Uncracking the Code (again and again)

The Da Vinci Code had been out for a few months before I became aware of it.

Someone asked me what I thought of the plot. Then I noticed piles of the book at Barnes & Noble. I started to hear chatter about whether the plot was “true.”

So I read it. And wrote about it. And wrote about it again. And again.

The Code, which came out way back in 2003, was a true phenomenon — a word that is often used when it doesn’t really apply.

This classic piece of fast-moving pulp fiction got a lot of people thinking about Christian history, often for the first time.

The fact that many people believed the story to be based in truth — the Vatican covered up Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene and the birth of their child — showed how little people know about Christian history.

Of the articles that I wrote, my favorite was about a fundamental flaw in the plot. The Code makes the case that the Vatican whipped up its conspiracy theories at the Council of Nicea in 325. But Rome had very little influence in the church at that point. Most of the bishops present were from the Greek-speaking Eastern churches.

So the Orthodox churches, not the Vatican, would have had to cover up the truth about the Christ household. The Orthodox churches, though, are not mentioned in the novel.

But, hey, it is a novel, not a history text. Dan Brown, the Code’s author, has been very vague about all of it.

“I’ve always said there’s room for different opinions,” Brown told USA TODAY recently. “Controversy is a good thing when it gets people thinking and talking.”

Okay, the new Dan Brown novel, out a couple of days ago, is “The Lost Symbol.” This book focuses, from what I’ve read, on the Freemasons, already a very mysterious group.

Get ready for a lot of new looks at the Freemasons.

Including from me, I hope. I plan to talk to some Masons from these parts about who they are, why they joined and why the Masons have been so controversial for so long.

Maybe the Masons will get an image update, like Opus Dei did after tons of Code-related attention.

USA TODAY’S Bob Minzesheimer writes:


Brown, 45, has been intrigued by the Masons since his childhood in Exeter, N.H., where his father taught at Phillips Exeter prep school: “Their lodge was above the theater, and the shades were always drawn.”

Much of the pre-publication speculation about the novel assumed it would be critical of the Masons, in the way that many saw Da Vinci as an attack on the Catholic hierarchy.

But that’s not the case. “It’s a reverent look at their philosophy,” Brown says. “I’m more interested in what they believe than all their rituals and conspiracy theories about them. That’s in the novel, but it’s discredited.”


New York magazine had a fun package about Dan Brown last week, including a not-so-complementary explanation of his amazing popularity.

It starts with this: “The great unsolved mystery at the core of The Da Vinci Code is not whether Jesus had a child (of course!) or whether the Catholic Church is a deadly machine of transhistorical truth suppression (big time!) but something far more interesting: How did an artwork so objectively horrendous manage to conquer Planet Earth? What is the magically addictive spice in Dan Brown’s secret sauce? And is there any redeeming quality to Dan Brown’s work whatsoever?”

That’s mean.

The week that I missed

I’m back. Hope you had a good week.

I’m about half way through my 1,500 new emails. The worst part is that my email storage is full and I can’t send any emails until I empty it out.

So if you’re waiting for a response from me — as so many people are — please keep waiting.

Here are some odds and ends as I try to catch up with the news:

1. While I was on furlough, I read a stack of magazines from the past few months. In the Jan. 5 New Yorker, there was a quirky story about two rabbis who fly around China checking out factories that produce kosher food. Over $1 1/4 billion worth of kosher-certified foods are exported from China every year. Who knew?

Anyway, the article noted that one of the rabbis was drinking a Coke, and that the Orthodox Union has certified Coca-Cola as kosher since 1993. The article raised a very interesting question: How can you certify a product when its formula is a closely guarded secret? The answer: “Grunberg explained that the Coca-Cola Company presents the O.U. with a long list of ingredients to be approved, including some that are red herrings, just to foil any industrial spies who might be masquerading as rabbis.”

Fascinating, no?

2. I was in Macys buying socks and noticed a T-shirt that said: “FREE speech thought religion expression”

It had a very interesting design for some reason I checked the tag: “Made in Pakistan”

I couldn’t help wondering where in Pakistan it was made? Whose factory? Do the people there believe in all those freedoms — or even know what they are? What would the Taliban think?

3. I wrestled with whether or not I have to see “Angels & Demons.” I don’t think I do. Although it’s the number one movie this week, I haven’t heard any serious talk about the plot or any connections between the story and the real world.

I read “The Da Vinci Code,” saw the movie and wrote about it several times because I heard people wondering whether the plot was true — or based in truth or somehow connected to truth. Many people read it as historical fiction.

Not so with A&D, I think. We’ll see how things develop — and whether I need to see Tom Hanks running around like a mad man. I hope he got a different haircut this time out.

4. I read some of the coverage of B16’s trip to the Holy Land. Somehow, neither what he said nor the reactions to what he said surprised me. Some Israelis were not satisifed with his comments about the Holocaust. Well, B16’s not a great communicator. When it comes to highly symbolic moments, people still expect JPII. But B16 is a different guy.

He favors a Palestinian state and finds the Wall to be a sad sight? Who could be surprised by that?

Benedict is 82 and gave 28 speeches during the trip. He had no major gaffes that I’m aware of. Give the guy some credit.

5. The NYS Assembly’s passage of a bill to legalize gay marriage sets the stage for a fascinating debate in the Senate.

The NYS Catholic Conference calls the Assembly’s move “terribly misguided:” “Marriage is not simply a mechanism with which to provide people with benefits. By creating same-sex ‘marriages,’ the state is endorsing the notion that procreation is completely disconnected from marriage and that a nontraditional family structure serves a child as well as a traditional one.”

The Orthodox Union is “gravely disappointed:” “Legal scholars on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate agree that codifying same-sex marriage without providing robust religious accommodations and exemptions will create widespread and unnecessary legal conflict that will “reverberate across the legal and religious landscape.” We have already seen religious congregations, social welfare agencies and youth groups which object to same-sex unions penalized by authorities in states where such unions have been legalized.”

6. I wish I was around last week to write something about Obama’s Big Day at Notre Dame, which crystallizes the Catholic Church’s struggles over abortion like nothing else (Yes, I know that many Catholics would say that there is no struggle and that Catholics who disagree are dead wrong).

I haven’t had a chance yet to really digest Obama’s remarks. Maybe after I clean out my emails…

7. Finally, I am a finalist for the Religion Writer of the Year Award given out by the Religion Newswriters Assocation. A nice thing.

The Code…is back

The Archdiocese of Rome will not allow the filming of scenes for the upcoming Angels & Demons at Catholic churches in the Eternal City.

Angels & Demons, of course, is based on a novel by Dan Brown, author of the mucho controversial Da Vinci Code. The Code (in case you’re among the 12 people who didn’t read it) is a novel that insists it is based on real facts. And its plot centers around a 2,000-year-old conspiracy orchestrated by the Vatican to cover up the truth about Jesus and the roots of Christianity.

hanks460.jpgAngels & Demons (which, like the movie version of the Code, will star Tom Hanks) is a prequel to the Code and is set mostly in Rome.

Apparently, the film’s producers asked the city for permission to film in several churches. But the city asked the archdiocese. And the answer was no.

“I don’t think they would have asked us directly because they knew what the answer would be,” the Rev. Marco Fibbi, a spokesman for the archdiocese, told Reuters.

Here’s the real issue: If the movie inspires protests, I may have to read the book.