Jewish Journal

Real Danger in Myth

by David Klinghoffer

Posted on May. 18, 2006 at 8:00 pm


The film version of author Dan Brown's bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code," premiered this week amid a cacophony of unhappy historians and theologians who hoped to reach the horde of curious moviegoers seeking a good diversion -- which is also what prompted many readers to pick up the book in the first place. In these pages, two scholar/writers -- a Jew (David Klinghoffer) and a Catholic (Gabriel Meyer) -- offer their individual responses to The Code.

Meanwhile, art expert Tom Freudenheim (p. 30) finds a museum exhibit with artifacts from the time of Jesus that have their own story to tell about ancient times.

And if you're looking for a real Da Vinci Code, the Christian Bible and the newly found Gospel of Judas are good places to start, especially if the Greek classics also sit on your bookshelf. Managing Editor Howard Blume (p. 29) has selected excerpts from a talk by Bible scholar Dennis R. MacDonald.

Jews, Too, Should Beware the 'Code'

by David Klinghoffer

The Catholic Church has good reason to take issue with Dan Brown's megaselling "The Da Vinci Code" -- and the film version of the book that opens this weekend. But should non-Christians be concerned? And should Jews, in particular, care when, in effect, another religion is maligned through a popular and persuasive work of fiction that pretends to be more than fiction?

The answer to both questions is yes.

In fact, Jews, in particular, need to be aware of the unwitting gift Brown has given to anti-Semites.

As most everyone knows by now, Brown uses the medium of a gripping suspense story, set in the present, to inform us that Jesus was not celibate but instead married Mary Magdalene, and that he has descendants living in Europe today. Furthermore, according to the film, the members of this surviving family of Jesus have been protected for centuries by an altruistic secret organization, the Priory of Sion, which is locked in combat with a sinister, violent Catholic group, Opus Dei, which seeks to keep the secret of Jesus' fecundity from getting out. Behind Opus Dei stands the Catholic Church. For millennia, the church has perpetrated what the film calls "the biggest cover-up in human history."

Opus Dei, the real-life Catholic lay order, asked Sony Pictures to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie admitting that the story is fictional -- as of press time, the studio refused. Sony's compliance or noncompliance hardly makes a difference, though, for much damage has already been done. Brown himself states at the outset of the novel that his tale is grounded in "fact": "The Priory of Sion -- a European secret society founded in 1099 -- is a real organization" and so on.

Scholars have done a solid job of pointing out the fictions that interweave Brown's "facts." Notably, the Priory of Sion is real only in the sense that it really is the modern invention of Pierre Plantard, an eccentric and paranoid Frenchman. Plantard's creation co-opts the name of an ancient order that disappeared into history, but the incarnation of his hoax dates to 1956 not 1099. The historic Priory of Sion was a medieval monastic order that ceased to exist by the 14th century and had nothing to do with legends about Jesus' fathering children.

You may wonder if Brown's readers find his tall tale convincing. The answer is, they do. A Barna Group poll found that 53 percent of the book's readers said "The Da Vinci Code" aided their "personal spiritual growth and understanding."

But why should a Jew care?

Consider that the alleged conspiracy underlying the "biggest cover-up in human history" bears a remarkable resemblance to another phony conspiracy, the one that underlies the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

In both conspiracy theories, an ancient world religion turns out to be a massive fraud perpetrated to gain or maintain power. In Brown's version, the Priory of Sion ("Sion" means "Zion" in French) is the good guy. It's been sitting on the secret about Jesus having children, waiting for the right moment to reveal the truth, meanwhile giving safe harbor to the children of those descendants.

The priory also practices a pagan goddess worship that, as we're supposed to understand, is the true religion intended by Jesus and his spouse, Mary Magdalene. All the while, in the tale, the Catholic Church plots to hide the truth about the holy "goddess" and the "sacred feminine" forever. To ensure that the world's people remain in the dark, the story says Opus Dei is willing to go to any lengths, including murder, all to keep the male-dominated church hierarchy in power.

In the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" -- a text thought by many scholars to have been authored by Russian monarchist and anti-Semite Mathieu Golovinski in 1898 -- a secret society of Jewish elders plot to rule the world through "Darwinism, Marxism and Nietzscheism." Here the "Zion" (or "Sion") team is the bad guy. Like the Catholic Church in Brown's scenario, the elders of Zion are committed to keeping their diabolical plot absolutely secret.

Plantard (1920-2000), the French monarchist and anti-Semite who gave us the Priory of Sion hoax, spent much of his life inventing fantastical, esoteric organizations intended to "purify" France of the evil influences of modernity -- and of Judaism. A group he started in 1937, Alpha Galates, which like all his efforts attracted few followers, supposedly devoted itself to fighting "the corrupt principles of the old democratic Judaeo-Freemasonry." In 1940, he wrote of the "terrible Masonic and Jewish conspiracy" that threatened France.

The Priory of Sion existed almost exclusively on paper and in his imagination. The point of this occult order was to advance Plantard's claim that he was the surviving heir of the ancient Merovingian line of French kings, whose "holy blood" was guarded by the priory. The idea that the Merovingians were the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was added later by others -- not Brown.

In Plantard's fantasy, this priory was not founded by him but by Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade. Godfrey is the same person who in reality presided over the massacre of the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1099.

Undoubtedly Plantard knew of the "Protocols." How did it influence him?

That's hard to know. But we can say with certainty that the same poisonous European air of delusional paranoia that fed the "Protocols" also fed Plantard's fantasies about Jews and himself.

The fact that the two conspiracies highlight the word "Zion" or "Sion" would only be an interesting coincidence, except that both myths share an understanding of how to deal with ideas you disagree with. Rather than taking traditional Christian beliefs at face value and arguing against them, Brown portrays the religion as a belief system based on a lie told about history. The purported lie that Jesus had no wife allows the church's elders, who are all men, to perpetuate male-domination of the Christian religion. This strategy excuses Brown from having to make any arguments for his book's promotion of the "sacred feminine."

Anti-Semites do much the same thing. The "Protocols" were composed initially as a response to Russian revolutionary socialism. In form, they are the supposed instructions to a new member of the Jewish conspiracy of the elders of Zion, outlining how the Jews will manipulate the media and financial institutions to establish control over ignorant gentiles. The elders' tools include the modern secular, liberal ideologies, which will detach non-Jews from their old loyalties to traditional structures of the church and of the monarchy.

Rather than coming out honestly and openly against Darwinism or Marxism or modernity in general, the author of the "Protocols" concocted a story about Judaism as a conspiracy taking the form of a religion -- a cover-up, a lie, designed to perpetuate the rule of the Jewish elders over the unlucky non-Jews. Judaism, in this view, may be a religion, but its primary importance is as a conspiracy. The "Protocols" remains a global phenomenon of staggering popularity and, to many readers, especially in the Arab world, it's accepted as truth.

I don't mean to imply that Brown ever intended to foment bigotry, nor that he is an anti-Semite, a bigot or anything remotely similar. There would be no warrant whatsoever for saying that.

But we live in a time when conspiracies based on flagrant hoaxes captivate millions. A healthier culture would demand serious proof for startling claims or simply put no stock in them when they appear in fictional entertainments. Today, Americans and others will accept dubious beliefs simply because they tickle their fancy, or because those beliefs appeal to an increasingly influential anti-religious impulse -- about which Jews often seem strangely unconcerned.

Such a world stands in peril of succumbing to all manner of untruths, from the benign to the deadly. Like other intellectual and physical capacities, the ability to distinguish fact from fancy needs to be exercised to remain strong. Each time we fall prey to another hoax, our powers of discrimination are weakened.

If you don't think America has fallen prey to the hoax of the Priory of Sion, then contemplate the Barna Group finding: More than half of Brown's readers believe their "personal spiritual growth and understanding" was aided by knowing about, among other things, the wild conspiracy theory given as fact in Brown's novel.

Brown has inadvertently encouraged in his readers the habits of paranoia and gullibility. For anti-Semites and other conspiracy theorists, the gullibility of Americans is welcome news. For people committed to finding the truth through investigation and argumentation, it's worrisome.

For Jews, it's even more troubling. Historically, we as a people haven't fared well when the culture we live in turns to entertaining fantasies and delusions at the expense of unfashionable religions.

"The Da Vinci Code" phenomenon has more serious potential ramifications than Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" ever did -- because it's been a long time since the ancient slur that the Jews killed Jesus got any serious traction. On the other hand, the charge that Judaism is a conspiracy seeking power over gentiles is one that still claims numerous believers. Many Muslims find the idea entirely plausible -- and not only Muslims, as anyone who listens to talk radio can tell you. "The Da Vinci Code," in encouraging people to think of religions as conspiracies, is playing with dynamite in a way that Gibson wasn't. Surely, this merits some attention from our official community. So far it has received none.

I hope that our discerning anti-defamation groups, committed to defending Jewish interests as well as to fighting the unfair maligning of other faiths, will take an interest in the way the Catholic Church is being defamed by Brown.

To recognize the peril in his storytelling would be in our own interest. It's also the right thing to do.

David Klinghoffer (www.davidklinghoffer.com) is a senior fellow at the Discover Institute in Seattle and the author most recently of "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History" (Doubleday).

A Holy Mess for Church Leaders

by Gabriel Meyer

The May 19 release of the film version of Dan Brown's blockbuster novel, "The Da Vinci Code," published in 2003, promises, if anything, to intensify the controversy that has swirled around this dark thriller -- and its breathless and profoundly misleading tour of medieval Christian esoterica -- what New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who liked the book, calls "the motherlode of religious conspiracy theory."

Not surprisingly, Catholic opposition to the "Code," off to a fairly slow start, has become more vocal. The Vatican is the predictable bogeyman of Brown's story, which features an upside down version of the canonical Christian Gospels, with Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus and real leader of the church and subsequent co-divinity -- a narrative, according to the "Code," that the Catholic Church both knows to be true and ruthlessly suppresses.

For good measure, the international Catholic organization, Opus Dei, is brought on stage as the principal agent of the Vatican's murderous cover-up -- complete with an albino monk. (Shades of "Monk" Lewis and the 19th century Gothic novel!)

(A priest friend of mine recently got a taste of what may be in store for him, when, after responding long and thoughtfully to a young person's question about Jesus' celibacy, was told: "Well, you would say that, of course."

One Vatican official, Msgr. Angelo Amato, has called Brown's "slanders" -- on par with insulting the prophet Mohammed or denying the Holocaust, and some church leaders have called for a boycott -- no doubt, to the delight of the film's producers.

Last year, Genoese Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's official doctrinal watchdog, called for a boycott of the book and this past March launched a series of public debates on Brown's work in Italy in anticipation of the release of the film adaptation. You couldn't pay for better publicity.

A number of Catholic publications and Web sites, such as the El Cajon, Calif.-based Catholic Answers, have posted fulsome point-by-point refutations of the "Code." More seriously, Catholic scholars Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel -- Miesel is an expert on medieval history -- weighed in with a thorough debunking of Brown's historical claims in "The Da Vinci Hoax" (Ignatius Press, 2004). And they're hardly the only ones.

Amid this furor, casual readers -- and now moviegoers -- can be forgiven for asking: What's all the fuss about? It's a pulp thriller, for goodness sake, not a theological treatise: it's an airport read with a plot twist at the end of every chapter, the sort of book you stick into your carry-on for the long flight to Cincinnati. It's just entertainment. Nobody takes this stuff seriously, do they?

Well, yes they can and do. According to recent polls, more than one-third of Brown's 18 million readers to date are persuaded that the book's "motherlode of religious conspiracy theory" is literally true. That's worth pondering -- not only in terms of Brown's book, but, more importantly, in terms of the larger questions it raises about our society and culture.

Part of the problem is inherent in the material -- its goulash of "facts" and fiction, the interweaving of real people and institutions with fictional ones. Brown is often quoted as saying that his book is a work of fiction. Fine, but he also stresses how meticulously researched "The Da Vinci Code" is and how factual its historical assertions are.

Brown even appends a fact page to the front of the book, underscoring the purported reliability of the book's claims, particularly about the so-called Priory of Sion, Opus Dei and the descriptions of art, architecture and rituals. As one critic put it recently in a television interview: "Brown offers [his work] as fiction, but sells it as fact. You can't have it both ways."

In a revealing comment on his Web site, Brown isn't as coy about the question of fact or fiction:

"The secret I reveal is one that has been whispered for centuries. It is not my own. Admittedly, this may be the first time the secret has been unveiled within the format of a popular thriller, but the information is anything but new." (Emphasis added.)

Well, well.

As Miesel has written: "By manipulating his audience through the conventions of romance writing, Brown invites his readers to identify with his smart, glamorous characters who've seen through the impostures of the clerics who hide the 'truth' about Jesus and his wife. Blasphemy is delivered in a soft voice with a knowing chuckle: 'Every faith in the world is based on fabrication.'"

Just for the record, hardly any of the facts in "The Da Vinci Code" are accurate nor are they the result of original or even respectable research. Brown's ideas are drawn not from primary source material, but from popular New Age excursions through the Grail legend and goddess worship and from popular books about early Christian gnosticism. When he has his characters confidently assert hitherto unknown facts about the origins of the biblical canon, for example -- that the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea codified the Bible as we know it -- this is, at best, willful ignorance.

One example of many: The Knights Templar were a real 12th century military-religious order, set up to accompany and protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. But the myth of the Templars as masters of occult wisdom is a creation of the late 18th century, where they loom large in Masonic lore and later in the speculations of the Nazis.

And so on.

There are larger problems here than sloppy research, however, and larger issues at stake.

With nearly 20 million in sales and editions in 44 languages, and with a film adaptation in release, there's no doubt that "The Da Vinci Code" has struck a chord in the modern world, but we would do well to ask what the nature of that chord is.

As David Klinghoffer points out, the popularity of conspiracy theories, in whatever form, is always a matter of serious concern.

The infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," portions of which were first serialized in a Russian newspaper in 1903, may have been plagiarized, in part, from a mid-19th century French political satire that had Freemasons playing the "heavy." In the hands of Russian anti-Semites, the work was recast to feature Jewish leaders and financiers as the "puppet-masters" of world events and has gone on to play a vicious role in 20th century European anti-Semitism. It currently unleashes its toxins in cheap editions that can be found on street corners throughout the Muslim world.

Conspiracy theories are perennially attractive because they not only provide us with simple explanations for complex phenomena, but they usually do so in such a way that our prejudices remain blissfully unchallenged.

The story line remains the same -- betrayal and deception for the sake of power, though the identity of the villain may change: now the Masons, now the Jews, or the Rothschilds, or the Vatican or whomever else we have been taught to hate or fear. And as the 20th century proved all too conclusively, what begins in triviality may end in murder.

Gabriel Meyer is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. He won Catholic Press Association awards for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and went on to cover the Balkan war for the National Catholic Register in the early 1990s. Since 1998, he has written extensively on the civil war in Sudan and is the author of "War and Faith in Sudan" (Eerdmans, 2005).

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