The Search for the Cinematic Jesus

Somewhere on my "to-do" list for the year — No. 116, No. 117 or something like that, right after "rearrange sock drawer" — is when I picked up Dan Brown’s "The Da Vinci Code" to ascertain, if possible, why a whacked-out account of Christian origins has earnest people debating the whacked-out implications.

The inevitable movie version, produced by Sony, comes out in May. We’re agog to know what people will think of seeing — not just reading about, but seeing — Jesus depicted marrying Mary Magdalene and having children with her, and a Catholic lay organization depicted murdering folks so as to keep the secret.

Hoping to head off a Christian backlash, Sony has created two websites: and The material features short commissioned essays by Christian writers opining on the novel’s plot. There’s additional information on the Bible and some material noting differences in the gospels’ accounts — Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Dan. The Gospel of Dan is now the hot property — 40 million copies sold — and not a patch on the four evangelists, but of course, they had a 2000-year head start.

Meanwhile, a civil trial in London goes forward, its purpose being to ascertain Brown’s liability, if any, for using in his novel the structure of another book that posits the Jesus-Magdalene connection. All this on top of "The Passion of the Christ"! The idea spreads fast through our society that this Jesus of Nazareth was some guy.

Nor have Christians ever pretended he was anything but colossal. The Nicene Creed, from the fourth century A.D., gives this classic account: "only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light…" Not to mention, "incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary." Not to mention either, following that episode on the cross, "he rose again," according to the scriptures, and "shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead…"

Pretty stout stuff. How "The Da Vinci Code" threatens to mess up the Second Coming is not automatically apparent. I think the nervousness in Christian circles about "The Code" and its implications stems as much as anything from nervousness about Christianity’s centrality in a world where faith and foolishness rub elbows daily.

Fifty years ago, Hollywood celebrated the tribulations of early Christianity: Robert Taylor, bound in the arena before Peter Ustinov, calling on Christ to save Deborah Kerr from a mad, bad bull; Richard Burton and Jean Simmons going gladly to execution for the sake of their new faith, accompanied by the rantings of the crazy Roman emperor Jay Robinson.

Fifty years and it’s come to this? "God of God, Light of Light" in the arms of, hmmm, yes, Mary Magdalene? How came it to this, you might well ask. The consumer society that’s been building for the past half-century hasn’t been especially kind to unflinching affirmations of a spiritual order that trumps the material order. The culture likes what it likes. Best of all, it likes that which affirms the convenient, the personal, the profitable, the malleable. Dan Brown (I gather) gets a hearing partly because he tells a gripping story and partly because the story of a Jesus "like us" has great appeal.
Odd thing, the theologians might say: He was like us — human as well as divine. But that’s hard to grasp. Give us a Jesus with a wife and kids and maybe an SUV.

Does "The Da Vinci Code" matter in the great scheme of things? So much so that we’re all atwitter waiting to see how the movie comes out?

Can a movie make Jesus other than as the creeds of the church say he was? That would seem the real question. Attempts to remold him after the mold maker’s fancy easily preceded Dan Brown and Sony. And will continue. But the Jesus of the creeds, "God of God, Light of Light" — it really should have struck us long ago that the likes of Dan Brown can’t lay a glove on this guy.