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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The Oprah of Christian TV?

700ClubSplashNew2During that dizzying rush of recent Pat Robertson headlines, more than a few GetReligion readers protested that I was wrong to say the MSM should “excommunicate” him as a mainstream Christian, or even “evangelical,” news source. After all, said these readers, the czar of The 700 Club was still the czar of The 700 Club.

Well, you just knew that at some point a major newspaper or network was going to rise up to defend — sort of — the honor of the Religious Right leader that mainstream journalists most love to hate. As it turns out, the Los Angeles Times has taken up that challenge. Sort of. To tell you the truth, the article by reporter Faye Fiore (headline: “A Wholly Controversial Holy Man”) is pretty good.

The bottom line: He still has lots of viewers and he may have more freedom to speak out now because he has little or no political clout at all. What he has right now is a camera and a satellite. Who does he speak for? Good question.

His evangelical peers have branded him “arrogant” for his comments, and students at the Christian university he founded worry that his candor could damage their school’s credibility. The political left eagerly monitors his appearances on his spirits-raising morning show. What they find becomes fodder for talk-show monologues.

“Pat Robertson said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke was God’s punishment for him giving up Israeli territory. … If you are playing along at home, this is Pat’s first idiotic statement of the New Year,” Jay Leno quipped. …

(At) age 75, and freed from the need to marshal political capital, Robertson seems even less restrained than ever. His verbal grenades sound more like bombs, and even those in the evangelical community are noticing.

The key word there is “even.” In reality, Robertson’s clout among evangelical Protestants has been fading since he was all but invisible during the 2000 Bush campaign for the White House.

So what power does he have? As it turns out, Fiore reports that Robertson does have clout in one major corner of the Christian marketplace — public relations. He has the ability to threaten the companies that produce products for shelves in Christian stores.

Yes, Robertson is a mini-Oprah.

… Robertson’s reach is vast. “The 700 Club’s” average daily audience exceeded 830,000 this season, according to Nielsen Media Research, down from 1 million a decade ago but formidable enough that some dare not incur his notorious wrath.

“He’s like a little bitty Oprah among evangelicals,” said Doug Wead, an author and former advisor to President George H.W. Bush. “He’s got a talk show, so if someone comes out and says Pat’s a little goofy, he is going to have to accept the fact he won’t be on Pat Robertson’s show when his book comes out.”

There’s much more to read, but I think I had better be quiet. After all, I have a book out right now.

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Lex orandi, lex credendi

cinemaA dear friend of mine got married a few weeks ago in a service at a traditional Episcopal sanctuary. She’s not Episcopalian but she didn’t want to get married at her own church. That’s because her congregation meets for worship in a movie theater.

Los Angeles Times reporter David Haldane writes a piece about such churches that meet in movie theaters:

We’d be lost without the screen,” said [Pastor Wes] Beavis, the 43-year-old leader of Destiny People Christian Church, which holds services at the theaters each week. The screen, he said, plays a central spiritual role. “The great thing about it is that it’s huge. We fill it with my messages, PowerPoint presentations, words to songs and great images of nature.”

The 5-year-old, 150-member congregation is among a growing number nationwide offering salvation Sunday mornings where popcorn is the usual fare. The trend is especially pronounced in Southern California, experts say, combining, as it does, two popular activities: going to movies and attending church.

The piece is fine, in the sense that it’s an interesting bit of reporting on a growing phenomenon. Haldane ticks off the cost-savings and convenience of a once-a-week rental of the local multiplex over the construction or rental of a sanctuary, for instance. However, I was struck by the complete lack of critical analysis. Churches aren’t built the way they are as a matter of tradition, although that plays a part. The way one constructs a church — location of the baptismal font; the size of the altar; the stained glass, icons and permanent art — all indicate the theology of the congregation.

Haldane quotes the pastor of one of the movie theater churches saying the theater screen plays a central spiritual role, which is most certainly true. Unfortunately, he didn’t explore what that spiritual role is and whether it has theological benefits and costs.

A reporter with knowledge of the various rites performed in sanctuaries would immediately have thought to ask what happens when a parishioner dies. Where and when is the funeral? How and where, exactly, are baptisms performed? What happens when a parishioner wants to get married on a Saturday afternoon during the matinee?

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A heroine gets her due

KateCoverYesterday, the Washington Post ran a profile of Kate Michelman. I’m not sure if they were trying to push her new book or push her appearance before the Alito hearings today, but they were pushing something. If NARAL Pro-Choice America itself had written the piece, it probably would have had more perspective.

Yes, it was in the Style section. But really. Beginning with the headline (“Kate Michelman, The Public Face of a Woman’s Right to Privacy“), the piece is just puffy. I can think of many controversial people who would like such unblinkingly positive coverage in the Post.

Kate Michelman is the face of reproductive rights. It’s a thin face with high cheekbones, dark eyes that can light up and a mouth with a corner that upturns at comic moments.

Staff writer Linton Weeks delves deep to teach us that Michelman organized sales to benefit Mexican farm workers as a teenager. She makes food from scratch and loves to wash dishes. She reads a lot (“every word in every paragraph”) and watches “24.” And then this:

Personality tests, she said, always told her what she already knew. She is an introvert. Her personal story, she said, pushed her into prominence.

Maybe it was reflecting earlier this week on that wonderful Los Angeles Times piece that makes this saccharine hagiography so difficult to stomach. Apparently the rest of the media did not get the memo that more even-handed coverage of abortion issues was permissible. While I’m sympathetic to writing so positively about controversial figures who have since retired from public life, this very controversial woman was testifying against Alito today, not 20 years ago.

While no critics of Michelman were found, Linton did share this quote from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright:

Albright told everyone that Michelman had provided “a voice for those who didn’t have a voice and a brain for those who didn’t have a brain.”

Yikes. No comment.

Next time the Post profiles someone, I hope they can provide a bit more perspective. I certainly got nothing out of this piece. And that’s a shame, because I’d love to know more about Michlelman.

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The Church of Oprah

poprahThis is slightly outside of the normal media coverage we follow, but I couldn’t help but notice that ghosts and religious terminology abound in recent stories about author James Frey. This is the man who wrote an exaggerated or possibly even fictional account of a drug- and alcohol-addled life of crime and successfully passed it off as his factual memoir A Million Little Pieces, which sold a gazillion copies and recently was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

The book and Frey were doing quite well until The Smoking Gun website ran a lengthy expose of their “fabrications, falsehoods and other fakery” on Jan. 8. The book hinges on the fact that Frey was a hardened criminal and drug addict, but in order to sell that story to readers, it appears that Frey changed facts. Driving without a license became a felony assault on cops. Possession of a Pabst Blue Ribbon was changed into possession of crack cocaine. Frey’s exaggerations and inventions would be less noteworthy if so many people hadn’t bought his book and if so many people didn’t believe so fervently in his story, according to The Smoking Gun:

While claiming that he does not desire to become the poster boy for unconventional recovery, Frey has nonetheless emerged as a source of inspiration and guidance for countless substance abusers (as well as their friends and loved ones) and other readers who have embraced “A Million Little Pieces” as a forthright, honest, and unconventional look at addiction. For Winfrey’s show, he even traveled to a Minnesota clinic and gave an on-camera pep talk to Sandie, a viewer who checked herself into rehab after learning about Frey’s book via an e-mail from the Oprah club. “If I can do it, you can do it,” Frey told her. A second Winfrey show is in the works, with her web site seeking viewers whose lives have been “dramatically impacted” by Frey’s book. The site asks, “Did ‘A Million Little Pieces’ Save Your Life?”

Last night Larry King had James Frey on his show for a hard-hitting interview. Just kidding. It was a relatively easy interview during which Frey kept explaining that he cannot be blamed for his faulty memory or subjective retelling or exaggeration. Things were not looking good for Frey until the high priestess of American spirituality called into the show to save the day. Here’s what Oprah Winfrey had to say:

“And I feel about ‘A Million Little Pieces’ that although some of the facts have been questioned — and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book.”

james freyTalk about a blessing! With Oprah’s absolution, Frey could very well land on his feet. The interesting thing is that the Oprah defense washes over the fabrication by attesting to some deeper truth — but it was the supposed 100 percent unadulterated truth of this memoir that was his biggest selling point. Frey kept reminding people that his words were completely honest and truthful, even recently. Take a look at this Jan. 6 letter from Frey’s attorney that reiterates the claim of complete truthfulness, for instance.

Is there something religious about the current state of memoir-driven literature? This idea that one must experience something personally in order for it to be valid? That these experiences must be dramatic and debauched? The publishing world seems to think the book would not work as fiction. Neither would it have sold — in the current climate at least — if Frey had copped to his banal and relatively comfortable upbringing. A life of unthinkable sin before conversion is what is needed. Do these mythical stories which Americans love find their way into news copy? Are reporters more biased toward dramatic conversion stories?

In any case, Seth Mnookin, a writer for Slate and a former heroin addict, said there was a problem with brushing over the factual discrepancies:

In building up a false bogeyman — the American recovery movement’s supposed reliance on the notion of “victimhood”– Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior. In fact, it seems clear that Frey would have been well-served by taking the kind of unflinchingly honest look at his own life that most recovery programs demand.

Like I said, religious terminology and concepts abound in this story. Not the least of which surround Oprah and her blessings and sanctions.

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Follow-up question for Anne Rice

Do you ever wish that you could have been present during an interview between a major newspaper and a major newsmaker or popular personality? This happens to me when I read a really amazing quote and then think to myself, “OK, if the reporter didn’t follow up on that by asking this question, he (or she) should be abandoned in journalism purgatory.”

anne riceThis past week, the Baltimore Sun ran an interesting feature on novelist Anne Rice by reporter Anne-Marie O’Connor. Clearly, we are still in major publicity mode for “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.” By all means, read the story for yourself, because it has some interesting material in it.

I have been interested in the dueling themes in the press coverage of this book. Stories tend to say (a) the book’s take on Christianity is amazingly orthodox, given Rice’s past, and conservatives are rather pleased with it or (b) Rice has come back to Catholicism on her own terms, which blend personal faith with progressive takes on moral issues. In other words, she is a brave Catholic reformer. Some people have tried to say (a) and (b), which is tricky, but possible.

Thus, I was fascinated by this section of the Sun piece:

Rice favors gay marriage. She believes the church position regarding birth control is a grievous error that is not supported by Scripture. She repudiates what she sees as intolerant, “sex-obsessed” church leaders and says she does not find support in the message of Jesus for their focus on sexual orientation or abortion. She argues for a more inclusive church.

“Think of how the church bells would ring and the pews would fill if women could become priests and priests could marry. It would be the great resurgence of the Catholic Church in this country,” Rice said recently, seated in front of a roaring fire, in the La Jolla, Calif., mansion she moved to after she left New Orleans.

OK, so what is the very next question that the reporter could have, or even should have, asked?

Here is my clue for you. It is closely related to the question I have sent to Andrew Sullivan several times and he has never answered. It would start: “Ms. Rice, are you familiar with the statistical trends …”

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