A Quill Pen

The DaVinci Code

by Dan Brown

May 2004 book review
by Collie Collier

There is detailed plot information in this review. Please do not read if you don't like spoilers!

Ancient Mental Coping Strategies

Years ago I was in a class about the literary and historical aspects of the Old Testament. As always happens when reviewing the Bible in any sort of thoughtfully analytic fashion, a point came where due to collecting oral histories over a span of at least centuries, the inherent contradictions within the texts became painfully obvious.

As is also common in such situations, some members of the class amusedly mocked the extremely rough "justice" and obviously biased favoritism shown by Yahweh, as dictated by these verses.

A few of the class members, however, had an interesting take on this issue. As one of them put it, "primitive-bashing" was too easy. Wouldn't it be far more interesting to try and figure out the environmental and cultural causes of these contentious and excruciatingly awkward verses?

So we tried. I don't know how successful we were, but I was pleased to be part of the effort. It's always easy to be mockingly critical; it's harder (and I believe far more rewarding) to try comprehending how another thinks, to understand puzzling aspects of their behavior.

Years later I was idly browsing the web and stumbled across a site debunking many of the Catholic saints. As most folks probably know by now, there's a definite process to the creation of saints in the Catholic church, which starts with re-creating and re-writing the life story of the to-be-sainted individual -- whether they are entirely fictional or not.

Also, through the medieval time period there was a surge in stories of saints who went through some of the most gruesome, horrific, unnatural tortures to prove their dedication to god. Needless to say, many also ended up as patrons of some of the oddest things.

There was a place on one of the web pages which allowed folks to write in, and as expected there was a contingent of folks making fun of the often peculiar and wildly dissimilar things which saints are patrons for.

However, there was a note from another person who said, in effect, they found it far more interesting to try to figure out why there was a need at that time for those saints -- why the medieval people so desperately wished to have someone to pray to on such diverse (and often wildly taboo) issues such as abortion, caterpillars, asses, and sexual temptation.

In what painful context, for what harshly unforgiving environment, were these saints created and so desperately needed? Are the contrived, often preposterously convoluted stories of the saints just capital-producers for a greedy Catholic church?

Or, more likely, was there indeed some deep emotional need in people for such mythic creations? If so, what sorts of societal dissonances were alleviated by these fabrications?

Modern Mental Coping Strategies

I think we have a similar social/emotional situation today. There is still a deeply felt need in society for a particular, reassuring meme -- of a spiritually gentle, forgiving mother figure, to turn to and pray to when the pressure of the constantly petulant, jealous, demanding, hierarchical father figure becomes too much to bear.

Or perhaps there's simply a need for a female divine as well as a male one, and however it is personally interpreted, it remains a constant through time.

As that need grows (either through societal repression or just heartfelt desire), people rise to it, creating answers to those questions and desires. It is my belief, in fact, this need has existed as long as people have been capable of religious thought.

There are powerful divine females in many religions, of course -- Freya, Syf, Athena, Aphrodite, Sophia, Lilith, Kwan Yin, Tara, Amaterasu, Uzume, Lakshmi, Draupadi, the dakinis... these all spring to mind off the top of my head.

Interestingly, the Holy Spirit is always described in exclusively feminine terms in the Hebrew Old Testament, as Sophia or Shekinah.

However, once Christianity comes along, the holy spirit gets firmly neutered through language in the various versions of the Greek New Testament. Later she is always referred to with male and neuter terms in English translations of the Bible. We don't have any divine, or even very powerful, women in Christianity, or Islam, its derivative "Religion of the Book." The closest we have is Jesus' mother Mary, and maybe Mary Magdalene.

I've always considered it a crying shame most versions of Christianity are unable to tolerate any challenge to their theoretically monotheistic, hierarchical, all-male trinity. Consequently it does not surprise me in the least to find Mariolatry was (and still is) ruthlessly stamped out by the Church every time it gains another foothold in the minds of the masses.

God forbid a woman, divine or otherwise, interrupt the sacerdotal monopoly the male Catholic clergy has on its people!

And yet, despite this violent and often bloody obliteration of so-called "heresy," the overriding need for a Mother Goddess in Christianity keeps springing up again and again, over the years and centuries. Shouldn't that tell the priesthood something?

The suppression of a female divine in Christianity is so consistently and thoroughly done, you can't help but believe it must be deliberate. I believe we've lost something valuable in this process of religiously dehumanizing women, though, and I'm pleased to see that process apparently slowly reversing.

Which is not to say this reversal is occurring rapidly, easily, or without much fire and brimstone against it, of course. Still, at least it is finally, slowly happening.

Dan Brown's book, "The DaVinci Code," is a fine example of this meme almost sneakily re-inserting itself once again into both the consciousness of individuals and society's dominant paradigm -- along with all the horrified conservative nay-saying which follows behind it.

The Story

The story itself is a pleasure to read, quick-paced and absorbing. I do love a good, challenging puzzle, and considering most of the brainteasers concerned subjects I'd read extensively on, I was enormously gratified to be able to solve many of them well before the characters did.

Also, the linkage between historical elements and in-story riddles felt sound to me, as in the use of hidden messages through metaphor within paintings. I don't know if the little puzzle boxes were indeed described by DaVinci, but they were a nice touch within the story.

Curiously, I found the murder mystery elements of the plot to be its weakest point. There was what I felt to be some poorly done obfuscation on Brown's part in order to keep the identity of the Teacher secret just a little bit longer.

Also, I was a bit uncomfortable with all the villains being somehow "abnormal" -- Silas the huge albino, the obsessed and crippled Teabing, the violently allergic butler, and the faceless bureaucratic malignity of the reactionary Opus Dei.

On the other hand, I felt Brown's handling of the Grail religious sect was masterful. Had a sex scene been inserted at the beginning of our introduction to Sophie's past, many readers would have been turned off.

However, Sophie's violent reaction to discovering something theoretically too horrible to ever talk about becomes an incredible audience teaser, luring the fascinated reader along to find out just what caused such emotional trauma.

By the time all is revealed, the mind has conjured up far, far worse possibilities than what actually occurred. The discovery that she witnessed a deeply religious ritual, which happened to include sex and sexual symbolism, becomes "normal" and almost commonplace feeling.

Indeed, a friend amusedly noted to me she was a bit surprised at the apparent naiveté of a modern college-aged French girl -- surely Sophie should be a bit more experienced?

So how'd we get here?

Remember the class I initially mentioned? Well, coupled with it was another one of similar intent, but focused on the New Testament. It was one of the readings of that class which caused me to have a small but fascinated revelation about the possible identity of the mysterious and unnamed "disciple he [Jesus] loved," and I ended up writing a short paper on it.

In the paper I cheerfully and freely interpreted some Bible verses in order to postulate Mary Magdalene was that disciple. I enjoyed both the speculative nature of my interpretations, and the writing of the paper. I handed it in, the professors loved it, I got an excellent grade, and that, I believed, was that.

Except... it turns out it wasn't. People were wide-eyed, fascinated, and mostly silent in class when the paper was read aloud. I received a few cautious, somewhat shocked emails from folks who'd read it on the web and thought it was a Very Bad Idea.

A friend of the family who was an elderly English teacher and gentleman wrote me an amused letter congratulating me on the paper, and asking me if I'd written it simply because the idea had occurred to me, or if I'd thought to have fun stirring up trouble in class.

Er... thought to what?!

Why all the controversy?

Why did people have such strong emotional reactions to the very thought of Jesus perhaps caring more for a woman than for his other disciples?

Why such horror at the possibility women might not be the supposedly divinely ordained slaves of men, put on earth to be dominated and abused by him just as he dominates and abuses animals? -that she might, in fact, be an equal -- or even more?

No one yet has had an answer for that question for me. Most folks just laugh nervously and shrug it off, or patronizingly / angrily / irritatedly denounce the feminists who're supposedly destabilizing society by asking such supposedly pointless questions.

Why the avoidance? What's wrong with thinking and questioning your own personal beliefs? -unless on some level you know you're wrong, and you fear admitting to what you see as weakness?

For that matter, why the anger and shock at the very concept of Jesus perhaps not being as pure as the driven snow -- that he might be the Son of Man as well as the Son of God? That is how he was initially referred to, after all. What's so bad about that?

This is the issue most folks seem to focus on, but I wonder. Is it that, or is it the fear of women being seen as equals which drives the furor I've seen?

I don't know. I do know there's a sadly sizeable contingent of folks who react violently to any new idea; who seem to consider any challenge (however mild) to their deeply cherished beliefs as vicious attacks on their person. I think I saw a very mild form of this, and I believe this is what is causing the highly emotional backlash against Brown's pleasant little mystery.

I don't personally care if Jesus was divine or not, any more than I care if Buddha or Mohammed was. They've all been dead for millennia. What I care about is how we treat each other now, and if current religious thought says we should abuse some group of folks because some deity said so, then I think we need to either re-write, re-interpret, or dump that particular sickness.

Almost all the religions I know of started out with someone (usually a radical for that time) saying we should be kind to each other, and treat each other well.

It's only after the degenerative influence of millennia of fear- and hate-filled teachings by power-hungry men that we end up with the viciousness, institutionalized cruelties, and religiously sanctioned abuses we currently label "religious thought."

What's the real Truth?

As a friend of mine wrote when commenting on a previous Firestarter, belief in truth demands a commensurate belief in logic and critical thinking, which accepts and permits the growth of knowledge and more truth.

Once we do this, we can then accept that new facts and theories will mean we must accordingly change our beliefs in order to be responsible followers of Truth.

To live in denial, to lie and deny truth, to deny the rights of others, is simply not responsible. It doesn't matter if an antiquated religion says it's all right to lie to, cheat, and kill women, or those weaker than you, or non-believers. That sort of behavior is ultimately neither responsible nor truthful.

In the end it doesn't really matter if someone named Jesus lived or not, and if someone named Mary was really his wife or not. What matters is whether or not we treat each other kindly, responsibly, and truthfully in the here and now.

Reader Comments

04.05.04: Don's thoughts

(and my replies)

Quote from the book review: "We don't have any divine, or even very powerful, women in Christianity"

I would take minor exception with this. Santa Teresa de Avila and Hildegard von Bingen were 2 powerful and influential nuns (prioresses?) within the Catholic heirarchy in their time. They were both mystics.

Whoohoo! My first feedback on a book review -- I'm so pleased! ;-)
Regarding powerful women in christianity, I should note the only reason I knew anything about Teresita of Avila and Hildegard von Bingen is because I took a Women, Religion, & Society class in Santa Cruz. Interestingly, the Hindu professor who taught the class mentioned she had trouble finding a good lay textbook (as opposed to religious texts) about strong Catholic women.

I also randomly asked three Catholics/former Catholics I know if they'd ever heard of these two women. All three of them had the same reply, "Who?" So while these two saints (actually, technically Hildegard still isn't a saint) might be well-known in Spain, or even perhaps all of Europe, I'm not sure they can be said to be as influential as the male Catholic saints.

One other interesting thing -- while talking to my three Catholic friends, just off the top of my head I named St. Christopher, St. Francis, the four "gospel" saints (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John), and St. Augustine. Those were all recognized, and several other saints were named by my friends as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were all male saints. ;-)

Also, I'm not sure I'd attribute all the excitement about the book to antifeminist fervor. My feeling is that if Brown had asserted that Jesus was really an upper-class Roman in desguise, or something similar, he'd have created a comparable uproar. It's the fundamentalist literalists that are offended, because their whole value system is based on the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures. Proposing that Jesus was married casts doubt on their structure of beliefs.

Having talked to several devout folks after seeing the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ," I think it has to do not so much with anti-feminism or scriptural inerrancy, as with the concepts of religious purity and taboo.

Consider: only the most perfect livestock was sacrificed to Yahweh, by the all-male priesthood. Women were ritually impure, thus could not be part of the priesthood, nor even go into certain parts of Yahweh's temples.

Now look at the analogy: Jesus is symbolically supposed to be the pure Lamb of God, sacrificed to the god to alleviate our sins.

To imply he had (or even fantasized about) sexual relations (a carnal, non-divine act in both Judaism and Christianity) with a woman (a ritually impure object) is to deeply sully the perfection of God's/our sacrifice -- at least to some adherents of christianity.

Also, arch-conservatives do need something to hate. They were very uncomfortable for awhile, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Now they have Muslims, so they're much happier. Not that reaction to the DC reaches that level of emotion, but they do have a vey low boiling point.

On that I'd certainly have to agree. It does seem insecurely elitist groups are always far better at stating, frequently violently, what they are not rather than what they are. The worst examples of this I know of are the Catholic Inquisition and the Hitlerian Holocaust, where millions who were simply different were terminally and horribly punished.

I keep hoping someday we'll move past that apparent psychological need, although I don't know how to encourage it.

Thanks again for the feedback -- cheers!

04.05.04: Dobie's thoughts

Having just finished the Da Vinci Code, it was serendipitous that you reviewed it. I definitely agreed about the use of extremes (albino, blah blah blah), and it was an amusing read. General consensus is that while they make good reading, most of his revelations are really nothing of the sort (but it's fiction, after all). I tried to find a better article that Slate had written analyzing the history that Brown makes use of, but could only find this: http://slate.msn.com/id/2090640

Not as good as the original one I read (I swear it was Slate, maybe Salon or somewhere else?) but figured I'd pass it along. It's interesting to read that after having read a lot of Pagels! (Overall while I enjoyed DC, I found Pagel's real history more fascinating, and the whole 'oooh' over the sex rite was just... silly. (I mean, yeah, I can imagine being traumatized by seeing your grandpa starkers, but I mean 10 years? sheesh!

06.01.06: Greg's thoughts

Couple thoughts:

- I seriously doubt Anthony of Padua was actually the patron saint of the human ass. Since he's also the patron saint of animals, I'm suspecting they meant the animal 'ass'. After all, there's no patron saint of arms or heads, or noses, or even the appendix. :}

Umm... I don't think anyone thought he was? The word "ass" to denote human buttocks, after all, is of relatively recent vintage, to my knowledge? Conversely, I did once read of a particular saint (which of course I now no longer remember the name of, darnit) to which one prayed for relief of intestinal trauma. I wonder now if appendicitis was lumped into that category.

- I don't know about many of the other things, but it doesn't surprise me at all there was more than one patron saint of sexual temptation. Seems to me that that loomed large on the minds of most Catholics, and they'd want the blessings of the saints to help them overcome it.

- In answer to your question on why so many saints, I'm cynical enough to say that while the Catholics very likely did want their heroes, that it's not at all impossible that the Church (or at least, certain representatives of it) might have padded the rolls a little.

Well, I did try to give the medieval church the benefit of the doubt there. ;)

- As I told you before, I too noticed the 'poor obfuscation' towards the end, and I'm not near as perceptive as you...

- In regards to Sophie's violent response to the ritual she stumbles in on: it seems to me that that was not an entirely unreasonable reaction. If she'd just stumbled in on him having sex, that would be one thing. But with all the pomp and ceremony, it would seem to have some darker meaning, hmm? Sex as part of ritual tends to be associated with the devil rather than the divine. (I don't know how religious the French are, but I suspect that kind of social indoctrination is still present regardless.)

I could understand fleeing in shock and horror, and even refusing to have anything to do with the person involved for a while. But I've tried repeatedly to imagine what it would be like: someone you love and trust as a parent, unwittingly discovered doing something you believe reprehensible -- and in every form of the scenario I've been able to think up, there is at some point an explosive discussion.

That's what I find odd -- that for ten long years she should absolutely and categorically
refuse to even talk to her former beloved parent! Surely there should have been (at some point) angry denouncement? Recriminations? Even just a phone call, for heavens' sake, if she was afraid he'd try something with her?

When there is the possibility of communication, there's the possibility of explanation and understanding, or at very least a polite decision to agree to disagree. I get the feeling the author used the character and the scene as I described above, rather than "playing out" the most likely scenario for the character's personality type -- at least as she appeared later in the book.

Had she been reactionary and inflexible everywhere else as well, it would have made more sense to me -- but she wasn't. There was just this one single issue on which she behaved in what I thought was an anomalous fashion. To me, that's bad story-telling.

- In regards to why others might have been shocked and appalled at the idea of Jesus being married...I suspect that once again, it comes down to sex. At least, in part. Jesus as the Son of God would have no need of a wife, being above such desires as mortal love, lust, or the desire to create progeny. To even suggest that he might have had one hints at motives that people don't want to ascribe to Jesus. At the very least, it would throw the smallest bit of doubt as to his divinity. And doubt is what the religious avoid like the plague, if they can help it.

Yeah, I've pretty much resigned myself to that. I think it's sad, but it's their life-choice to make, not mine.

Excellent synopsis and analysis, and an enjoyable learning experience, as your writing always is.

Thank you very much! I'm glad to hear you enjoyed yourself. Have you had a chance to read the Firestarter titled Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene really married? or "Is the premise of 'The DaVinci Code' really true?" yet? I'd be interested in your opinion on that one as well. Cheers!