Who’s missing from the big picture?

aslan eyeLet me (during a short break in my D.C. meetings) jump up on a soapbox for a minute.

Is Entertainment Weekly a news publication? Probably not, but it is published by a news organization and it has some pages in the front of each issue called “news.” The current issue has one of those trendy annotated list/feature stories by reporter Tim Stack titled “Claw Power: The top ten franchise characters in movies — Wolverine, Madea and Jigsaw are only some of the heroes and villians that attract audiences.”

The article never clearly defines its terms, which left me to assume — a bad word in journalism — that the goal of the article was to describe the characters at the heart of current Hollywood movie franchises, movie series that have potential to roll on for some time into the future making the big bucks.

The man at the top of the list is currently ruling global theater screens:

Despite some negative prerelease buzz, mixed reviews, and a furry blue Kelsey Grammer in a leather vest, X-Men: The Last Stand demolished Memorial Day box office records with a huge $122.9 million domestic four-day gross. It’s the latest impressive haul for a franchise that just keeps getting bigger: In 2000, the first X-Men pulled in $157.7 million total, while 2003′s X2 took home $214.9 million. With The Last Stand this X trilogy has come to an end, but the film’s best-known character, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), is set to live on in a highly anticipated spin-off, which could spawn sequels of its own. That’s why the blade-bearing mutant tops our list of film’s most powerful characters.

Notice that there appear to be two key factors linked to the meaning of this “franchise” term — (1) big box office and (2) the ability to produce more sequels. In other words, EW says it wants success right now and solid potential for success in the future.

Thus, Harry Potter is No. 2 and Spider-Man is No. 3. Shrek falls to No. 4. Shrek 3 is on the way, but beyond that? What is the source material for Shrek 7?

The rest of the list gets kind of strange (read the article for the explanations of each):

(5) Robert Langdon (with or without the hair of Tom Hanks)

(6) Jason Bourne

(7) James Bond

(8) Jigsaw

(9) Bart Simpson (fading on TV, first movie on the way)

(10) Madea

Aslan Lion Narnia MovieActually, I would have rated Perry’s “trash-talking senior citizen” higher in the list, in part because of her cost-to-box-office ratio. Clearly, there is a niche out there for African American humor that has some sense of (how to say this) faith and funky family values. I also get the impression that Perry is tapping a very deep personal well of creativity.

But I digress.

Take a look at that No. 2 slot — Mr. Harry Potter. Now, I love these books and think the movies are OK. The fourth movie was a smash and brought in $290,013,036 in domestic box office. That’s a strong total, and few doubt that the final three movies will do likewise.

But what if you had a franchise character that brought in $291,710,957 in its opening movie? What if the character was at the heart of a beloved, classic seven-book series that sold roughly 100 million copies in the second half of the 20th century?

With six books to go, could we say that this character has solid box-office potential? If the first film topped that No. 2 franchise, might not this new franchise character at least make it onto the list? Somewhere?

Who is missing from this list? Why is he — or even He — missing? Why doesn’t this pop-news article in EW play by its own rules?

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Latest in evangelistic video games

stbbc8So, be honest. Which of the following two news stories scares you the most?

Option (a), or option (b)?

Which story makes you the most depressed about the future of public discourse in our culture? The future of organized and non-organized religion?

OK, I’ll cut to the chase. Which is the bigger news story?

But wait. Is it possible that these two stories are actually the same news story, only looking at fads in different zip codes?

Have a nice day. I need a nap.

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Inside Dan Brown’s Holy of Holies

bonalisa2Just a reminder, gentle readers, that I am still interested in actual news stories about The Da Vinci Code that escape the basic news templates we have seen over and over and over.

Although, I guess, if somebody out there is doing an evangelistic weekend that actually focuses on church history and art, that would be a novelty.

Anyway, the Los Angeles Times did print a feature this week that tries to offer newspaper readers a bit of a trip into a world that they do not see — the life of the screenwriter. In “Breaking ‘Code’ down on the page,” Charles Taylor tried to explain the challenges that Akiva Goldsman faced in taking the novel — that many book reviewers said resembled a bad movie driven by fake cliffhangers — and actually putting it on the screen.

Here’s the key: The book actually is about the ideas in its pages and the action is, for the most part, beside the point. Dan Brown really believes this stuff, and Goldsman tried to honor that. Perhaps director Ron Howard wasn’t up to the challenge? Thus, Taylor writes:

… (It) would be dishonest to pass judgment on Goldsman divorced from any knowledge of what Ron Howard did with his script. Howard is too conventional a director to bring the film the craziness and pace that it needs. (If ever there should be a lapsed Catholic behind the camera, this is the movie.)

But the slow deliberation of Goldsman’s script does provide the pleasant novelty of a summer blockbuster that isn’t punctuated by explosions every two minutes. There’s also no escaping the kick of seeing a big-budget Hollywood movie that qualifies as an honest-to-God blasphemy.

It could be that we are officially entering a new stage of coverage, a kind of “Yes, lots of smart people (click here!) think the movie stinks, but it’s cool that it’s attacking the right people and the ideas in it are worth thinking about even though all of the history and art stuff is bunk.”

It is also clear that many of the ideas that are in the book have been watered down in the movie, almost certainly — as a PR man linked to Sony told me long ago — in an attempt to make the book less offensive to Catholics and other traditional Christians. But the worldview is still there, no matter how hard Tom Hanks tries to say that it is all just a bizarre story.

So what is the heart of the story in the movie? If this is a refreshing blast of blasphemy, what is the key element of its heretical doctrine?

Most journalists have focused on the “Did Jesus get married?” angle, but a few have dug underneath that and hit larger questions. Over at USA Today, veteran religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman sped past the plot and offered this summary: It’s pro-feminist Gnosticism.

Is there really a feminine aspect to God? A theology that’s been sub rosa, hidden for centuries beneath the feminine symbol of the rose, the flower reminiscent of a blossoming womb? Author Dan Brown says one reason his book is popular with women is because it confirms their sense that Christianity has kept women in secondary roles to downplay or disguise the feminine aspect of God, maintain male religious authority and stamp out rival beliefs, such as goddess cults.

Our world today is based on “outdated male philosophy,” Brown said recently on New Hampshire Public Radio. So he countered with a heroine whose very name, Sophie, means wisdom. It’s a salute to Gnosticism (gnosis is Greek for knowledge), a first-century sect some claim was more feminine-friendly.

model smallLike the Matrix movies, DVC does have a massive dose of gnosis. But, in the novel, Brown goes further than that, further back in time, and ends up in a place that, frankly, I have been stunned has not set off warning sirens in some Jewish sanctuaries.

That was the subject of my Scripps Howard column this week. If you want to read that, click here, but here is a hint: There was more going on inside the Jewish Temple than the sacrifice of lambs. The priests and the priestesses were getting it on in there.

In the beginning, Judaism was a faith built on sacred sex.

At least, that’s what Dan Brown told 60 million readers in “The Da Vinci Code,” speaking though a fictional Harvard scholar named Robert Langdon. And while the characters are fictional, the novelist continues to affirm the statement that opens his book: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”

One of those “secret rituals” is an eye-opener.

“Langdon’s Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the temple, no less,” wrote Brown, in one of many long speeches that explain his iconoclastic plot. “Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple housed not only God but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the Temple to visit priestesses … with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union.”

So, journalists, it might not hurt to include a local Orthodox rabbi in your source list — or a tantric sex expert — for the next round of DVC coverage. Brown’s unique Judeo-Christian Gnosticism has a sexy edge to it.

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Newsweek turns maudlin

Newsweek5 29 06The cover story of the May 29 Newsweek is an oddity. Much of the story is driven by the popularity of The Da Vinci Code (both as pulp fiction and as popcorn movie), although Newsweek dispenses with most of Dan Brown’s alternative reality in a handy sidebar.

The story also is odd in that it calls the Magdalene an “inconvenient woman,” a sort of white martyr of the church’s patriarchy, even while it mentions that throughout church history she has inspired admiration and devotion.

Even in dealing with Pope Gregory the Great’s declaration that the Magdalene was the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair, Newsweek cannot decide whether the Pope was “attacking” Mary or holding her up as a model of penance:

It was only a matter of time before the Magdalene also came under attack. The moment arrived on an autumn Sunday in the year 591, in a sermon preached at the heart of the Catholic Church. Taking the pulpit at the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, Pope Gregory the Great offered a startling conclusion about the Magdalene: she had been a whore. Before she came to Christ, Gregory explained, Mary’s sins were manifold: she had “coveted with Earthly eyes” and “displayed her hair to set off her face.” Most scandalously, she had “used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” Looking out at his audience, a somber mass of monks, Gregory gave Mary a new identity that would shape her image for fourteen hundred years. “It is clear, brothers,” he declared: she was a prostitute.

But it was not clear at all. Gregory’s remarkable assertion was based on the idea that Mary was the unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in the seventh chapter of Luke — a conflation many contemporary scholars dismiss. Even if she were the sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh — in the first century, a woman could be considered “sinful” for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. Gregory created the prostitute, as if from thin air.

The pope made his new Mary a reformed whore because he knew that the faithful needed a story of penance that was at once alluring and inspiring. The early Middle Ages were a time of tremendous social tumult — war and disease roiled nations and sent destitute women into the streets. Gregory’s church needed a character from Jesus’ circle who provided an answer to this misery, who proved that the path of Christ was an escape from the pressures of the sinful world. The mysterious Magdalene of the Resurrection story was peripheral enough to be reinvented. Finally, the church fathers were able to put the inconvenient woman to good use.

Newsweek interviews the familiar academic admirers of Gnosticism such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. Karen King of Harvard offers some critical words about The Da Vinci Code as too retro:

The current Magdalene cult still focuses on her sexuality even though no early Christian writings speak of her sexuality at all. “Why do we feel the need to resexualize Mary?” wonders Karen King, author of “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala.” “We’ve gotten rid of the myth of the prostitute. Now there’s this move to see her as wife and mother. Why isn’t it adequate to see her as disciple and perhaps apostle?”

The story would have been more informative, and may have even offered a clash of ideas, had Newsweek interviewed Da Vinci critics such as Darrell Bock, Greg Jones, Sandra Miesel, or Amy Welborn.

At least we can be thankful the story doesn’t indulge in hysterical Gospel of Judas-style predictions that Sunday-school teachers will have to rethink the entirety of their message because a Gnostic text preaches Gnosticism.

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What Jesus wouldn’t do

lutherReader James S. pointed out something from one of the articles Terry linked to in his last Da Vinci post. It comes from Owen Glieberman’s piece in Entertainment Weekly:

Yes, a soupcon 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 (though Martin Luther believed so).

Martin Luther believed what? That Jesus and Mary Magdalene were intimate? What hogwash. Unfortunately, the lie is getting some traction. CNN republished it. Time made the claim in 2003. I even spoke with a copyeditor last week who removed it from an article during the fact-checking process.

Since I’m Lutheran, I’m quite familiar with many of the wonderful things Luther said and wrote. I’m also familiar with many of the stupid things he said. But it takes willful misunderstanding of Luther to say that he believed Jesus was intimate with Mary Magdalene.

Only by putting Luther in the worst possible light can you make this claim. Luther thought about a lot. And most of it was written down. The most complete collection of Luther’s writings is the Weimar Ausgabe, consisting of 101 large folio volumes. While only a fraction of these writings have been translated into English, the majority of these translations appear in the 54-volume American edition of Luther’s Works. Luther wrote about everything from vocation to Scriptural canonicity; from the Doctrine of Justification to civil administration.

Pelikan 01So from these 101 volumes of Luther’s voluminous writings we have Luther’s consistent preaching of Jesus as sinless. And then on page 154 of the last volume of the American edition — edited by none other than the recently deceased Jaroslav Pelikan (pictured) — we have a statement attributed to Luther by John Schlaginhaufen. It’s from a section of the Works called Table Talk and collects freewheeling conversations Luther enjoyed with friends.

“Christ was an adulterer for the first time with the woman at the well, for it was said, ‘Nobody knows what he’s doing with her’ [John 4:27]. Again, [he was an adulterer] with Magdalene, and still again with the adulterous woman in John 8 [:2-11], whom he let off so easily. So the good Christ had to become an adulterer before he died.”

The editor points out that the quote lacks context. Other Luther scholars have pointed out that the quote, read without interpretation, would not fit with anything else Luther said about Jesus. But that doesn’t stop Time, Entertainment Weekly, CNN and other media outlets from repeating this ridiculous statement that, if taken seriously, would contradict thousands of sermons, hundreds of speeches and hundreds of pages of collected writings. Readers who are interested in explanations that match with Luther’s thousands of other teachings about Jesus may be interested in what this Lutheran pastor has to say:

So what in the world was he talking about at dinner that day in 1532? The Biblical context, Christian theology, and a knowledge of Luther’s way of thinking lead us to one or two possible conclusions . . .

Luther may have been examining Jesus from the perspective of His First Century witnesses, who were shocked that He ate and drank with “sinners” and that He’d sit and talk one-on-one and in public with a woman . . .

The other logical conclusion the total evidence allows is that Luther was speaking theologically. Talking with, granting forgiveness to, and allowing anointing by these women was emblematic of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry. He was no passive bystander of the human condition, but He lived among us. While sinless, He took our sins upon Himself that He might fully forgive us. Paul summarized this work in 2 Corinthians 5:21, saying, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (ESV)”

Speaking of the great Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, his death last week was not marked nearly enough in newspapers. The Washington Post‘s obituary about the man, who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1998, also had a surprising error:

Jaroslav Jan Pelikan Jr., the son of a Lutheran minister who had emigrated from what is now Czechoslovakia, was born in Akron, Ohio, on Dec. 17, 1923.

Czechoslovakia — forced together in 1918 — split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

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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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Killing Rachel, over and over again

rachel scottI guess I am going to have to download that damned Super Columbine Massacre RPG game if I want to know the answers to some of my questions. I want to know if the angels and demons present in the original press coverage of that 1999 tragedy made it into the game.

As noted in a Washington Post report by Jose Antonio Vargas, the game has been lurking on the Internet for more than a year without drawing much interest. But now it is getting media attention and, thus, the attention of survivors and their families. The game, as a game, is said to be pretty shoddy, but it contains real images and quotations from the event. The once anonymous creator of the game has been outed as 24-year-old Danny Ledonne.

And what about all of the God talk and the anti-God talk? The words of the boys who thought they were gods and the martyrs who testified to their faith in God? Still no concrete information, but the following chunk of the Post report does include a hint that, yes, Rachel Scott is in the game.

Roger Kovacs, a 22-year-old Web developer, was so infuriated about the game this week that he sought to figure out who “Columbin” was. Once he learned Ledonne’s identity, he posted it on the game’s site. “One of the girls who died was a friend of mine,” Kovacs said. “Rachel. We were in the same church group. Anyone playing this game can kill Rachel over and over again.”

Richard Castaldo, one of the students injured that day, had a different take. He is paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the back, chest, arm and abdomen. He’s a gamer — he wants to be a sound engineer for games — and he’s played the Columbine game. There are some parts that were tough for him, the 24-year-old said, but he thought the game has a unique take on that day. “It’s weird for me to say this, I guess, but there’s something about it that I appreciated, seeing the game from the killers’ perspective,” Castaldo said.

Both of those quotes are chilling, in totally different ways.

Has anyone else see some serious coverage — MSM or online gamer sites — of this “shooter” game?

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Attack of Da Cannes tomatoes

killertomatoesAs regular GetReligion readers know, we don’t pay much attention to editorials and reviews, unless they touch on topics that are so newsworthy that we simply have to talk about them. You could make a case that the current flood of negative reviews of The Da Vinci Code movie would fall into this category.

But there are just too many of them. If you want to tap into that, you can head over to Rotten Tomatoes and eat your fill.

So what about the news itself?

Well, the DVC news coverage is also so heavy that I am having trouble trying to read even a 10th of it. Then again, that is why God made Ted Olsen, over at Christianity Today‘s blog. Click here if you want access to his usual blitz of URLs to reviews, news, strange press releases and who knows what all. And Olsen offers this interesting thought for reporters working this story:

What Weblog doesn’t quite understand is the use of the term boycott in talking about one particular movie. Is saying “don’t see this movie” or “this movie stinks” the same as calling for a boycott? If so, then why are critics described as “panning” the film but pastors and bishops are “calling for a boycott”? And is choosing not to see a film the same as taking part in a boycott? Because I’m not reading a lot about the big R.V. and Just My Luck boycotts. And if it’s a boycott to refuse to see a film, what do you call Sony’s refusal to let people who want to see the film (namely film critics who aren’t in Cannes) do so?

Meanwhile, if you want to know why there are so many stories about about this movie gracing prime slots on the front pages of major newspapers, click here to see the “Well, Da Duh!” story of the day — a newsy report by Godbeat veteran Tom Mullen, writing for Editor & Publisher‘s website. It does seem that more secular editors want to “get” religion news when it involves Hollywood, the Vatican, heresy, alleged feminism, multimedia evangelism, screwed-up history, a kinky albino monk (repeat after me: Opus Dei does not even have monks), goddess worship and a splash of edited-out sacred sex.

You think? Thus, Mullen writes:

Newspapers don’t always do a good job of covering religion. You don’t have [to] look too far for critics in and outside the newsroom whom [you] can fault about how the whole realm of belief is covered. And it’s interesting to note how a Hollywood movie has again become a huge religion story that’s inspiring so much copy. Where is all the religion coverage on matters a little closer to home, a little closer to readers’ everyday lives? That’s still a topic for discussion at length, but for now, it’s worth noting what many papers did well over the last week or so before “Da Vinci” opened.

Read it all. And let us know if you see stories that do a good job of dealing with the facts of this story, as well as the hot opinions on both sides.

One thing is clear: Everyone needs to read the latest opus from the amazingly literate and fair-minded Peter J. Boyer of The New Yorker. If you have not read his “Hollywood Heresy: Marketing ‘The Da Vinci Code’ to Christians,” then what are you waiting for? It gets five stars (out of five).

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