Two decades ago, Christians took a stand against Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. When a draft of the script was made public, protestors compelled Paramount to abandon the project, and when Universal produced the movie a few years later, in 1988, Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright offered the studio some $10 million to buy the movie and destroy it. And then, when the film was released, Christians staged a number of boycotts and pickets outside theatres — a noisy tactic some believers now regret.
But today, churches are taking a different approach to controversial films, including The Da Vinci Code, Ron Howard’s film adaptation of the Dan Brown bestseller, which releases May 19. Pastors, scholars and teachers are writing books, preparing sermon series and Sunday school lessons, and creating websites devoted to “engaging” this pop-cultural artifact as part of an ongoing “dialogue.”
Michael Licona, director of apologetics and interfaith evangelism for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, created a 65-minute video lecture (available here) to foster discussion about some of the book’s claims. He remembers telling people to avoid The Last Temptation, but he says he would definitely not take that approach now.
“I think we made a mistake back then,” Licona says. “I think we communicated that we’re not interested in having critical discussions — that if you mention Jesus in a negative way we’re just going to pick up our ball and go home — and I think that has hurt us as Christians.
“If you look at Acts 17, Paul was very familiar with the secular poets, because he quoted them. When he spoke to the philosophers at Athens, he never quoted the Scriptures, he quoted their own poets. And if we’re going to relate to non-believers as Christians, we need to be familiar with what’s coming out, movies and books.”
The dialogue moves online
In addition to the many Da Vinci Code-related books filling Christian bookstores, several resources have sprung up online. Outreach, Inc. has posted sermon ideas and other resources, including some hosted by Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel, while Catholic apologists have set up websites like JesusDecoded and Da Vinci Outreach.
In addition, over 40 commentators representing Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches have written critical essays for The Da Vinci Dialogue, a website sponsored by Sony Pictures Entertainment, the studio behind The Da Vinci Code, in conjunction with Grace Hill Media, a company that promotes movies to the religious media.
Darrell Bock, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and a contributor to the The Da Vinci Dialogue site, once advised people to avoid The Last Temptation, and he would do the same with The Da Vinci Code if the public had not already “embraced” the book and its ideas to such a large degree. But because the novel has “penetrated the cultural consciousness,” he says a completely different response is called for today.
“I have a very strong feeling that we should read the book,” he says. “If we’re going to engage the culture and interact with a point of view, we need to read the point of view that we are interacting with. It undermines our credibility to say that we have never read the point of view or seen it.”
However, some observers take a dimmer view of the opportunities for “dialogue” created by the upcoming movie and the book on which it is based. Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of the Act One screenwriting program in Los Angeles, says Christians have become so concerned about appearing “hip” and not being rejected by the secular world that they have allowed themselves to be co-opted by the corporate forces behind the movie.
“Is slander an opportunity for dialogue?” she asks. “Everything is an opportunity for dialogue, but the question is, are we framing the dialogue? And the answer is no, and anybody who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. The dialogue is completely being framed by Sony Pictures and Dan Brown.”
Nicolosi says she is concerned that pastors and teachers are sending their fellow Christians to a spiritually harmful movie without ensuring first that they know enough history and theology to counter the story’s erroneous claims about the divinity of Christ, the formation of the New Testament, and the church’s treatment of women.
She also takes issue with the notion that the people attracted to this story are “seeking the truth,” as the movie poster claims. “If people were seeking the truth, they would be buying the Catechism and enrolling in theology courses,” she says.
A whole new audience
Still, some scholars say they’ve found a whole new audience thanks to The Da Vinci Code and the fans who may, indeed, be seeking the truth after all.
Ward Gasque, a Washington-based church historian, says he’s been “having an awful lot of fun” giving dozens of lectures about The Da Vinci Code over the last few years. “If the event is publicized widely, about a third of the audience will be from outside of the sponsoring church — some of them from other churches, but some of them totally unchurched. Now, when I give lectures on the Book of Acts, nobody shows up who is unchurched.”
Gasque says Dan Brown’s book has been so successful partly because people don’t know their history — and that includes Christians. He points to a recent survey which found that approximately one out of six Canadians and one out of eight Americans believes that Jesus faked his death, got married, and had a family — a statistic that has been attributed to the influence of The Da Vinci Code, even though the novel does not deny the crucifixion.
“The reason 17 percent of all Canadians believe this, and it’s true virtually worldwide, is that they don’t know anything about history,” says Gasque. “But that’s true of most active Christians as well. They don’t know anything about what happened between the end of the first century and the Protestant Reformation, and therefore it seems plausible.”
Amy Welborn, author of De-Coding Da Vinci, says many Catholics who have come across the story are equally ignorant of church history. “I was involved in Catholic education for a long time,” she says, “and we in the past 40 years have become very present-oriented in our catechesis. Most people don’t do any religious education after they’re confirmed.
“So I thoroughly blame Christian churches for leaving their people bereft of an anchoring in Christian roots, for whatever reasons, and I really don’t think if The Da Vinci Code had come out 60 years ago that Catholics who had any sort of education would have been taken in by it. I think this Da Vinci Code business has been a real eye-opener for a lot of people involved in ministry in the Catholic church. They are now seeing the consequences of this eviscerating of religious education. This is the fruit.”
Nonetheless, says Gasque, that “fruit” can serve to motivate Christians to educate themselves about the origins of the faith.
“Christians need to have an understanding of history,” he says, “and the church is not serving the Christian community well by not teaching them the basic essence of Christianity. Therefore they don’t have the resources to respond very intelligently to this.” He recommends that churches devote entire study groups to this subject.
Bock agrees that Christians should know their church history first. “I think the opening up of these issues has been a very good thing,” he says, “and if it produces the kind of dialogue about the real Jesus that it can generate, and if the church can get itself into a position to understand its own history and theology, that will be a good thing for the church.”
Licona says it is important that Christians do their homework because skeptical scholars with actual academic credibility will take advantage of the media spotlight generated by The Da Vinci Code to promote their own versions of revisionist church history — an example of which was recently provided by the much-hyped, so-called Gospel of Judas.
“When the book mentions that Jesus was not thought of as the divine Son of God until the Council of Nicea in 325, that is easily refuted, because the deity of Jesus is peppered throughout the New Testament,” Licona says. “But even though the major claims of The Da Vinci Code can be answered easily, more moderate forms of those claims are presented by radical scholars such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, and these need to be addressed.”
Licona adds, “I know there are Christians who will say, ‘I don’t want to give money to Hollywood and I know they’re doing it for the money,’ and they’re absolutely right, and this is something they’ll have to follow their consciences on. For myself, I think the outreach opportunities outweigh the negative of giving money to Hollywood and Dan Brown.”
– A version of this article was first published on the Christianity Today website. A shorter version appeared in the magazine.