And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Who do men say that I am?
– Gospel of Mark 8:27
Please do not blow a fuse, dear readers.
I am not opening this post with a Bible verse in order to veer into evangelism. For most of the week, I have been looking for mainstream press reports about The Da Vinci Code that found a news hook other than (a) evangelicals trying to use the movie for evangelism, (b) scholars shredding the novel’s historical claims, (c) movie executives insisting that their product was only fiction or (d) speculation about the impact of the lousy reviews on the box office and the future of what was supposed to have become a major franchise for Sony Pictures. Weeks two and three are the keys.
On that final point, I do wonder if Tom Hanks is locked in for the future. And here is another question about the future: How do you film Angels & Demons — much of which happens in churches in Rome, and much of the final act actually in the Vatican — without the cooperation of the Holy See?
Well, there is a different angle out there. Reports indicate that the movie has softened the novel in at least two key ways.
First, it has edited out or weakened much of the oh-so-sexy pagan roots of the plot. Where’s that passage in the book about sacred sex inside the Jewish Temple’s Holy of Holies between the priests and holy women representing an ancient Jewish goddess?
But, most importantly, the movie has tried to adopt a slightly less hostile stance toward Christianity. The movie strives for a more mushy, spiritual, “dialogue”-oriented approach that, at crucial moments, says, “maybe,” “maybe,” “maybe.” As Associated Press religion-beat veteran Richard N. Ostling notes in an analysis piece:
An early clue that the film is trying a different tack from the novel comes when it omits the book’s thesis: “Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.” The script instead turns that concept into a question: “What if the world discovers the greatest story ever told is a lie?”
The chief alterations, however, pop up during a pivotal theological discussion between the story’s two experts on religious history, Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen). The maniacal Teabing makes the claim (disregarded by real-life scholars) that Christianity considered Jesus a mere man and turned him into a divinity in A.D. 325. Good-guy Langdon mildly objects, inserting a critical viewpoint that the novel lacks.
The bottom line is that the novel said Jesus was a remarkable man — bright, charismatic, hot and all that — but just a man. This is the Jesus of the old liberal mainline Protestant world. But the novel added another layer of commentary, saying that the true Christianity of the Gnostics and other believers in the “sacred feminine” was buried by the evil, sexist, frumpy men who were setting up the Catholic version of a Roman empire. This is the modern, sexy, almost Wiccan gospel of some segments of the liberal mainline Protestant academic world.
The movie says most of that, but adds a crucial word — maybe. In the end, it says that the most important thing is for believers to believe something and only nasty traditionalists care about the details. But the bottom line remains the bottom line: Dan Brown is acting as an evangelist for a syncretistic, pluralistic, at times neo-pagan version of Christianity.
Thus, one of the best news hooks right now can be summed up in this statement: “Who do men say that I am?” As USA Today noted:
At one climactic point, Langdon says, “History shows Jesus was an extraordinary man. Why couldn’t Jesus have been divine and still have been a father?” That line was not in the book.
The filmmakers try to back off from a hard-line stance on the question of Jesus’ divinity. Says Langdon, near the end of the film, “What matters is what you believe.”
Wasn’t there a way to work Oprah into the movie to deliver that line?
I would imagine that some mass-media people may not be happy about this change (and the fact that the script is terrible and most of the performances wooden or cheesy). Over at Entertainment Weekly, reviewer Owen Gleiberman cuts to the chase. Is that disappointment we hear between the lines?
A crucial change from the book is that Langdon has been made into a skeptic, a fellow who doesn’t necessarily buy that official Christianity is a lie. This is a sop to the film’s critics (i.e., the Catholic Church), but it feels cautious, anti-dramatic. Yes, a soupçon of research reveals that the Priory of Sion is a hoax invented in 1956, and surely it can’t be proved that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever intimate . … But what we want from a film of The Da Vinci Code is the fervor of belief. … As a novel, The Da Vinci Code has a resonance that lingers. It may be less history than hokum, but it’s a searching product of the feminist era, when even many true believers have grown weary of the church as an instrument of moral reprimand and male dominion.
So here is the question, and it’s one that I think is at the heart of the movie story: Who is Jesus, according to Dan Brown (and thus, the Sony Pictures franchise)?
This is a question linked to millions and millions of dollars worth of tickets. What does Brown believe? Will he stand up for his own beliefs or will be compromise, in order to give his actors and directors wiggle room? In novels one and two in this series, Brown had firm, blunt beliefs. He waffled a little, but not much. It seems that the movie has retreated into an Oprah-esque world of “maybe.”
This may be The Matrix all over again, in a strange sort of way.
The siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski — the word “brothers” is problematic right now — were also pushing a gospel rich in neo-Gnostic images and themes, with a literal union of the divine feminine and the male savior.
The Matrix gospel worked when it was visual, vague and exciting. It sank into irrational, wordy quicksand when the siblings attempted to explain their beliefs. They refused to retreat and the result was a disaster that still made lots of money, but it was clear that the franchise declined with each film. It had nowhere to go.
Will Brown be honest? Will he answer questions? Will he have the courage of his convictions, or compromise in an attempt to be safe? No wonder there are rumors of writer’s block on the third book.