Who does Dan Brown say that I am?

ChristSinai 01And 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.

2795So 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And a professor of Theology said “You are the eschatological ground of our being”
    “I’m the WHAT?”

  • http://www.jessamineonline.com AL

    Did you see the recent New Yorker article on this whole fiasco?

  • tmatt


    Yes, I urged GR readers to look it up in a previous post. Boyer’s piece is the best thing out there…


  • http://www.lightalongthejourney.com John Hollandsworth

    reminds me of Francis Schaeffer— all systems of thought that are not the truth will break down when taken to their ultimate conclusions— it happened to the Wachowski’s, it happened to Lucas, it will happen to Brown— but will the public discern it?

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    And a book is just a book, as Abraham Lincoln did NOT say to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

  • http://idlemendacity.blogspot.com Jack Bennett

    I’ve never heard Dan Brown once given an interview where he had to answer a tough question. I expect the next time we hear from him he’ll be interviewing himself (as he does on his website).

    As for Angels and Demons, yet another Langdon story with an evil Catholic Church at its center, I expect Sony can combine digital effects and Protestant church to combine something that looks like the Vatican – Costas-Gravas did this in his recent anti-Vatican film. But it will be even more difficult for Sony to brush off anti-catholic charges if it does one centered on not even the RCC what with all its evil Cardinals and a fixed papal conclave (and since the recent conclave was seen by billions, it would show out of touch with reality Brown’s “research” is – i.e. a Pope is elected and no one notices. I think that one will be laughed at too.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    THE CRAFT and HARVEST HOME were “just movies”, but that somehow failed to reassure protesting Wiccans. Why does that only make a difference when Christians are being libeled?

    Propaganda on Arab TV based on the Protocols of Zion is “just a movie”.

    As for “what you believe”, apparently Sony resorted to converting the film into puff for the “dictatorship of relativism”. (It recalls the nauseating ending of FIRE IN THE AMAZON, with “Don’t write what you see, write what you feel.”) IF there is no such thing as truth, and all that matters in What Works For You, there is no ground for objecting to any wild allegation.

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  • Cheryl

    I predict there will be no third Dan Brown book. Why should he? It’s not like he ever has to work again. The only time he did “real” interviews was early on when the book was much lower on the radar screen and he could continue to push his “meticulously researched” gospel of truthiness. He dropped out of sight a long time ago, when he book started selling like crazy and any he knew that the legions of people who actually know something about Christian history were (or would soon be) on to him.

    I think this rumored “writer’s block” is going to persist for a long time. Unless he comes up with another gimmick.

  • Moredom Squeaz

    Christianity dominates this country and most of the free world. Why are they whining? Do they know how ridiculous it makes them look? Why are they threatened by the idea that Jesus might have had sex with a woman and maybe even a kid? Why is everyone seeking historical accuracy from what is plainly a work of fiction? The book was a moderately good thriller, I liked it. I wish someone would make a movie out of Katherine Neville’s “The Eight.” Or “Illuminatus,” that’d bring the nuts out of the woodwork. This reminds me of nothing so much as the first Star Wars trilogy, when we had eggheads and academia nuts of every ilk crowding each other to put down the pseudo-Zen philosophy, when, after all, it was a SPACE OPERA, a Saturday morning serial. Get over it, Christians. Practice your religion, it’ll impress a lot more. You may even pick up a few converts.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    How is it that the Christian-baiters simultaneously complain that they are oppressed by an overwhelming dominant “majority”, while treating “Christian” as something alien and abnormal (e.g., the Times review of “The Grace Lee Project”)?

  • http://www.storybytes.com EatingPie

    After all this time, the rumor of the Wachowski sex change still exists? Did ANYONE in journalism ever trace it to its root? No. Apparently not.

    Said Wachowski fell for a Dominatrix in Los Angeles. Her spurned transsexual (or almost) husband was the source of the “he’s probably wearing woman’s underwear” and “he’s getting a sex change.”

    Now, could it be that he had… er… issues… with Mr. Wachowski? Indeed, the ONLY source for this rumor, a jealous husband.

    This ties in more directly with the problem with the Da Vinci Code than you might think. People are less concerned with the TRUTH than SENSATIONALISM.

    Do journalists want to actually explore the truth behind events, or do they just want to interview “experts” who have good quotes and interesting quips? I haven’t once seen an article that actually cited any historicity behind the New Testament or Gnostic Gospels. Not one. This historicity is scientific, but it gets in the way of sensationalism.

    Just like realizing the Wachowski rumor started with one person, a spurned lover.


  • DG

    Maybe western religion SHOULD opt again for the feminine model. Our “God as father” approach has sure been a failure.

  • Amburle

    I wonder if I wrote a book about Judiasm even though i am Christian would that make me Jewish?? Why does Dan Brown have to say what he believes. The book is fiction. A story. CS Lewis, whose books I’ve always seen in the Religious section, wrote about a world of witches and sorcery. Does that make him a Pagan? I’ve always wondered why the church stood against so many things when they are just giving press to thier foes. I’d rather see a list of movies, tv shows, music and books that the church would like me to see/listen to/read.

  • JGome

    There is a reason why the book is categorized as FICTION. What’s amazing is the numbers of people that believe this is something more than entertainment; a fantasy, derived from an author taking liberties with history embellishing facts. The eternal question is not “Who Does Dan Brown say I am”, but who did Jesus say he was? See John 14:6

  • tmatt

    I am not saying that the book is factual.

    Dan Brown is saying that the history, rituals, etc., in the book are factual. That’s what the book says and that is what he said in that NPR interview.

    It would be nice if he explained what he means. The folks behind the movie keep saying its fiction, but they would not — were forbidden to? — put that on the screen.

    But Brown says it is factual. Thus, my questions.

  • DJ

    This movie may have the effect of finally getting people to see religion through a more spiritually mature point of view vs. the narrow child-like perspective of fundamentalists. From my studies of biblical history Jesus, Buddah, and Krishna were all ‘divine’ but so are all of us. Well we at least have a spark of the divine and are not as well developed as Jesus. Check out Christian Mysticism before you start calling this Neo-Pagan and just sweep it under the rug as offensive and wrong belief.

  • cananda guy

    Any better ideas about who should play Rober Langdon? (Please, not Tom Hanks again). Anyone know how to contact Dan Brown or his Publicist? Does his email at the back of the second book still function?

  • the numbers guy

    Why does it matter so much what Dan Brown thinks? He is a story teller. History is or is not TRUE. I am disappointed in the in the holy church for even giving consideration to more, only to be lessened by the disappointment I feel for the bashing of the holy church on the subject. Dan Brown will contiue to say what he need sto say to make money, as he should. No one would except working for free. why should he? That being said I loved the book. I will most likely see the movie someday but I know the views in the books can not be as wide spred in the movie. Like it or not we are all prisoner to our simple amotions that lead us in to blaming Dan Brown or the church or something else for our misdeads and thoughts. What happened to us not what happened to them. Today people acted suprised a movie or book could do so well. I just say if you want to sell a lot of books write about what will get peoples attention. And the more “taboo” the better. If I were to write a book about a love child of George Bush and Tony Blair (I know) I am sure it would sell even if it was a short story, just because we have to see the car crash.

    Look up to the sky in wonder and look around and see your brethren

    The number guy