Thursday, May 18, 2006

Da Vinci Code-- the Movie: "So Dark the Con of Man"

Ron Howard's two hour and 29 minute adaptation of Dan Brown's mega-selling thriller "The Da Vinci Code" has now hit the big screen to mostly negative reviews (see Having read some thirty criticisms of the movie I was prepared for this movie to be a bomb. Actually, its not. It stands up rather well as a suspensful movie, and it is not the case that there are long boring discussions of ancient lore in this movie.

In fact there is only one major debate or discussion in the movie where Leigh Teabing disputes the traditional interpretations about Jesus' divinity and insists he was married and had children, things which Robert Langdon takes some objection to, calling them just theories, and a rearranging of the facts to suit such theories. Those looking for major discussions about the Gospel of Philip or Mary should abandon hope. They are only really mentioned in one scene and are not given much play at all. Nor is the theory that Constantine invented Christianity and imposed it on the Empire really given the time of day either. This is in fact disputed by Langdon in the movie. Ron Howard seems to have had enough sense to know when enough is enough. The story is much more about Opus Dei vs. the mythical Priory of Sion, one seeking to suppress the truth about Jesus' marriage and offspring, the other vowed to protect the secret and protect Jesus' descendents. Nor are we regaled with long problematic assertions about the Divine Feminine, though the subject comes up. though infrequently in the movie.

For those who have not read the book, or much if anything about Opus Dei, this movie will raise more questions than it answers. My son, who has not read the novel, went with us to the movie and he felt there was not nearly enough explanation of who they were and why they were so concerned about Mary Magdalene. The movie, like the book, of course exploits the fact that there have indeed been cover-ups in church history, and indeed there have been lives taken to protect some alleged dangerous secrets. More than Jesus or the canon being on trial in this movie, it is rather mainly the Roman Catholic Church, its asceticism, and its passion mysticism that is on trial here, with the albino monk of Opus Dei representing all that is loathsome about religious fanatics, especially those who are mentally unstable.

In a surprise at the end of the movie Langdon tells the story of how he prayed to Jesus to be rescued from a fall into a well, and of course he lived to tell the tale, though the adult Langdon is prepared to settle for a Jesus who merely inspires good things in others. Jesus is not the adversary here, though his divinity is denied by Teabing. What is missing of course in the whole discussion is the fact that Jesus' full humanity is in no way a threat to his divinity. Indeed even if he was married this need not have been problematic for a belief in his divinity.

Audrey Tatou's portrayal of Sophie Nouveau is well done. She does indeed come across as a woman with secrets and a troubling upbringing which she has tried to repress and overcome. And Tom Hanks though be starts off in rather Stoic or wooden fashion is believable as a professorial type not apt to willingly become the hero of a conspiracy or murder investigation. Paul Bettany as the mad monk Silas is positively demonic in some scenes and repulsive in his self-flagellating mode as well. Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf) is marvelous as the mad hatter Teabing, and the supporting cast is good as well. Han's Zimmer's score is well done (cf. the Gladiator score) which preserves an air of forboding and brooding darkness throughout the film. It adds to the ambiance of the film.

This is a dark movie, but the "con of man" in this movie is not one perpetrated by the church about Jesus and his real nature, but rather one foisted on a Biblically illiterate public large numbers of which seem naive enough to believe the hysterical fiction in Brown's novel. It is a good thing that various critics, and to his credit Tom Hanks as well, have seen through this ruse. Hanks plays his role with one eyebrow raised most of the time--- good for him. This movie will still raise some other eyebrows as well, and raise some questions about the truthfulness of the church about its heritage. It is my hope that this will lead to candid discussion about the real Jesus, and the real story about what the early church believed about his humanity and divinity, long before Constantine was ever born. Surprisingly enough at my advance showing, the house was not even full. Nor was there much reaction from the audience at all, and hardly any applause at the end. This is not your typical fun summer thriller. It is too dark for that, but it may at least raise some interesting questions for those really trying to puzzle out the religious mysteries involved.


This movie is not appropriate to bring: 1) young children to-- the violence and self-flaggelations scenes involving Silas the monk are too much for the young; 2) likewise this movie is going to raise numerous questions for people not well grounded in their faith, especially those of Roman Catholic background. I am not urging them to see it either. 3) Those who know the Bible, but not much about church history (including modern church history-- e.g. what is Opus Dei) are not going to be able to dialogue with the inquisitive about this movie very well since it is more about church history than it is about anything in the Bible itself. In particular those who know little or nothing about the Council of Nicea, the mythical Priory of Sion, the Gnostic Gospels, or the formation of the canon will be ill-prepared for the discussions this movie may raise. It would be better to do a little homework before or after seeing this movie if one wants to use it to have a dialogue about the Christian faith with Da Vinci Code fans. 4) there are certainly some things in this movie, especially those that come out of the mouth of Teabing, and some of the actions of the Catholic bishop and his lacky the monk which any Christian should and will find disturbing. There is really not a single positive portrayal of a devout Christian in this movie, and that in itself is disturbing in a movie that is so much about the history of Christianity. Christian audiences therefore should be cautious, and come prepared to thinking critically about the movie if you go.


Sandalstraps said...

Looks like I might have to see this film after all.

Jeff Raker said...

Thanks for the review. Our staff is seeing it tonight just to be prepared to answer questions. I think we've prepared our congregation well, thanks in large part to your posts over the last month.


Christopher said...

I just finished the book. I wasn't impressed, it didn't really feel so much like a narrative as a propaganda piece. Sort of like the Jesus Christian's response to the Left Behind Series "Survivor." It is just using the story as a means to spread a message... then again as a wanna-be writer I see myself doing that quite often... so maybe it isn't so bad. Who knows. Anyway thanks for the review of the movie.

New Life said...

It is a work of fiction; like the Matrix, it's not real. (Think LaHaye.) Just like the hype of the book two-three years ago, readers, and now viewers just need to beware that they are reading and watching fiction.

Ron Howard and Dan Brown are going to do no more to destroy the Christian faith than Mel Gibson did to save it. If faith is to be destroyed it will be Christians who destroy it, not Hollywood.

The only thing that Christians are going to do in the zeal is perhaps make Ron Howard and Dan Brown billionaires like they did Mel Gibson.

Thanks for sharing your review. You comment about knowing the bible and church history raised a concern for me. Very few Christians know much about the bible or Church history and that may have an impact on their thinking but probably no more than a their lack of biblicla knowlege or church hsitory alread does.


Ben Witherington said...

Yes Rick, its fiction, even though the novel presented itself as historical fiction. The problem is-- in an entertainment driven culture, people get their values through the media, including through films. Hence, it is right to make the point that people are affected by what they watch.


Ben W.

New Life said...

Thanks Ben,

Coming from a 15-year career in the advertising and televison industry and into ministry I agree that folks are impacted by what they watch. And perhaps I am being a little naive to think that folks won't being impacted by this work of fiction or the 6 PM News stories coming out of Iraq each day.

If this is true then I wonder why this movie is being singled-out?

It seems that Christians would be equally zealous to rid the bookstores of the Left Behind series. A series that has be consumed by numerous Christians and perhaps more toxic to the faith.

I see no Christians petitioning those stations who take Benny Hinn's questionable ministry in the name of Jesus and air it in their stations.

I see very few folks who are worried about this movie and how images of Jesus are portrayed expressing their opposition to political voices who misuse the name of Jesus.

The list goes on of those "CHRISTIAN" ideas and fantasies that have been "foisted on a Biblically illiterate public (and Church) large numbers of which seem naive enough to believe the hysterical fiction in Brown's novel, Benny Hinn's ministry, the Left Behind or the marketing machine a popular Zondervan book.

What I see happening is the evangelcial church once again falling into the tempter's hands in an effort to save Jesus.

It could be that we are nothing more than a stumbling block.

Bill Barnwell said...

My wife and I just went and saw the movie. We were at one of the biggest theaters in the Metro Detroit region. For a 3:35 showing, the audience was very large. I would expect the later evening showings to be packed. At the end of the film, there was a decent smattering of applause. Yesterday, I wrote an anti Da Vinci piece published that generated a huge amount response, more than typical. I'm afraid a lot of people are still eating it up, and the dismissal "Oh, come on, it's just fiction" crowd is underestimating how easily people are swayed (i.e. one guy on the local news interviewed coming out of the theater said the movie was making him "rethink his faith.")

Ben Witherington said...


As Phil. 2.5-11 suggests, there had to be divine self-limitation if the Son of God was going to be truly human. To put it in colloquial language-- in order for him to experience the limitations of time, space, knowledge, and power. As I like to put it, he put the omnis on hold during the Incarnation.


Ben W.

Sally said...

Thank you Ben for a thoughtful post, I find myself in agreement (as usual) with your comments especially the warnigns regarding viewing content and the need to understand the context... I do believe that we need to engage in appropriate ways regarding this movie, but perhaps on a one to one level rather than making a big fuss.. which rather seclares we have something to hide!!!

Alyson and Ford said...

I have not seen it and hesitate to go view a movie that may have no redeeming value (we go see very few movies). From the comments left here, I feel my money may be better used for other fiction entertainment. I guess I only like happy "fluff"; plus we tend to view animated movies in preparation for the adoption. Disney anyone?
Thank you (as many have already done) for the review of the movie.

Ben Witherington said...

Yes I am saving the movie presents Langdon as a bit more of a defender of traditional answers about Jesus, than Teabing the flaming pagan.

Just a word of adieu for a while to my friends in the blogosphere for a while. I am off today to preach in the National Cathedral (tomorrow morning) and then on to Turkey and Singapore for two weeks.



Bill Barnwell said...

The problem is that Teabing turns out to be right about all his claims about Christ. So while the film throws in Langdom questioning Teabing about his revisionist history, the film "proves" the revisionist history to be correct.

Mike McLoughlin said...

I think it is time for Christians to have some fun with the Da Vinci Code. I read somewhere that Dan Brown is a committed Christian. Hmmm! I wonder if this Da Vinci code is the biggest hoax ever played on the church since they supposedly found Noah's Ark on Mt Ararat. I wonder if Brown is watching all the hand wringing and denunciations and attention being paid to his book with great glee.

So I decided if you can’t beat him, join him! Not in the sense I agree with his take on history or Jesus but in the sense I like the fun he is having with us all in discovering fanciful conspiracies and using codes to hide explosive truths. I am not alone in this, the judge, Peter Smith, in the copyright infringement trial between Brown and the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail encoded a message in his judgment.

I have posted an article at my blog entitled "The Clergy Conspiracy – Decode this Post to Uncover An Explosive Truth!" I sent out the email yesterday and I have already had a number of replies or guesses at what the code spells.

Here is an additional clue. The number of letters in the sequence to be decoded is 20. Anyone want to give it a try? Click here.

Marc Axelrod said...

I thought the movie was a big bore. I was getting restless and waiting for it to end. But I do commend Ron Howard for trying to stay close to the storyline in the book.

I should also say that reading the book may have taken all of the suspense out of the movie for me as well.

And of course, the revisionist "history" was absolutely atrocious.


Anonymous said...

As per usual, Dr. Witherington, you give us an intelligent and balanced view of things. As a former peripheral acquaintance/coffehouse employee of yours, and a recent convert to the Catholic Church, I continue to be impressed with your ability to respond famously to difficult cultural questions about Christianity. Keep up the good work.

Matt Page said...

You seem to have had a very similar reaction to my own. One thing I mentioned there is how the whole feminine angle is downplayed in the movie compared to the book. In the book, Sophie Neveu and Langdon work together to solve the various puzzles. In the movie she doesn't really solve anything, it is only who she is that matters.

I also Hanks' mention of praying when he fell down the well is an interesting addition.

Chong Choe said...

From my experience, most nonbelieving intellectuals agree with the DaVinci Code’s underlying message that Christianity is the greatest con against mankind: a doctrine established by man and promulgated by the church throughout the centuries has duped us all.

As Christians, we vehemently object (and then go on a rampage defending our views). I’m not sure how convincing it is to go through each historical inaccuracy and provide a more accurate account. It is useful to some extent, but that’s really not the point. The real question is: what if Christianity is a lie? This is the seed of doubt planted by the movie, and no amount of historical data concerning the church and the Council of Nicea will resolve this doubt completely. Instead of focusing on the peripheral issues, I think we need to focus on the real question and provide a more meaningful answer.

I’m not trying to make the DaVinci Code more than it is. It is just one major ripple in the current tide against Christianity and, more specifically, the movement against everything "God."

Hayne Begley said...

I picked the book up over spring break in Ireland and found it quite enjoyable. Have a solid background in Church History I didn't find it personaly troublesome, nor do I think it is a book that should cause Christians trouble. What does bother me is how many people know so little about their faith and in-turn were completely unaware to deal with anything the book (or now movie) put foward. It is just a sign of how poor a job the church is doing to educate her people.

The only 2 complaints I had with the movie were that I didn't find Hanks to play a believable Harvard Prof. And Bettany wasn't near what Brown described Silas as in the book (a very large, very strong albino)

Joseph Salomonsen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Barnwell said...

Michael Moore actually had way more truth in his last movie then anything you'll find in "The Da Vinci Code." Also, if there was a fictional movie about a cross-dressing Jesus would that be OK too? For all the people who are telling the rest of us to lighten up, especially the Christians saying this, I wonder how you'd feel if Hollywood made a fictional movie about your mother that harmed her integrity. I highly doubt you'd be saying "Oh, come on, it's just fictiion, what's the big deal people?"

If we can and should stand up for mom's integrity then we can and should stand up for our Savior's all the more.

LoieJG said...

Because of the popularity of the book, our pastor decided to have a discussion at church about this book/movie.

First topic: what are the basics of our faith. We listed them.

Then the history of the church and the canon was discussed. Then what the book said and didn't say.

Then the pastor asked, If these things in the book were true, what things in our basic faith would be changed? The answer was NOTHING!