Rarely before have people read so much about Jesus. The religious thriller “The Da Vinci Code” has emerged as one of the most successful books of all time. Now, the Catholic Church is reluctantly taking a look at it.
Cardinal Bertone: "Don't buy this book"
Apparently, there are people who find the Bible boring, just as there are those who yawn when it comes to art history or religion. But combine these with sex, conspiracy theories and a thriller plot, and you get precisely the right combination to mesmerize even the most lazy reader.
Over 25 million copies of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” have been sold. And an end to the boom is not in sight. A film version with Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatou and Jean Reno in the leading roles is hitting movie theaters in 2006.
The novel is about the Holy Grail and less holier secret societies. According to Brown, the Last Supper was actually the wedding feast of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The couple's descendants, Brown alleges, are part of a sacred bloodline that can be traced to France, and continue to walk among us today.
According to the book's plot, the Catholic Church and orders such as the Knights Templar and Opus Dei suppressed this knowledge -- and for anyone who tries to uncover the truth, things can quickly get dangerous, as the two main protagonists discover.
The problem arises, though, that Dan Brown himself claimed that “the art, the architecture, the secret rituals and loges” were all “historical facts.” Many fans take at face value what historians and theologians are calling “well-known humbug.”
The Catholic Church ignored the book after it was published in 2003. But in mid-March, the Archbishop of Genoa, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone finally broke the silence after repeated requests from his flock.
“Don’t read and buy this book,” Tarcisio, for many years the number two man in the powerful Vatican congregation, told Vatican Radio. The work was “shameful” and told “unfounded lies,” he said.
This past week, the Cardinal called a seminar in Genoa to separate the facts from the fiction. The rented conference room was bursting at the seams. The risk was very great “that many people believe that these fairy-tales are true,” he said.
Getting non-readers into books
“This book is everywhere,” the Cardinal fumed. And Brown’s German publisher concedes this is true.
“At the moment, there is really an extreme hype around Brown,” said Marco Schneider, editor of the German edition from publisher Lübbe-Verlag. “The Da Vinci Code” has developed into one of the most successful books of all time. In Germany, it tops several bestseller lists, together with Brown’s next novel “Digital Fortress.”
“We are getting at an entirely new circle of readers,” said Schneider. “It includes a lot of people who otherwise have no other books at home.”
Brown says writing a good thriller is like making maple sugar candy
And Brown is certainly reaching people who otherwise have little to do with Jesus, the Church or art history.
In the book’s settings, especially Rome, Paris and Scotland, an entirely new type of tourist has developed. They are not walking around with a travel guide in their hands, but rather the thriller and believe to be on the trail of Christianity’s secrets. In these locations, tourism operators offer “Da Vinci Code Tours” -- with increasing success.
“For God’s Sake”
So is the book being read by theologians, too? “For God’s sake,” said Professor Rainer Kampling from the Seminar for Catholic Theology at Berlin’s Free University. He said he liked to read mystery novels occasionally, but life was just too short for “bad food and bad books.”
According to Kampling, the book’s hype had nothing to do with theology or even a serious occupation with belief. For him, it is mainly a cultural phenomenon.
“In a world that has for many people become increasingly obscure, we’re seeing a remarkable revival in conspiracy theories,” Kampling said. For him, Brown’s writing is, of course, rubbish.
So, how should the book be dealt with? Kampling recommends not giving this “Umberto Eco for secondary school pupils” undue importance by getting upset about it.
German editor Schneider doesn't get what all the fuss is about anyway, “because it says in big letters on the book’s cover that it’s a novel.”
And even Vatican Radio has come around. It said the Cardinal was not speaking for the Vatican, but rather expressing his own opinion. There could be no talk of a boycott appeal on the part of the Vatican.