Friday, July 11, 2008

The Da Vinci Commode

First published 26 April 2005

I cringe when I see the name "Da Vinci" these days. Which is a pity because the most famous owner of that name was quite a clever bloke. He painted great pictures and invented some really neat stuff and blueprinted some amazingly advanced contraptions. It shouldn't be like that.

Just as the Theory of Evolution is the best marketed and most brilliantly promoted piece of ideology masquerading as fact (another word for this is "religion"), the Da Vinci Code is the latest pop culture savvy swipe at a popular target, packaged as fiction. However, the author Dan Brown actually claims in his preface that the allegedly fast paced page-turning fiction is based on facts.

In a nutshell, the driving premise behind his "fiction" is that the Christian Bible speaks only of a historically misunderstood Jesus. The real Jesus (being only mortal, naturally) actually married mary Magdelene and they had children, the lineage of whom can be traced to modern day. Furthermore, Christianity is just a male-dominated abberation of an originally goddess-based religion or philosophy. Ergo, Biblical Christianity is built on a lie.

All speculation is based on claims of secret gospels, secret societies and secret documents, and misinterpretations of the medievel concept of "Holy Grail". All claimed by Brown to be facts underpinning his fiction.

So before anyone cries out "But you haven't even read the can you blah blah blah" please spare me and my brain. I don't need to read how an albino bludgeons a Nun over the head with an impossibly heavy candlestick or how somebody got murdered in a big library in that city where people speak in outrageous accents. I'm only interested in the wild speculation that poses as "fact" cleverly implanted in it's pages... like so many of it's non-fiction predecessors you find in the (curiously-named) "religion" section at Angus and Robertson. The ones which tell you some "new" conspiracy theory about the Christian Church and have made the authors famous... because notoriety sells.

As for Catholicism, and I'm not even a Catholic...Phillip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University (and a Protestant) writes.''Almost as troubling as the sheer abundance of anti-Catholic rhetoric is the failure to acknowledge it as a serious social problem. In the media, Catholicism is regarded as a perfectly legitimate target". Do that to any other social demographic or religion and see what happens. You will get ripped off the bookshelves for being a "hate criminal"...or worse.

When interviewed 2003 on Today show, Brown acknowledged in the affirmative that he wanted to "challenge certain long-held beliefs or truths about religion."

Perhaps I should clarify something first; I totally acknowledge that people are entitled to choose for or against Christ or any religion. The issue I am taking is how offensive it is when people question the integrity of my "faith" using utter, baseless rubbish.

Hence nobody has yet been able to explain to me why I should not be offended by The Da Vinci Code. I am still waiting. Nor has anyone sufficiently explained to me why an author would claim things are facts when they clearly are not. That's why I wrote this tome... to try and explain it myself!

Why would an author claim things are facts when they are not? Ignorance? Scurrillous merchandising lies? Or socio-religious upheaval and indocrination?

Now, make sure you only start reading the rest after reading this;

All descriptions of authors, documents, hoaxes, historical incompetence and bigotry in this blog are accurate

Who Plantard the "evidence"?

Here's the first bit of factual fictional foundation (try saying that with a mouthful of nobby's nuts);

"FACT: The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organization. In 1975 Paris's Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci..."

Whacko. Apparently, this secret organisation has been the custodian of the artifacts and documents which reveal the SHOCKING TRUTH about the identity and personage of Jesus Christ (and the "Holy Grail") since 1099! Protecting a secret which IF REVEALED, could cause WIDESPREAD DISCREDITING of the Christian religion! Juicy conspiracy theory stuff.

The notion that Isaac Newton was a member is laughable. This great historical and scientific mind was the biggest advocate of Gospel innerrancy.

The main problem is...the priory of Sion does not exist. Well, it kinda does... it was made up by a French bloke called Pierre Plantard, who, pardon the pun, Plantard the evidence by fabricating documents claiming genealogies going back centuries. This was actually admitted by Plantard's main henchman. He was assisted by two men. One of them was an actor, who considered the whole ploy a creative, theatrical muse. A public form of art.

Plantard however may have possibly been trying to claim some French royal birthright for himself. When a keen journalist (who must have thought he had uncovered the secret of the millenium) published the details, Plantard denounced the whole thing to avoid libel. The so-called secret dossiers, including a genealogy back to Christ, and the list of the Grand Masters of the Priory were forged. The forger signed a confession to that effect.

Zen and the psychological art of selling books

The most disturbing aspect of this is that Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, who wrote the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (seemingly one of the inspirations for Brown's epic) based the majority of their claims on the Priory of Sion theory. They were warned prior to publishing, that the hoax had been blown and the confessions were written. Despite the overwhelming lack of credibility behind their claims, they published anyway. Naturally they sold a bucket load of Holy Blood Holy Grail and made a fortune.

In a 2005 documentary The Real Da Vinci Code hosted by British actor, researcher and genealogist Tony Robinson (aka Blackadder's Baldrick) Baigent was quizzed about this. When told that the hoax was irrefutably uncovered by competent researchers he offered nothing more than "No" and "they are wrong", without any supporting arguments. His only feeble attempt to back his claims was "...because I studied the Les Dossiers Secrets for six years, and I am satisfied...". It was almost embarassing. Here is someone with no qualifications other than "psychologist", not a historian, archeologist or antiquities expert, examining documents that practically have the forger's signature on them, asserting his claims. On the strength of this I wouldn't let Michael Baigent proof read a postcard.

Vatican Heavies

FACT # 2: The existence of a Vatican organisation called Opus Dei, is asserted here by Brownie. That part is fine. They are presented as a "Vatican Mafia" to create a stereotypical bad guy for plot thickening and violence value.

Apparently these "monks" assasinate people from the Priory of Sion if anyone blabs any of those shocking secrets of the TRUE gospels which, if uncovered, could discredit Christianity blah blah blah etc... In his preface, Brown claims they have been investigated for various machinations, and they have a headquarters in the USA.

In reality, It's full name is "Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei" It was founded in 1928 by a 26-year-old Catholic priest, Josemaria Escriva. Jose died in the 70's and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. It is a kind of Catholic order promoting rigorous devotional routines, meditative retreats, courses, and other such acts of committment and self-sacrifice. You know, the kind of thing society hates.

They also have quite a ministry in a major American city assisting underprivaleged youth. Perhaps this is the headquarters Brown is referring to. But they don't have "monks".

History lesson? Ask the tea lady

FACT # 3: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate". Dan Brown, interview The Today Show 2003
"If I was to write a non-fiction book on the same subject, I would do it pretty much the same" Dan Brown, interview The Today Show 2003

Even without the above statements, fiction can heavily manipulate. Animal Farm, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Satanic Verses...need I say more. The cries of "but it's only fiction! Leave it alone, you fanatical Christian Fundies!" are poorly considered.

Now, say I was to write a fiction novel with fictional characters and one of them happens to say "In the 1940's, Adolf Hitler began exterminating up to 6 million Jews. He also read bedtime stories to a large, scruffy Chestnut Mare he affectionately called 'Bubba' ". Chances are, the readers are going to say "This author really knows his history", and I may just have them believing the bit about Bubba.

At any given time, some writer, movie character, advertisement, or stand-up comedian has said something detrimental about a religious or political demographic. And we've all believed it. We all nod meaningfully and say "sure, it's only fiction/ entertainment. But it makes you think.."

Then, when someone has the courage to go against the popular social standard and challenge it, we all say "Sit down and shut up. It's only fiction."

Brown's novel has characters, like "historian" Leigh Teabing saying all sorts of believable stuff. Here's a central piece:

"In 325 AD, the Nicea Council voted to make Jesus a deity. Up until then, his folowers regarded him as nothing more than a mortal prophet.....and it was a close vote".

Yep, there was a thing in 325 AD called the Nicean Council. I don't know where to go from there. The deity of Jesus Christ was well and truly agreed upon prior to that date and the synoptic Gospels were accepted and acknowledged by early church fathers. Hundreds or thousands of Christian martyrs were made because they declared Christ to be their Lord and God and would not worship the Emperor. Perhaps they misunderstood the question before the axe fell. Many Church fathers were recorded as clearly referring to Jesus as God way before this date. Here are some of their greatest hits:

There is One God who manifests himself through Jesus Christ his son"; "Son of Mary and Son of God…Jesus Christ our Lord…God Incarnate…Christ God," etc. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (A.D. 110):

Polycarp of Bishop of Smyrna (A.D. 112-118), in his letter to the church at Philippi, assumes the divinity of Jesus.

"being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God" "...both God and Lord of hosts." Justin Martyr (~A.D. 150):

"our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King."Irenaeus (~A.D. 185)

"truly most manifest Deity, He that is made equal to the Lord of the universe; because he was His Son."Clement of Alexandria (~A.D. 200)

This is just a snippet. That's an awful lot of fuss for a mortal prophet. Not to mention the letters of Paul in the NT which make numerous references to Christ's deity. These books were written no later than 50-60 A.D.

The Nicea Council met to agree upon details of the trinity and the relationship between God the Son and God the Omnipotent "Father". It was not a close vote, unless you call 318 to 3 "close".

Again, I am not telling everyone to believe in Christ's deity. That's your choice. But if anyone tells you that no-one did until they were forced to in 325 AD, they're talking rot.

Brown's fictional historian (who, in a real university, would be demoted to tea lady) claims Constantine made Christianity the religion of the state. In fairness to Brownie, everybody makes this gaffe. Constantine cautiously revoked the persecution of Christians and made it co-exist with Roman religions, since he managed to win a battle by invoking the "Christian God". He never made Christianity the religion of state.

Hyperbole, or just plain bile?

Naturally, Brown cannot resist but place into the mouth of his "reputable" historian Teabing, the most cliched and vague of skeptical allegations against the Bible, e.g. that it has "...evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.”

Puh-lease. Only idiots listen to hyperbole and consider it effective argument. The "countless" translations are no more a problem for the Bible than for any other book. We have many languages on Planet Earth. This does not hinder the accuracy of the Bible's message(s) any more than translating War and Peace, Gulliver's Travel's or Green Eggs and Ham.

Neither do additions or revisions present a problem. The Bible has been subjected to textual criticism and has, if I may use the word "countless" conferring textual copies to back it up. Far more, interestingly, than history writings such as Tacitus or Herodotus which are readily accepted by scholars as accurate. Besides, would anybody care to name or specify these "additions and revisions"?

So, next time you hear a loud person at a party using these arguments to justify their spiritual choices, just smile and say "Congratulations. So you've read The Da Vinci Code". But don't use words like "hyperbole", they probably wouldn't know what it meant. Such people should either name, specify and support the arguments... or just use their mouth for other pursuits such as eating.

Oh, and I cannot resist another Teabing moment: “Fortunately for historians…some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate (ugh! I'm not going to touch that one, it smells bad!) managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s ...”
FACT: The DSS were found in 1947. They contained no "gospels" since they pre-dated the New Testament by hundreds of years!!

White with two, thanks Mr. Teabing.

Stick it up your Gnostrils

Now we come to the famous Gnostic Gospels, another centrepoint of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and other conspiracy theorists. The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of often weird, esoteric documents written way after Christ's life, and which turned up in Nag Hamadi / Egypt in the 1950's. In some (uninformed) minds they constitute some kind of "real" story which was suppressed by Constantine to make way for his allegedly fabricated canonical gospels and power regime.

Apart from the dubious use of the word "Gospel" to label these fragmented old documents, here are only a few of the reasons the Gnostic Gospels don't hold a candle to the Canonicals.
a) most are esoteric and un-Jewish, there
fore being of no credible value with regards to Christ
b) they are dated at earliest 150 AD (The Gospel of Thomas) long after the synoptic gospels (60-70 AD latest)
c) many are written mostly under Pseudonyms, further lowering credibility value
d) many are so fragmented that some details are pure speculation
e) were largely inconsistent in ideology, due probably to gnostic ideals constantly changing to avoid persecution, which indicates more unreliability.
f) many contain literary and textual evidence that they must have sourced some of their details from the canonical gospels

Some have fantastic, unauthentic accounts of Jesus' childhood, where His behaviour makes Bart Simpson look like Ned Flanders. Seriously, read The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It's a larf.

According to the loveable and believable heroes of this book, there were around eighty of these "other gospels", and the synoptic gospels were chosen for the "final cut" with the "suppression" of all the others, initially by that cad Constantine. This makes for a great conspiracy story but is wrong on so many levels.

The fact is, the Synoptic New Testament gospels were chosen because they were the most authenticated, verifiable, early-written eyewitness related, not to mention historically, culturally, geographically and literally accurate.

Why do people insist on using words like "suppressed" instead of "treated with the scholarly priority they deserved"? To embrace the gnostic gospels over the canonised ones is unscholarly and reeks of agenda. In this case, the agenda of selling a conspiracy theory.

For amusement value, the Da Vinci Code predictably refers to the Gospel of Phillip, a so-called gospel which is so fragmented it practically has every second word missing. Brown's tea-lady historian claims that the "Aramaic word for "companion", referring to Mary Magdelene, actually meant "spouse" ". Fair enough, us gospel freaks are always using translative exegesis to explain tricky stuff.

Except the Gospel of Phillip was written in Coptic, not Aramaic. Good one, tea-lady.

Your brains will save you

Gnosticism was an early "new-age" religion which promoted the idea that secret wisdom and knowledge was the key to salvation and enlightenment. The Gnostic gospels attempt to link Jesus to this religion, but belief in their validity is speculative and without basis. The more verifiable Synoptic Gospels clearly contend with this. Jesus said the key to salvation was trusting Him, whether you are an intellectual or not.

Personally I find the notion that I will only be saved if I'm intelligent to be a very scary one.

But there's more! One of the hardest-hitting claims of this book, and it's equally invalid predecessor Holy Blood Holy Grail, is that "original" Christianity was actually based on goddess-worship, or at least matriachal in principal. This adds weight to the conspiracy-boosting claims of a patriachal, male dominated church "supressing" the "true" Christian gospels to create an oppressive, patriachal religion. The notion is cleverly embellished by the wild speculation of Mary Magdelene's relationship to Christ.

To put this claim to sleep like the sick animal that it is, simply read some of the Gnostic Gospels. The people who wrote them really hated women. Particularly the Gospel of Thomas. According to the gnostic philosophies, women had to become like men, relinquishing their feminine identity. Compared to the Gnostics the real Gospels and early church letters elevate the status of women considerably. Perhaps Brown, Baigent etc need to get the feminist vote for the conspiracy theory. They will no doubt succeed, providing feminists who read their books are allergic to facts.

Funnily enough, the Gospel of Thomas is not mentioned in The Da Vinci Code.

FACT: There were heretics running around in the early 1st and 2nd centuries writing all sorts of rubbish about Christ. It's that simple. Nothing new under the sun. Attempting to discredit your opponents is nothing new. Neither, it seems, is uncritically accepting other groundless claims as "scholarly" just because they're in print and you like the sound of them.

Experts or preachers

What a beautiful big, convenient and profitable conspiracy theory. Holy Blood, Holy Grail co-authors, Baigent and Leigh have the following qualifications; psychology. That's about it. An internet source said Leigh is “a writer and university lecturer with a thorough knowledge of history, philosophy, psychology and esoterica”. Tell me when I am supposed to be impressed.

But I wish I could believe that Brown has re-hashed an old, disproven, debunked theory simply to sell books. I really do. But I noticed the following;

Teabing, one of the central characters in the Da Vinci Code, has a first name of Leigh, and his surname is an anagram of Baigent. No prizes for guessing that Brown has read their book. But just how much of it is used as foundation and source? And is it a case of mutual-admiration? Apparently not. It turns out that Baigent and Leigh are suing Brown's publisher for plaigarism. Leigh: "It's not that Dan Brown has lifted certain ideas ... he's lifted the whole architecture - "

And Baigent "It makes our work far easier to dismiss as a farrago of nonsense". Oh, I wouldn't worry about that, Mr. Baigent. That's been easy for 20 years.

So, there's no honour among thieves. And now I know what passes for "research" in novels nowadays. All you need to do is uncritically lean on someone else who has done as little research as you, so long as they are published.

But here's something I find interesting. The main character's name is Sophie Neveu. This is Latin for New Wisdom. It's a great little piece of cryptography.

I suspect Brown is a disciple of Gnosticism, using the veil of fiction, a very powerful medium, to push it. Either way, he will indoctrinate legions of uninformed millions into denying the integrity of the Christian Gospels and, therefore, the Christian faith. Clever, isn't it? The so-called "new age" notion of wisdom and enlightenment is as old as the hills, and every bit as seductive and appealing today to those who consider themselves illuminati. And there's nothing like a good, anti-establishment conspiracy theory to make it even more appealing.

So, never let the truth get in the way of good indocrination. Funny, isn't that what Christianity is always accused of?

As a parting shot, I would like to make the preposterous assertion that there was (and still is) a book which actually predicted the Da Vinci Code almost 2000 years ago. It said;

Even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them......And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you
2 Peter 2:1-3
(emphasis mine).

I would like to see Dan Brown and co write something like that.

The Bible is often referred to as "The Anvil which has worn out many hammers". Sure, there are still a massive number of people yet to be dis-informed by Brown's Da Vinci Code (through it's veritable gravy train of follow-up books, movies, TV specials and even tourist groups!). But the only reason the entertainment industry has the opportunity to make money from their groundless speculation is because the Bible is still here after 2000 years, all the time withstanding more of the same.

I have heard that the Da Vinci Code is a thrilling page-turner. That's fine. But the evidence is overwhelming that there is a deceptive and dishonest agenda behind the fiction. If it was directed at any other religion or group, it would be howled down as inflammatory vilification. The fact that this is just plain sad.

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