What Do Christians Know?

The way some pundits and journalists are telling it, you might think that many Christians are too narrow-minded and emotionally fragile to understand that "The Da Vinci Code" is just a novel (and a movie and an industry). The common theme of more than few recent articles and editorials has been, "Hey, Christians, lighten up and realize that it’s only fiction!"

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Such pieces miss two important facts. First, that many (if not most) of the readers who have accepted some or all of Dan Brown’s assertions about historical figures and events are not Christian. In fact, they appear to be decided non-Christian and quite happy that the mega-selling novel has finally "revealed" the truth about the allegedly nasty, violent, woman-hating Catholic Church. Secondly, Christian critics of the novel take fiction seriously not because they don’t "get it," but because they actually respect fiction and the arts in general. They are rightly concerned that if art, even popular art, is completely divorced from truth, it eventually erodes artistic and cultural integrity, as well as knowledge about important facts.

This, sadly, is ignored in the rush to paint critics of the novel and the movie as knuckle-dragging Bible-thumpers who don’t know Leonardo da Vinci from Chicken Little. Actor Ian McKellen, who plays the character of the historian Leigh Teabing in the cinematic version of the Code, waded in the other day, squarely aiming at those who take the Bible seriously as a source of truth.

"Well, I’ve often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front saying this is fiction," McKellen said in an interview. "I mean, walking on water, it takes an act of faith. And I have faith in this movie. Not that it’s true, not that it’s factual, but that it’s a jolly good story. And I think audiences are clever enough and bright enough to separate out fact and fiction, and discuss the thing after they’ve seen it."

Oddly enough, McKellen had previously said, in another interview, that when "I read the book I believed it entirely. . When I put the book down I thought what a load of potential codswallop." Prior to the film being shown at the Cannes Film Festival, he even said that novelist Brown had argued his case "very convincingly". His case for what? If it’s "just fiction" and therefore, we are told, merely entertainment, why would it make a case for anything?

Ironically, McKellen’s comments, however glib they might have been, are self-defeating. If the Bible really is fiction, as he apparently thinks it is, then why is he concerned about it? After all, this is a man who admits that he tears pages out of Gideon Bibles in hotels. But if he is upset by a work of fiction, how is he any better than Christians who are upset by a different work of fiction? And if the argument is made that although the Bible is fiction, it has had a great influence on religion, culture, politics, and much more, then we have to conclude, logically, that fiction can profoundly shape hearts, minds, and actions. Which means that "The Da Vinci Code," which clearly has influenced the beliefs and perspectives of many readers, should be taken seriously. Despite being fiction. It is, in a way, a type of Trojan horse-poison wrapped in the guise of a gift.

Director Ron Howard has also tried to have it both ways. "I chose this story because I thought that many of the ideas in this novel were very thought-provoking and very intriguing," he said in a May 11 interview. "As a storyteller, I thought about it in great detail and decided that it was a great way to take a work of fiction that many people would want to see on film and actually generate discussion and debate. So ultimately, I feel that’s a very healthy thing. When fiction stimulates the mind and results in a dialogue between [groups of] people, that’s a good thing."

But when it became clear that some of the dialogue involved opposition to the movie, Howard changed his tune. This past Thursday the Italian press reported that Howard said that "to tell someone not to go see the film is an act of militancy and militancy generates hatred and violence." So you can tell someone falsehoods about the Catholic Church in a work of fiction, but you should never encourage reaction to those falsehoods? If some Christians feel as though they are being blindsided by the Coded Craziness, it could be because they are victims of an artificially constructed one-way street.