by Andrew Pollack / August 2006 issue of Socialist Action
Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” and the movie based on it, have come in for their share of artistic criticism. The book often reads like a supermarket potboiler, and the movie crams in too many of the book’s “facts” to flow smoothly.
But what are we to make of a book selling over 50 million copies while claiming Jesus wasn’t divine, got married, and had kids with Mary Magdalene—and that a secretive, murderous plot by the Catholic Church hides these “truths”?
With a Bible-thumping U.S. president, Hillary Clinton pandering to born-again anti-choice fanatics, a new pontiff spewing the usual misogynist and homophobic garbage, and Hollywood churning out ever more movies with Christian themes, how could Brown have made such a splash?
Perhaps the attacks on women’s rights have created fertile ground for his message. The media say he’s sparked much discussion among women, and the Catholic Church’s veracity has been sorely challenged by news of cover-ups of sex abuse by priests.
But welcome as Brown’s pro-feminist slant is on the surface, a much closer look is required. (Hereafter both book and movie are referred to as “The Code” unless distinctions are made).
The early Christians
By solving a succession of puzzles, Brown’s characters come ever closer to the Holy Grail, which is not Jesus’ cup but rather a symbol of the “divine feminine,” of Jesus’ descendants, and of a set of documents (that’s a lot of work for one symbol!). Brown draws on a melange of cult histories, heretical gospels, astrology, etc., in an incoherent manner typical of conspiracy theories.
He writes: “Jesus was the original feminist“ who wanted “His Church to be in the hands of Mary Magdalene,” an intention subverted by a male Church hierarchy coming to power in the 4th century. Most of what Brown writes about pre-Judaeo-Christian and early Christian attitudes toward women is not new, and draws in a garbled way on research of the last two centuries, including Bible criticism since the Enlightenment, as well as more recently found alternative gospels such as those unearthed in Egypt in 1945.
Drawing on these sources and inspired by the women’s liberation movement, feminist theologians have been busy reinterpreting the “truths” about Christianity. And all the while anthropologists have been accumulating evidence of societies with gender and class arrangements and corresponding beliefs vastly different from our own.
Perhaps the best known of these theologians is Elaine Pagels, who in her 1979 “The Gnostic Gospels” quotes their criticism of such ideas as the virgin birth and bodily resurrection “as the faith of fools.” Such myths, says Pagels, served “an essential political function,” i.e., male dominance of the Church. These gospels spoke of a more central role for Mary Magdalene in the early Church, and upheld the “sanctity of the feminine,” believing God was not male in nature.
Pagels says Jesus violated convention by including women among his closest companions, a claim echoed, “based on the traditional gospels,” by Uta Ranke-Heinemann in her 1988 “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.” She says Jesus was “the first and practically the last friend women had in the Church.”
While espousing a reactionary belief in a nonmaterial world, the Gnostic Gospels had a more democratic approach toward knowledge, urging believers to seek truth in themselves, not in an outside deity, and arguing that “the purpose of accepting authority is to learn to outgrow it.”
Some Gnostics even portrayed the Serpent in Eden as justifiably bringing knowledge to humanity with Eve’s aid in defiance of a malicious God. And Pagels explains how the Judaeo-Christian God, unlike many contemporary deities in the Near East, “shared his power with no female divinity.” Some of the cultures believing in such female deities are also described by Riane Eisler in her “The Chalice and the Blade” (the symbols for male and female in her title are used repeatedly by Brown in the book).
Anyone familiar with Eisler, Pagels, or similar writers has already heard most of Brown’s “revelations.” If these writers’ findings are little known, it’s not because of some secret Church plot, but rather because of the open dominance of established religious and other institutions.
But Eisler and Pagels are no more able than Brown to explain how society evolved as it did and thus why Christianity looks as it does. In contrast, Marxists such as Evelyn Reed and Eleanor Leacock, building on Friedrich Engels’ “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” have connected the evolution of religion to that of class society and corresponding forms of women’s oppression.
Karl Kautsky used this method in his 1908 “The Foundations of Christianity,” telling how early Christian communities practiced a primitive form of communism, renounced traditional family forms, and defied taboos on male-female interaction. Citing Christian writers of the time, he shows that the “community of women” was as important to them as the “community of goods.”
Communal family forms also meant more of a role for early Christian women in the broader community, allowing them to develop “a concern for the freeing of the human race from all misery.”
Kautsky also demonstrates the class struggle and anti-imperial politics of the early Church, and exposes later revisions of the accepted gospels to cover this up.
But by emphasizing what was “possible at the time” for these primitive communists Kautsky shows why the early Christian community couldn’t survive: not because of a secret Church plot, but because of the limits set by class relations. The early Christians couldn’t go beyond communism in consumption, given the economy’s agricultural base and its dependence on slave labor (and free labor only in individual or small workshops). There was no working class capable of founding a communism based on production.
Meanwhile, the Church grew increasingly bureaucratic as its ranks were swelled by the rich who demanded the suppression of the older radical beliefs. While primitive communism could not pose a successful alternative to a Roman Empire resting on a declining slave mode of production, a newly institutionalized Catholic Church did prove a welcome ally to an Empire seeking to overcome its crisis.
Royal bloodlines and bloody knights
The other historical period on which “The Code” dwells is the Middle Ages. Here too, we can contrast the conspiratorial and materialist methods.
Brown’s heroes in this period are the Knights Templar and their supposed offshoot, the Priory of Sion, alleged protectors of the Holy Grail. “The Priory,” writes Brown, “believes that Constantine and his male successors successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity by waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine, obliterating the goddess.”
The Templars did play an important historical role—not as protectors of women or truth, but as bankers, financing fellow nobles’ Crusades. By the early 14th century they had been suppressed, supposedly for heresy, in reality so the king of France could seize their wealth. Drawing on charlatans’ histories, Brown claims the Priory lived on through such figures as Leonardo da Vinci, Victor Hugo, Isaac Newton—even Walt Disney!
In the Socialist Worker newspaper in May, Elaine Graham-Leigh explains how Templar and Priory legends have been the preoccupation of monarchist cranks and figures in Vichy France and Nazi Germany. As Umberto Eco wrote, a sure sign of a lunatic is that “sooner or later he brings up the Templars.”
In her own history of medieval France, Graham-Leigh shows that the real defenders of truth and justice in this period were heretic peasants revolting against their feudal masters. In this she follows Engels, who in “The Peasant War in Germany” explained why medieval class revolts were veiled in religious trappings.
Peasant leaders like John Ball, Wat Tyler, and Thomas Muenzer, who proposed a “return of the church to its origins,” did so as religious justification for their goals of ending class differences and the state, for which the church was an essential prop.
The Church’s plot, says “The Code,” included the witch hunts that murdered millions of women. In contrast, radical historians Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, in their 1972 “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses,” showed that the witch hunts were “associated with periods of great social upheaval shaking feudalism at its roots—mass peasant uprising, the beginnings of capitalism, and the rise of Protestantism.”
They suggest that “witches’ sabbaths” might have been meetings to organize self-defense, overlapping with peasant organizing.
The women and peasants of the Middle Ages could no more overcome the class forces of their period than could the early Christians. But they left a precious legacy for our time when the final overcoming of class and gender oppression is materially realistic. Brown’s fictional noble heroes, in contrast, are no help in figuring out how to get our masters off our backs.
Hedging on Heresy
Even the Code’s supposedly heretical views are hedged in the end. In his earlier “Angels and Demons,” Brown also relies on a conspiracy theory, this time about the Illuminati. (His next book will be about the Freemasons, another favorite of cranks.) In one book the heroes for most of the plot are mainstream believers, and the villains are heretics; in the other he reverses the roles. In both books by the end the supposed hero turns out to be the villain.
So it seems Brown doesn’t really care what we believe, and anyway, “history is always written by the winners … which side of the story you believe becomes a matter of faith.”
In the “Code” book, Langdon tells his fellow truthseeker, Sophie, that it’s OK to keep the “facts” about Jesus hidden, as “every faith is based on fabrication,” and the Bible is a “guidepost for millions of people.” “Religious allegory has become a part of the fabric of reality. Living in that reality helps millions of people cope.”
The movie goes even further: Langdon tells of calling on Jesus for help as a child, and asks Sophie, who’s considering revealing the secret of the Grail, “Will you destroy faith or renew it?
As for defining the truth, “what matters is what you [Sophie] believe.” Langdon himself at end of both book and movie kneels in prayer at the Grail’s site. Publishers and Hollywood movie moguls obviously prefer such ambiguity in their pursuit of profits from benighted audiences.
Instead of having his characters tell the world the truth, they settle for knowing that “the story of Mary Magdalene is all around us,” ready to be discovered by the culturally informed. Those elites will awaken to our “destructive paths” and “the need to restore the sacred feminine.” Cold comfort for a world whose elite won’t even admit the planet-endangering truths of global warming!
Finally, for more enjoyable and genuinely radical fictional treatment of these issues: On the Middle Ages, try Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” or William Morris’s “A Dream of John Ball.” And for a genuinely heretical view of religion, try Phillip Pullman’s beautiful series, “His Dark Materials.”