Breaking the tightrope of objectivity

time on opus deiI guess we’ll never find out whether Opus Dei is a scary “authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise” or merely a “teaching entity,” an “advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation.” In this era of postmodernism, where there is no truth, might both realities be presented as truth?

The cover story on Opus Dei in Time magazine this week was a letdown, but not completely unexpected. In portraying the group, Time presented little not already known. As Time attempted to balance both “truths” on the tightrope of objectivity, the rope broke and the story came crashing to the circus floor.

Time was no doubt inspired to explore the controversial Catholic group by the much-hyped movie The Da Vinci Code. Time based a great deal of its pro-Opus information on John Allen’s recently released book Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church (Doubleday). Time says it spoke freely with the organization, but little of the article is attributed to high-level Opus Dei officials.

As a side note, I would like to take issue with the title of the cover piece: “The Opus Dei Code” is quite similar to “Cracking the Opus Dei Code,” which our own Mollie Ziegler wrote in October 2005 for the New York Sun. Go figure. (By the way, Mollie’s piece, which covers a lot of the same ground as the Time article, raises some great issues with Allen’s book that Time failed to address.)

Back to my main complaint. The Time cover piece uses the well-known journalistic trick of taking both sides of an issue and presenting both as meriting equal levels of skepticism and credibility. And it does so unashamedly:

But Opus’ public relations offensive hasn’t quite managed to close the gap between what critics say it is about and its own version of the story. On one side there is “Octopus Dei,” or, as the current issue of Harper’s magazine puts it, “to a great extent … an authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise that manages to infiltrate its indoctrinated technocrats, politicos and administrators into the highest levels of the state.” On the other is the portrait painted by Opus’ U.S. vicar Thomas Bohlin, who sat for several hours with Time at his group’s Manhattan headquarters. Opus, he explained, is just a teaching entity, a kind of advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation with minimal global coordination or input as to how members and sympathizers apply what they learn. “You know Dale Carnegie courses?” he asked. “Businesses send their people there to learn to speak better, to organize — they teach all these kinds of things. People go there because they get something out of it, and then when they graduate, they don’t represent Dale Carnegie.”

ciliceJames Martin, an editor at the Jesuit publication America who has written critically about Opus, offers a middle ground between Dale Carnegie and the octopus: “Opus Dei provides members with an overarching spirituality for their life,” he suggests. “It’s an ongoing relationship that helps buttress and further shape the thought of people who are already conservative Catholics. That’s a powerful symbiosis, and there’s a personal connection between members, whether they’re housewives or politicians. It’s not an evil empire, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious issues that need to be addressed.”

A first journalistic pass, by Allen or Time, cannot fully resolve all those issues. But it can answer some of the questions that have long dogged the organization, and it may also show how The Da Vinci Code could end up helping Opus Dei.

On seven questions — How did it start? Who are these people? How secretive is Opus? How rich is it? How much power does it have? Do members really whip themselves? What about rumors of mind control? — Time does little more than spew out rumors and attempt to pin down answers.

disciplineFour mini-profiles, two of current “supernumeraries” (here and here) and two of disgruntled former members (here and here), are somewhat compelling because they put a real face on the subject. As a reporter, though, I always add an extra dose of skepticism toward disgruntled former members or employees of any organization. Sometimes what they have to say has real merit, other times the claims turn up bogus. That said, the official line can often carry just as little truth. Digging to the bottom of the story is what journalists are supposed to do, but for profiles, presenting both sides as equally valid is probably the best one can do.

While the Time package fails to live up to its billing, I was able to draw a couple of conclusions from the article. One is that a lot of the initial criticism of the group came from jealous and turf-protecting leaders in the Catholic Church when the group was founded in 1928. The other is that the rest of the criticism comes from disillusioned former members.

Opus Dei’s problem is not that it has encountered turf-protecting priests, or that people leave the group disappointed, but that it has been so secret for so many years. I don’t know the reasons why Opus Dei kept itself in the dark for so long, but if the whole Da Vinci Code drama is indeed responsible for getting Opus to open up to the public, as Time claims is the case, then the end result is good.

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News flash: Resurrection story has staying power

Resurrection2Holy Week is so nice that we have it twice here at GetReligion. The Western Church, which includes Daniel and me, had Holy Week last week. The Eastern Church and Terry are in the midst of Holy Week now. Oh that wacky Julian Calendar! Because of our many services, I was a bit out of the loop on what religious stories ran over the weekend. But I couldn’t miss one story as I received almost a dozen emails about it. The headline sort of says it all:

Is Jesus Risen? Literal View Gains Ground

Yeah, the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein penned a piece about how some (some?) Christians believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. They even have a whole day set aside to celebrate this bizarre belief in a literal, science-defying resurrection. Who knew? It’s a bizarre story and headline for Christians because the physical resurrection of Christ is a central tenet of the church, to understate wildly. Here are her nut graphs:

The Easter story is the centerpiece of Christians’ faith. For most, the miracle of Jesus overcoming death three days after the Crucifixion — whether in body or spirit — is not open to debate. Others do not view the Resurrection in a literal way but as a powerful, transformative metaphor about his message living on.

In the past two decades, there has been a heightened scrutiny of Scripture, with basic Christian tenets such as the Resurrection challenged by biblical scholars and others in their search for historical facts about Jesus. But in recent years, there has been a rise in the popularity and stature of books that embrace [the] traditional view of Easter, experts say.

We could talk about the problems with using descriptors like “most” and “others.” We could talk about the problem of not better describing the theology of people who renounce key Christian doctrines. We could discuss the odd use of the phrase “past two decades” to describe historical revisionism, which is a century old and has wreaked havoc on church bodies that used to be so important they were called mainline.

But I’m still stuck on the headline! To say that the key doctrine of Christianity is something on the rise within Christianity shows a lack of historical perspective and an odd starting point for a story. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass said it best:

Obviously, I work in the secular media, and we’re usually skittish about spiritual matters. But we’re quite dogmatic when it comes to some other things. For example, we’re almost severe in our collective belief in scientific progress, in the ability of government officials and technology and reason to solve the problems of the modern world. . . .

Just think about that. All across the world on Sunday, and again next Sunday, millions of folks will confirm their belief in something that can’t be proven by scientific means. That yearning is news, isn’t it? Even though it takes place year after year, it’s still news.

So we have the annual rite of questioning in the weeks heading up to Easter. This year we got the stories about how Jesus didn’t walk on water, but an ice floe; that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think; and that his father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. And on Easter weekend we get stories that focus on controversies — that sell books — rather than the stories taking place in Christians’ lives throughout the week. It will happen against next year. On that note, one controversy story this Easter that was fairly informative was the Associated Press’ Richard Ostling piece on beliefs about whether Jesus rose from the dead. But for Christians, the Easter story is not about controversy! It’s about salvation, peace and forgiveness of sins. Stories can be interesting and focused on what Easter means for Christians as opposed to what Easter means for non-Christians who love to cast aspersions on believers. It is possible. Just look at how well controversy stories go over with readers, judging from today’s letters to the editor section at the Dallas Morning News:

Great article, guys. Can’t wait for your coverage of how the Quran isn’t the last word for Muslims. You can run that during Ramadan. Or how about a story on the plutocrats and dictators who have resulted from various Mexican revolutions? Page One for Cinco de Mayo? Millions dead because of the DDT fad? Run it on Earth Day.

resurrectionThe other letters weren’t much more kind.

Anyway, I think this is my favorite passage from Boorstein’s piece:

The Rev. Steve Huber of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in the District said he sees a “deep spiritual hunger afloat in our culture” but isn’t sure whether that translates into more people believing in the physical Resurrection — or whether it matters. . . .

“If Easter is about proving the veracity of some historical event that happened 2,000 years ago, that misses the point,” Huber said.

She doesn’t just leave the comment hanging, exactly, but a point-counterpoint approach to reporting on an issue like this just doesn’t suffice. She doesn’t reference it in any way, but the issue of whether Christ literally rose from the dead was addressed by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 15, he wrote:

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up — if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the apostle Paul says, then you are the most pitiful loser to have faith in him. And Steve Huber says you’re not. Pick your sides. But if you are a reporter covering this issue, you have to understand who has more sway in Christianity. And you have to mention how central to Christianity a belief in the physical resurrection is and how it is the basis for Christian beliefs about life, death and forgiveness of sins.

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The gospel of ignorance

judas3My newsroom was all abuzz this week with the revelation of the Gospel of Judas. The media have been going nonstop with the news that a Gnostic tract has been translated that says Judas was helping Jesus rather than betraying him.

Well, where to begin? Before I criticize the ridiculous ignorance of the media in covering this very old story, let me offer a critique of the church. If Christians knew anything about their history, if they knew anything about how the New Testament canon came to be formed, I doubt these stories would be met with more than a yawn.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Christians — and others — think the Bible was delivered to the church in present form upon Christ’s death and resurrection. In fact, the Gospels, which were written soon after Jesus’ time on earth, were fixed into the canon by the last quarter of the second century. Other books were included by A.D. 220. But there were many, many other books that were considered. And then there were some extremely heretical books that were never really considered. Various principles for inclusion were debated, but as a rule the books were tested against each other. So if the Apostles themselves said, for instance, that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, you would be hard-pressed to include a book written by a sect centuries later that said Judas was all good.

The thing is that for those who know their church history, Gnosticism is not news. It is a syncretistic movement with roots in pre-Christian times. It reached its zenith around the time the Judas Gospel was written. And it was based on the very non-Christian idea that its adherents possessed a secret message, bequeathed to a select few, that held the key to higher life.

For crying out loud, Irenaeus condemned the Judas writing in A.D. 180 in his book Against Heresies. He summed up the Judas tract as follows:

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

The Gospel of Judas claims to be a secret discussion between Judas and Jesus. Compare that with the four Gospels of the New Testament where Christ’s preaching is extremely public. The Gospel of Judas claims secret knowledge for a limited few. Compare that with Christ’s teaching that he came for all. The Gnostics tried to rehabilitate every bad guy in the Bible from Cain on down. They thought Yahweh was evil. I mean, is it really that shocking that Irenaeus, and the larger church, condemned these guys?

This story is sort of akin to folks in A.D. 3800 translating a Weekly World News story from this year that says Abraham Lincoln was actually a woman dressing as a man. I mean, sure, it’s true that Gnostics existed, accessed Christianity and wrote several tracts. But why do the media treat this as some sort of breaking news story that casts doubt on the veracity of the Gospels? And why has their coverage provided no context and no understanding of the relative credibility of the Gospel of Judas? Perhaps it is because, as Harold Bloom notes, Gnosticism is America’s cultural religion?

Let’s go to the Associated Press story, which reached news outlets far and wide:

A “Gospel of Judas” was first mentioned around 180 A.D. by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, in what is now France. The bishop denounced the manuscript as heresy because it differed from mainstream Christianity. The actual text had been thought lost until this discovery.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said, “The people who loved, circulated and wrote down these gospels did not think they were heretics.”

Gnostic Sea SaltI love the way AP characterizes Irenaeus’ theological whipping of the Judas-adoring Cainites. “Sorry, guys, but you differ from mainstream Christianity.” That’s like saying the Flat Earth Society was denounced for differing from mainstream cartography. I also love the Pagels quote. Really? The Gnostics didn’t think they were heretics? Well, I guess the battle between orthodox Christians and Elaine “Gnostic Gospels” Pagels is settled, then. And that’s precisely what the AP story makes it out to be. The next quotes are just odd, really. I kept waiting for a Christian who thinks the Judas Gospel is bunk (and lived after A.D. 180) to appear. Instead we got this:

Added [the] Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago: “Let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin.”

Senior expressed doubt that the new gospel will rival the New Testament, but he allowed that opinions are likely to vary.

Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, said New Testament explanations for Judas’ betrayal range from money to the influence of Satan.

“Perhaps more now can be said,” he commented. The document “implies that Judas only did what Jesus wanted him to do.”

Christianity in the ancient world was much more diverse than it is now, with a number of gospels circulating in addition to the four that were finally collected into the New Testament, noted Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.

Eventually, one point of view prevailed and the others were declared heresy, he said, including the Gnostics who believed that salvation depended on secret knowledge that Jesus imparted, particularly to Judas.

Could they not find one modern-day scholar or observer, even, who is less impressed by this supposed blockbuster? In fact almost all of the stories I read used the same few people to provide context. The Washington Post reporters who wrote about the Judas Gospel also managed to quote the same people as the AP story, but in a way that made them seem to be saying much different and more sensible things. It’s actually worth comparing. Here, though, they quote Pagels again:

Some scholars suggested that view — if it had been accepted — might have lessened anti-Semitism over the centuries. “The story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas gave a moral and religious rationale to anti-Jewish sentiment, and that’s what made it persistent and vicious,” said Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels.

Lord, have mercy. I mean, I’m beyond glad that Christians don’t riot at the slightest offense. But this public relations stunt (coincidentally timed to prep for the fictional Da Vinci Code?) released just before Palm Sunday heading into Holy Week? Christians have every right to be offended. There were some other media outlets that handled this news with a bit more cynicism and analysis, but for the most part, I give the media a failing grade.

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An issue of faith

jesus papersThe aspect I appreciate most about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is how it has raised the public profile of the concept of faith. The controversy behind the factual basis of the book has led the curious down a twisted and confusing historical path that forces one to raise one’s hands and surrender to the crushing blackness that is those things in the past that we just cannot know absolutely.

But history matters, and the truths that can be wrought out of it are critical for understanding the things around us, and in this case those things deal with religion. But often coming to those truths in one’s own life requires a measure of faith, and unfortunately journalists often forget this when reporting on these controversies.

USA Today brings us the news of a book titled The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History. The book is written by Brown’s nemesis Michael Baigent, who is suing Brown in a British court for allegedly ripping Baigent’s research for massive portions of The Da Vinci Code. All the while, Baigent has been planning a way to get a dollar or two in the wake of the massive Da Vinci code publicity:

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a coincidence in publishing anymore,” says Russell Perreault of Anchor, publisher of the Da Vinci paperback.

But Baigent, by phone from London, says it “absolutely” was not planned.

“There have been a lot of coincidences this year, at least I assume they are coincidences,” he says. “It’s funny, with just being on trial, and now we’re head-to-head with books.”

One would think that the publishing of Baigent’s book should be welcome by all who appreciate an honest debate over the historical issues. Let the facts in Brown’s book be laid out for all to examine without the cloud of historical fiction. But like The Da Vinci Code, The Jesus Papers is misleading in its title, as aptly pointed out by the Lost Angeles Times‘ Nick Owchar:

Much light is also shed on Baigent. “The Jesus Papers” is a very personal book. He’s outraged by the early Catholic Church’s consolidation of power, its crushing of dissent, its exclusion of women from leadership; he laments that vibrant texts like the Gnostic gospels were buried in the desert to protect them. He includes photos of himself at excavation sites and crouching in tunnels as if to suggest that understanding the faraway past requires some kind of physical contact.

“I love to travel to sacred sites and to feel them, to seek to understand them,” he writes. “Are such places intrinsically sacred, or do we make them so? Perhaps both. Sacred sites demand participation from the visitor, an entering into a relationship with them, an experience. And there lies the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist.”

Pretty soon, the reader realizes that there probably won’t be any “Jesus documents” — that this book is really a private credo, an intimate declaration of belief dressed up to be the religious bombshell of the millennium. But then the long-anticipated appearance of the documents comes (or does it?) near the end. Baigent meets with an unidentified antiquities dealer who shows him two pieces of parchment:

“Each was about eighteen inches long and nine inches high. … These were … the letters from Jesus to the Sanhedrin. They existed. I was silent as I fully enjoyed the moment.”

. . . Experts will debate such details for a long time, but the disappointing thing about “The Jesus Papers” is that Baigent’s personal search for the figure of Jesus is obscured by the hype of the book’s packaging — as if to say such personal quests don’t mean much anymore.

Brown’s theories — er, Baigent’s theories — are repackaged and removed from the ambiguity of a novel and what we have is a “private credo” that is based on faith? Ironically, Baigent’s recent book is based more on a personal faith than the work of Brown, who seems to merely have had faith in Baigent’s research.

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God wants you to be a millionaire

osteenI have a friend, and former editor, who used to watch televangelists with a drinking buddy. They would come home from a night on the town and keep drinking while watching CBN or some other preacher network. It was all fun and games until one night they accidentally donated $50 to Pat Robertson. The good news is that they realized they needed to cut back on their drinking.

I confess that I also like to watch televangelists while imbibing. And one of my favorites is Joel Osteen. I have been watching the ubiquitous preacher for years now, waiting for him to say anything uniquely Christian. If you watch him, you’ll know he has GREAT NEWS where other preachers just have Good News. Did you know God wants you to be wealthy and get a great-looking spouse? It’s true. Did you know God wants you to get a killer job and a fast car and the respect of your peers? True again.

Osteen is everywhere. His book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, sold more than 3 million copies. He packs the former Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play, with 40,000 devoted fans every week. The New York Times‘ Ralph Blumenthal wrote a fascinating profile of Osteen, who just signed a huge contract for a new book, possibly as much as $13 million.

“You know what, I’ve never done it for the money,” he said in an interview after Sunday’s service, which he led with his glamorous wife and co-pastor, Victoria. “I’ve never asked for money on television.” But opening oneself to God’s favors was a blessing, he said. “I believe it’s God rewarding you.” . . .

Or, as he also puts it: “God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner.”

He is not shy about calling on the Lord. He writes of praying for a winning basket in a basketball game, and then sinking it; and even of circling a parking lot, praying for a space, and then finding it. “Better yet,” he writes, “it was the premier spot in that parking lot.”

The article is all about Osteen’s teaching of the prosperity gospel, so it includes a lot of details about money. He shows how much money Osteen brings in at each week’s services ($1 million), how much money via mail ($20 million), the size of his staff (300), how much it cost to turn the Compaq Center into a church ($95 million) and the state of the church’s financial statements (notable for their accountability). The most interesting detail by far is that the church put a globe instead of a cross in what would be the apse.

What’s nice is that Blumenthal treats Osteen respectfully while giving a voice to Osteen’s critics:

In “Your Best Life,” Mr. Osteen counsels patience, compassion, kindness, generosity and an overall positive attitude familiar to any reader of self-help books. But he skirts the darker themes of sin, suffering and self-denial, leading some critics to deride the Osteen message as “Christianity lite.”

“He’s not in the soul business, he’s in the self business,” said James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and author of a forthcoming Simon & Schuster book on megachurches: “Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to in Your Face.”

“There’s breadth but not too much depth, but the breadth is quite spangly, exciting to look at — that’s his power,” said Dr. Twitchell who called Lakewood “the steroid extreme” of megachurches. He said church critics fault Mr. Osteen for “diluting and dumbing down” the Christian message, “but in truth,” he said, “what he’s producing is a wild and alluring community.”

The article is really interesting and informative, and I’m sure Osteen’s fans and critics would both agree. I would have liked a bit more comparison between Osteen’s theology of glory and the theology of the cross, but that it was alluded to at all is a great start.

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The Da Vinci trial is a wrap

da vinci code2By April 8 we should know whether Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is guilty of copyright infringement in Great Britain. According to reports in the Washington Post and New York Times, the judge’s questions seemed to indicate that he was not too thrilled with the plaintiffs.

Here’s the NYT:

LONDON, March 20 — The lawyer for the two men who say Dan Brown stole from their book for his novel “The Da Vinci Code” faced sharp and relentless questioning from the judge in the case during closing arguments in the High Court here on Monday.

The judge, Peter Jones, will not issue a decision for several weeks, and it is impossible to know how he will rule. But his tough questions appeared to reflect skepticism, even exasperation, toward some of the arguments put forward by the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the three authors of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.” (The book’s other author, Henry Lincoln, is not taking part in the lawsuit.) They claim that Mr. Brown lifted the central “architecture” for his megaselling “Da Vinci Code” from their nonfiction book, published in 1982.

For instance, when the lawyer, Jonathan Rayner James, argued that Mr. Brown had “been hiding the truth” about when he and his wife, Blythe Brown, who does much of his research, had first consulted “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” Justice Jones stopped him short. If that were true, the judge asked, why had Mr. Brown left out “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” from the bibliography he submitted to the publisher, along with a synopsis of “The Da Vinci Code” in January 2001 — only to include a pointed reference to the book in the finished novel a year later?

“If he’s trying to hide the fact that he’s using ‘H.B.H.G.’ in the synopsis,” the judge asked, referring to “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” by its initials, “what’s the point of shouting it out from the rooftops in the book?”

Rather than focusing on the possible outcome of the trial, the Post reporter Kevin Sullivan moaned and groaned in his lead about the arcane nature of the trial. I’m not sure what your regular beat is, but not everything can be as exciting and thrilling as The Da Vinci Code, Mr. Sullivan.

booksBut aside from the lead and the author’s apparently poor attention span for things arcane, I found the article to be quite thorough and worth reading:

LONDON, March 20 — The “Da Vinci Code” copyright infringement trial, which ended in a London courtroom Monday, combined lively peeks into a celebrity author’s lifestyle and hours of legal arcana so numbing that they put a white-wigged attorney to sleep within feet of the judge.

Fans of media-shy author Dan Brown learned that his inspiration to write fiction came on a Tahitian vacation when he read Sidney Sheldon’s alien-invasion thriller “The Doomsday Conspiracy.” The next day lawyers were arguing about obscure points of religious history, such as whether and why Pepin the Fat murdered Dagobert II, and what Godefroi de Bouillon was really up to during the First Crusade.

As I pointed out earlier this month, this story matters because it could have a ripple affect on novelists’ ability to write one of my most beloved genres: historical fiction.

The same could be said for the movie industry if it is true that Brown copied huge chucks of others’ work and simply changed a few words here and there. While that may be OK legally, it is certainly not OK ethically, as Molly adeptly pointed out here.

And while I disagree with much of the purported facts in Brown’s book and found convincing arguments why his version of history lacks credibility, I think what he’s done in getting people to examine the history of Christianity is tremendous, and other attempts to popularize history through fiction should not be stymied.

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Suing over a book’s architecture

da vinci codeApparently Dan Brown’s use of “historical conjecture” in his wildly popular Da Vinci Code has landed him in the British legal system on a charge of plagiarism. The media are fascinated by the revelations on how Brown wrote his book, his wife’s involvement in forming the more controversial themes of the book and how strange it is to see the laid-back Brown among a bunch of powdered wigs in a British courtroom.

Here’s the New York Times version of what’s happening:

Mr. Brown acknowledges that he used “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” (published in the United States as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”), as a source for his book, but contends it was just one of many books and documents he and his wife consulted. Indeed, his protagonist specifically refers to the book in a pivotal scene in “The Da Vinci Code” — a homage, Mr. Brown says; the name of one of Mr. Brown’s characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, was devised as an in-joke reference to “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” using the surname of one author and an anagram of the surname of another.

Mr. Baigent and Mr. Leigh’s case will rise or fall on how much they can prove that Mr. Brown relied on their book in writing his.

So far, their lawyers appear to have only scratched the surface of the issue, although they have in their possession what Mr. Brown says are all his notes, outlines and research materials.

In his statement to the court, he said that “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” was full of material that did not appear in “The Da Vinci Code,” and vice versa.

“I would like to restate that I remain astounded by the claimants’ choice to file this plagiarism suit,” he said. “For them to suggest, as I understand they do, that I have ‘hijacked and exploited’ their work is simply untrue.”

For the fans of the books it is great drama, and the revelations on the formation of the book are somewhat interesting, but the real significance of this story is on how the matter could end the genre of historical fiction.

dan brownNow I’m not talking about the basic histories we’re all familiar with. Common-knowledge subjects like the American Civil War, Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the journey of Marco Polo will remain up for grabs. But the more speculative aspects that have been recently explored by researchers and are not established in the history books will be out the window, as explained by author Sarah Dunant, a guest on National Public Ratio’s On the Media last week:

I think the problem about religion is it is based somewhere on a series of facts that nobody quite knows. The notion that Christ may have been married, the notion that Mary Magdalene may have been more than just a poor supplicant, are notions that have been around for a very long time. And if a writer, particularly a thriller writer, a writer where plot is really important, where the uncovering of secrets is really important … as you know, I began life as a thriller writer, and I try and weave in thriller plots to history because the better the book, the more you’re drawing on stuff that is actually fact. Thriller writers do lots of research. The big question here is whether or not an idea, a bigger idea as opposed to a series of facts and opinions, can be copyrighted. And that is a huge question, which I think, even when they have ordered one way or the other in the Dan Brown case, in a sense, we’ll still be asking. …

For a very long time, any kind of novel about history, particularly deliberately historical novels, were more often about kind of kings and queens and big battles and the big accepted history. But the kind of history that is being done by all manner of scholars over the last 40 or 50 years, from women’s research people to people who are interested in gay culture to people who are interested in the hidden bits of the sort of Christian mythology, their job has been to get under the surface, to get to those other nine-tenths of the iceberg. It’s all, in a sense, new and slightly hidden history. So the historical novelist, particularly if you want to write a good thrilling historical novel, which I certainly set out to do, has to use all kinds of sources which, in a sense, are just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m a bit disappointed that I have not seen more on this from mainstream publications. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but most of what I’ve read fails to highlight the very essence for which Brown is being sued. Perhaps because the ideas are so controversial, reporters avoid them with the subtle fear that they will make a goof? Or maybe it’s because those suing Brown don’t stand much of a chance to win even in Great Britain, not to mention the United States?

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National Crunchy Cons day

1400050642 01 LZZZZZZZThere’s no way around it.

This does seem to be national Crunchy Cons day among conservatives of a certain ilk and, yes, I was planning on mentioning the long-awaited release of Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher’s book. After all, a major theme of this blog is the complexity of some of the “liberal” and “conservative” labels that journalists toss around all the time.

If readers wish to do so, click here to flash back to a crucial GetReligion post on themes that are very close to the heart of Dreher’s hilarious and serious book.

But let’s start with this from a reader:

TMATT, did you see today’s OpinionJournal article on Rod Dreher? The author states that “… consumerism and conservatism are, for him [Dreher], incompatible, a fact that mainstream conservatives, he says, simply do not grasp.” I think Dreher is the one with the “grasping” problem. He is obviously not an economic conservative — I may not like strip malls and such, either, but I believe in free choice. According to the article, only Rod Dreher’s “countercultural” priorities are truly conservative. Wow. Welcome to the communalistic world where you must share Rod’s vision to be a conservative. May I suggest that Rod use his talents to come up with a new name (other than the modifier “crunchy”) to describe his movement, instead of stealing the term “conservative.” And please quit describing him as a social or economic conservative when he is obviously neither.

Posted by Scott Allen at 2:24 pm on February 21, 2006

Actually, the Wall Street Journal article stresses that Dreher — a columnist and editorial-page scribe at the Dallas Morning News — is a conservative in a very old-fashioned tradition, a conservative who is more interested in preserving old values than building new shopping malls. Forced to choose between the church and the mall, or the home and the corporate tower, Dreher is going for the home and the church every time.

This is, of course, the battle at the heart (or the soul) of the modern Republican Party, as described by President Bush’s scribe Michael Gerson and others.

I will not try to sum the book up, in large part because the essay by conservative historian George H. Nash does such a good job of doing so. He is right that Dreher is trying to find a path between (or away from) two competing brands of Libertarianism, a way between the political “Party of Lust” and the political “Party of Greed.” Here is a crucial part of his essay on Rod’s work, a statement that points toward the Godbeat story hidden in this book:

In Mr. Dreher’s view, consumer-crazed capitalism makes a fetish of individual choice and, if left unchecked, “tends to pull families and communities apart.” Thus consumerism and conservatism are, for him, incompatible, a fact that mainstream conservatives, he says, simply do not grasp. He warns that capitalism must be reined in by “the moral and spiritual energies of the people.” It is not politics and economics that will save us, he declares. It is adherence to the “eternal moral norms” known as the Permanent Things.

And the most permanent thing of all is God. At the heart of Mr. Dreher’s family-centered crunchy conservatism is an unwavering commitment to religious faith. And not just any religious faith but rigorous, old-fashioned orthodoxy. Only a firm grounding in religious commitment, he believes, can sustain crunchy conservatives in their struggle against the radical individualism and materialism he decries. Nearly all the crunchy cons he interviews are devoutly Christian or orthodox Jewish believers who are deliberately ordering their lives toward the ultimate end of “serving God, not the self” — often at considerable financial sacrifice.

If this sounds more like Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind, than Rush Limbaugh, then there is a reason for that. Which is the higher social good, freedom or virtue?

03 06 2005 ned 06roddreherNEW GV21IKO0C 1We will not argue about that here. I am more interested in knowing if GetReligion readers see any interesting feature stories in the weeks ahead that explore any of these themes. I may write about it for Scripps Howard News Service in a few weeks, with the obvious confession right out front that Dreher is a friend (and, besides, I own more pairs of Birkenstocks than the whole Dreher clan put together, including a pair purchased in 1979).

Besides, if you want to argue with Dreher, then by all means do so. Folks are blogging about his Crunchy Cons manifesto over at the Dallas Morning News opinion page. Also, you can read one of his original National Review essays from 2002 and then weigh in at the new Crunchy Cons blog at NRO.

And Rod has already started responding to those who want to toss him off the ship of conservatism. But the bottom line is easy to see: He is a moral and cultural conservative, more than a political and economic conservative. Or, as he just posted on NRO:

Where the Right Went Wrong
[Rod Dreher 02/21 11:38 AM]

… (The) book has its intellectual roots in the traditionalist camp of postwar conservatism, as distinct from the libertarian camp. Both were united in opposing the behemoth state, but whereas libertarians were more concerned with economic liberty, traditionalists were more focused on virtue. It seems to me that modern conservatism, in the main, pays lip service to virtue, but is really more wrapped up with economics and libertarian concerns. Do you agree? If so, where, and why, did the Right lose touch with traditionalism?

Here’s a line from the first chapter that speaks to this concern: “Both mainstream liberalism and conservatism are essentially materialist ideologies, and we should not be surprised that both shape a society dedicated to the multiplication of wants and the intensification of desire, not the improvement of character.”

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