With The Da Vinci Code poised to go from the bestseller list to the big screen, pastor and writer Brian McLaren talks to Lisa Ann Cockrel about why he thinks there’s truth in the book’s fiction.
What do you think the popularity of The Da Vinci Code reveals about pop culture attitudes toward Christianity and the church?
Brian McLaren: I think a lot of people have read the book, not just as a popular page-turner but also as an experience in shared frustration with status-quo, male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up-prone organized Christian religion. We need to ask ourselves why the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown’s book is more interesting, attractive, and intriguing to these people than the standard vision of Jesus they hear about in church. Why would so many people be disappointed to find that Brown’s version of Jesus has been largely discredited as fanciful and inaccurate, leaving only the church’s conventional version? Is it possible that, even though Brown’s fictional version misleads in many ways, it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church’s conventional version of Jesus may not do him justice?
So you think The Da Vinci Code taps into dissatisfaction with Jesus as we know him?
McLaren: For all the flaws of Brown’s book, I think what he’s doing is suggesting that the dominant religious institutions have created their own caricature of Jesus. And I think people have a sense that that’s true. It’s my honest feeling that anyone trying to share their faith in America today has to realize that the Religious Right has polluted the air. The name “Jesus” and the word“Christianity” are associated with something judgmental, hostile, hypocritical, angry, negative, defensive, anti-homosexual, etc. Many of our churches, even though they feel they represent the truth, actually are upholding something that’s distorted and false.
I also think that the whole issue of male domination is huge and that Brown’s suggestion that the real Jesus was not as misogynist or anti-woman as the Christian religion often has been is very attractive. Brown’s book is about exposing hypocrisy and cover-up in organized religion, and it is exposing organized religion’s grasping for power. Again, there’s something in that that people resonate with in the age of pedophilia scandals, televangelists, and religious political alliances. As a follower of Jesus I resonate with their concerns as well.
Do you think the book contains any significantly detrimental distortions of the Christian faith?
McLaren: The book is fiction and it’s filled with a lot of fiction about a lot of things that a lot of people have already debunked. But frankly, I don’t think it has more harmful ideas in it than the Left Behind novels. And in a certain way, what the Left Behind novels do, the way they twist scripture toward a certain theological and political end, I think Brown is twisting scripture, just to other political ends. But at the end of the day, the difference is I don’t think Brown really cares that much about theology. He just wanted to write a page-turner and he was very successful at that.
Many Christians are also reading this book and it’s rocking their preconceived notions – or lack of preconceived notions – about Christ’s life and the early years of the church. So many people don’t know how we got the canon, for example. Should this book be a clarion call to the church to say, “Hey, we need to have a body of believers who are much more literate in church history.” Is that something the church needs to be thinking about more strategically?
McLaren: Yes! You’re exactly right. One of the problems is that the average Christian in the average church who listens to the average Christian broadcasting has such an oversimplified understanding of both the Bible and of church history – it would be deeply disturbing for them to really learn about church history. I think the disturbing would do them good. But a lot of times education is disturbing for people. And so if The Da Vinci Code causes people to ask questions and Christians have to dig deeper, that’s a great thing, a great opportunity for growth. And it does show a weakness in the church giving either no understanding of church history or a very stilted, one-sided, sugarcoated version.
On the other hand, it’s important for me to say I don’t think anyone can learn good church history from Brown. There’s been a lot of debunking of what he calls facts. But again, the guy’s writing fiction so nobody should be surprised about that. The sad thing is there’s an awful lot of us who claim to be telling objective truth and we actually have our own propaganda and our own versions of history as well.
Let me mention one other thing about Brown’s book that I think is appealing to people. The church goes through a pendulum swing at times from overemphasizing the deity of Christ to overemphasizing the humanity of Christ. So a book like Brown’s that overemphasizes the humanity of Christ can be a mirror to us saying that we might be underemphasizing the humanity of Christ.
In light of The Da Vinci Code movie that is soon to be released, how do you hope churches will engage this story?
McLaren: I would like to see churches teach their people how to have intelligent dialogue that doesn’t degenerate into argument. We have to teach people that the Holy Spirit works in the middle of conversation. We see it time and time again – Jesus enters into dialogue with people; Paul and Peter and the apostles enter into dialogue with people. We tend to think that the Holy Spirit can only work in the middle of a monologue where we are doing the speaking.
So if our churches can encourage people to, if you see someone reading the book or you know someone who’s gone to the movie, say, “What do you think about Jesus and what do you think about this or that,” and to ask questions instead of getting into arguments, that would be wonderful. The more we can keep conversations open and going the more chances we give the Holy Spirit to work. But too often people want to get into an argument right away. And, you know, Jesus has handled 2,000 years of questions, skepticism, and attacks, and he’s gonna come through just fine. So we don’t have to be worried.
Ultimately, The Da Vinci Code is telling us important things about the image of Jesus that is being portrayed by the dominant Christian voices. [Readers] don’t find that satisfactory, genuine, or authentic, so they’re looking for something that seems more real and authentic.