the huge hype and how good the book was. I was surprised as to how much of a page turner it is. It has good suspense spots and keeps the action going. So people figured the movie would keep that feeling.

    I liked the movie, but the book was much better. I think many Christians feel uncomfortable because it tried to show that Jesus could be viewed as just a man. It also means that if you can’t trust the New Testament to be accurate about Jesus, what can you trust about it? So maybe it will spread some doubt. I had a neighbor even say that she thinks that Christianity is wrong after she read this book. She believes that Jesus was just a good man.

    So the Catholic Church banning and protesting this just makes people want to see it more. I think that hurts them the most in this emotional debate.

  • TheLastChance

    Banning, protesting and boycotting never work. They do that with sex, too, that works out well, doesn’t it?

    There’s no such thing as bad publicity, I can’t believe the Vatican hasn’t caught up on that.

  • http://bligbi.com KC

    I think you hit the bullseye. The DaVinci Code is not anti-Christianity just anti-church. I’d like to see it, but I heard it’s based upon the Holy Blood Holy Grail book which I have read and considered quite amusing. I doubt I could sit through a movie about it without laughing at the idiocy.

  • Rowan

    There’s something I’m not quite clear about – does the DVC say that Jesus fathered a son before or after the crucifixion? If before, then that doesn’t seem to be a huge threat to Christianity; if after, then it means he never died and was never resurrected; and so there was no real miracle to base Christianity on.
    In any case, I think Adam’s quite right. If someone comes up to you and talks about how your special secret is really just nonsense, you’re going to shut them out; but if they tell you they have an even better secret, of course you’re going to listen to them.
    And regarding the movie – yeah, it wasn’t bad for most of the way, but did anybody else find the end unbelievably flat and weak?
    I live in Shanghai, by the way, and in defence of the Chinese government I could say that the reason they’re giving for taking the DVC out is to make way for a load of pro-communist films coming up to celebrate their 85th anniversary. To be honest, considering that only 20 foreign films a year are allowed in by the Chinese censors, I’m surprised it made it at all. A lot of my students and coworkers are very interested in it. After they saw it, two of the receptionists at my school asked me a lot of questions about religious history, so I told them about Islam, Judaism, the two sides of Christianity and what a load of nonsense it all was.

  • Rowan

    And also – yes, I think the movie is a good thing in that it gets people to think about things they’ve been taking foor granted up until now. Maybe this is the foot in the door we need to get people to start thinking that maybe Jesus never existed?

    Although, to be honest, on the whole “Jesus is a myth idea” – I do find arguments for that persuasive, but I also think that even if Jesus did really exist, even if there was a rabbi who wandered around Galilee and Jerusalem, did he turn water into wine, walk on water and come back from the dead? No! How can I be so sure? Because nobody does those things, that’s how. So it seems to me that the question isn’t “Did Jesus exist or not,” but rather “did Christianity spring from the seed of some Jewish rabble-rouser or not?” which really doesn’t seem important or not.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    There’s something I’m not quite clear about – does the DVC say that Jesus fathered a son before or after the crucifixion? If before, then that doesn’t seem to be a huge threat to Christianity; if after, then it means he never died and was never resurrected; and so there was no real miracle to base Christianity on.

    I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if it says the same thing, but the movie states that Mary Magdalene was pregnant while Jesus was hanging on the cross. Although the movie strongly suggests that Jesus was human and not divine, I don’t recall it taking any explicit stance on the veracity of the resurrection.

    In any case, I think Adam’s quite right. If someone comes up to you and talks about how your special secret is really just nonsense, you’re going to shut them out; but if they tell you they have an even better secret, of course you’re going to listen to them.

    Hah! That was exactly what I was getting at, but I think you phrased it more concisely and effectively than I. Well said. :)

    And regarding the movie – yeah, it wasn’t bad for most of the way, but did anybody else find the end unbelievably flat and weak?

    I found it somewhat dissatisfying, yes. So the Harvard scholar finally discovers the earth-shattering secret that the church has been trying to conceal for 2000 years, and… what? He leaves it hidden and doesn’t tell anyone? That seems pretty weak.

    I live in Shanghai, by the way, and in defence of the Chinese government I could say that the reason they’re giving for taking the DVC out is to make way for a load of pro-communist films coming up to celebrate their 85th anniversary.

    That’s an interesting hypothesis. Why are the two mutually exclusive, though?

  • http://rightside.fissure.org Shishberg

    I think part of the threat it poses to Christianity is that, regardless of how much of the story is true, it forces people to at least think about ways to evaluate religious history and consider how they know what they know. Because, as you said, The Da Vinci Code competes with the Bible on its own turf, a lot of the thought processes needed to discount the claims of one will at least cast doubt on the other.

    For example, the Gospels of Philip and Mary Magdalene were almost certainly written by people other than who they were attributed to, probably long after they were dead, if they existed at all. But the same could be said about much of the Bible. I can’t see what criteria you could use to evaluate historical documents that would exclude Philip and Mary but include, for example, the gospel of John and the epistles of Peter.

    Churches seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to debunk The Da Vinci Code (funny for a work of fiction)… when I saw it, one of the pre-film ads was for an (I think) Anglican sponsored website exposing its claims (I forget which one). I suspect that most Christians will be comforted by the fact that a refutation of this heresy exists, but never actually read it themselves (at least, if they’re anything like I was when I was a Christian). But you can only hope that some people will notice that they can turn the criticism of The Da Vinci Code back on the Bible itself…

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com/ The Ridger

    The DaVinci Code is Brown’s most popular book (though not his best written), and you may have it on the precise reason why. The Gnostics (many of whose teachings are reflected in the book and, to a lesser degree, the movie) were hunted implacably the the Church, provoking some of its most violent and wide-spread reprisals. The idea of a competing story rings very true to me.

  • http://rightside.fissure.org Shishberg

    There’s something I’m not quite clear about – does the DVC say that Jesus fathered a son before or after the crucifixion? If before, then that doesn’t seem to be a huge threat to Christianity…

    It would, though, raise serious questions about the posterchild (pun intended) Old Testament prophecy about Jesus, in Isaiah 53. Verse 8 seems pretty clear that the person being spoken about wouldn’t have any descendants. It would definitely make the use of that verse in converting someone in Acts 8:33 bit strange.

    I’m sure inerrantists could find another way to “interpret” that verse correctly, but it would definitely cause a stir.

  • http://uncrediblehallq.blogspot.com Chris Hallquist

    Maunal Trackback:

    “Honestly, do you really think a movie is going to bring intelligent thinking to the American public? Given the current available fare, one suspects that stupidity is inherent to the genre. Books work better. We should seriously consider a Gideon-esque campaign to put copies of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World in hotel rooms across the nation.”

  • Mikidu

    To Chris Hallquist

    What an excellent suggestion! That would provoke the religious right. They would probably organize an army of the faithful to go around confiscating them all.

  • Rowan

    Hi Adam,
    Thanks very much! Also, re Chinese government – yes, they probably are just doing it to appease Chinese catholics. I just thought I’d add to the story.

    Yes, that ending to the Code. The book wasn’t so bad, but you expect Hollywood blockbusters to pack a bit more punch in their endings.

    Does anyone have any ideas for what would have made a better ending?
    Maybe we could have ended with someone asking – maybe a child asking his mother, “Does this mean the bible was wrong?”

  • tobe38

    I think you’ve nailed it Adam. I first read the book about a year ago, and as is often the case with books of this nature, it’s very easy to get swept along as you’re reading and find the implausable plausable, the unbelievable believable. When I finished it I decided to do some reading. As I typed “Da Vinci Code” into Google I almost recoiled at the voices of a million fundies tripping over themselves to tell me what an heretic load of rubbish it was. I think you’re suggestions of being battled on their own turf ring true.

    I haven’t seen the film yet but I do intend to. I did thoroughly enjoy the book as a work of fiction and I think it’s been forgotten in all the controversy that it is a well crafted novel.

    Rowan, I was always lead to believe that the virginity of Christ was almost as important to Christianity as the virginity of Mary, so in that sense the siring of a child would pose a huge threat to the heart of the religion.

    Finally, I think it’s essential to encourage scepticism with the parts of the book/film which are claimed to be true. Apparently, Dan Brown started off as a sceptic of the theory and ended up being converted and strongly believes his own claims. I may be crossing the line from scepticism to cynicism, but I find that hard to believe – I think he just saw the dollar signs!

  • Rowan

    Thanks for the info, tobe.

    Browsing through some reviews, I really liked this one:

    http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0621,atkinson,73261,20.html

    It ifnished by saying:
    “…this overpuzzled hogwash — which, it should be rationally said, is no less risible than the Christian dogma it disputes…”
    Quite so!

  • Philip Thomas

    Oh dear, the Catholic Church just can’t shake off the old habits…but if its ban means more people start to think about religion that can only be a good thing.

    Rowan, the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is a necessary truth for Christianity to be true, although by no means a sufficient one: that is why its hotly disputed: of course one could believe in the Resurrection and deny Christianity, but denying at an earlier stage is more congenial.

  • http://www.agnosticmom.com AgnosticMom

    Oh wow, you have a good theory here. I really like your summation.

    You know, there is a possibility we are at a time when we can get such types of movies that you suggested we need. Documentaries are encroaching pop-culture and we have superstar scientists like Richard Dawkins trying to reach out to the mainstream public, at least the more educated mainstream public.

  • Shawn Smith

    Philip Thomas,

    … the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is a necessary truth for Christianity to be true …

    Are you saying that a Platonic model of a more perfect “spiritual” Jesus, sacrificing himself only in heaven, is incompatible with Christianity? I am curious.

  • Philip Thomas

    Fair point. Christianity as currently believed by most Christians, then. (I think we could get majority agreement on Jesus existing, if on nothing else).

  • tobe38

    Shawn, I would definiteley say that a Christ who only lived and died in heaven would be incompatible with fundamentalist Christianity, simply because it would contradict the Bible which is allegedly the inerrant word of God.

    Nothing is incompatible with liberal Christianity, they just cherry-pick the bits that suit them then fill in the gaps themselves.

  • Philip Thomas

    I don’t think you can divide the Christian community into “fundamentalist” and “liberal” quite like that. Many Christians are conservatives withouth believing the bible to be inerrant. Some liberal Christians believe in doctrines which don’t suit them, because that is what they think is true. Life is complicated, even for us simple-minded theists…

  • tobe38

    Philip, I’ll certainly agree that it’s a varying scale, not just one or the other. Sorry if I was oversimplifying. Perhaps I could clarify by saying that a Christ who only lived and died in heaven would be incompatible for any Christians believing the Bible to be the innerant word of God.

    Apologies for being too lazy to really give my own view on liberal theism, but it’s only fitting that on Adam’s site I refer you to one of his essays: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/godislove.html

    I would say I’m pretty much in line with this view on the Fundamentalist/Liberalism scale.

  • Philip Thomas

    Thankyou tobe38. I have read “God is Love”, and replied to it http://mithala.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=989

    Basically I feel the argument there is much much weaker than Adam’s arguments against ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. Of course, I would feel that!

  • tobe38

    Hi Philip,

    I think by it’s very nature Fundamentalist Christianity will provoke stronger arguments because it’s an easier target.

    I read your response to God is Love on your website and you do raise some interesting points I hadn’t considered, but ultimately I felt Adams’s arguments held strong.

    However, we’re straying somewhat from the original topic here, so if you’ll give me a day or two (I’m working today!) I’ll try to post a more detailed defence on your own site.

  • Philip Thomas

    I look forward to it!

  • Jon Howard

    Really good point about the irrational, competing narrative offered by the book and film. From my own experience of fundamentalist Christianity and New Age waffle, the proof of the pudding is never to be found under the microscope or via the input of an informed scholar, but only in its emotionally loaded sales-pitch and attendant spiritual packaging. To that end, anything that corrodes Christianity is welcome and warmly appreciated! However, the danger is that in some dumbed-down future I may be met with ‘Magdenalist’s’ at my door, interrupting my dark and nefarious activities to persuade me to take their literature, or have some idiot fight to offer my grandchildren the right to be taught Magdelenism at their school…alongside Intelligent Design Theory and their daily prayers to the Cosmic Satsuma.

    The only answer is to kick all this nonsense to the kerb. Darwinian science and cosmology would be a far better ‘code’ to have had the Vatican suppress. Imagine the alternative story: Jesus was actually a naturalist atheist who said that god was a lie, and yet was mistaken for a prophet and a manifestation of deity in human form. Now roll the movie ;)

  • lpetrich

    I’d also like to note Earl Doherty’s review in A Magdalene Triptych. After pointing out some of its factual errors and questionable claims, he says:

    This is unfortunate, because there is much in The Da Vinci Code which legitimately questions established Christian tradition and uncovers new ways of looking at the story of Jesus. But anything which breaks open the musty vault of the Church’s long monopoly on that story and lets fresh air into the public mind has to be a good thing. (Some of this fresh air has been circulating for over a century in the halls of New Testament academia, but prior to the recent Jesus Seminar was deliberately kept from the pulpit and the public eye.) But the reader might have benefited from having a better basis for distinguishing between fiction and fact, rather than being invited to swallow a farrago of fantasy which is every bit as egregious as the Gospel story.

    But as you say, Ebonmuse, it seems like something that competes with theologians on their own territory, and it’s not surprising that they wail “No fair! No fair! No fair!”

    Also, Dan Brown’s defenders have a ready-made version of “it’s literal when I like it, allegorical when I don’t”. DB has claimed that his book is fictional with important factual content. So his supporters can claim that any parts that they find less-than-supportable are some of the fictional parts.

  • Andrew

    I personally say the DaVinci Code should be banned for being a boring, cheesy, and generally aweful movie. Although I did enjoy it somewhat more than the book.

  • Andrew

    I did thoroughly enjoy the book as a work of fiction and I think it’s been forgotten in all the controversy that it is a well crafted novel.

    I have to(respectfully) disagree. The DaVinci Code was one of the worst books I’v ever read(not THE worst that dubious-honor belongs to Twilight). And I imagine that if it hadnt been for the controversy it wouldnt have gotton any notice at all.


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