Tuesday, August 10, 2004

it's a conspiracy!

Is anyone else getting mighty sick of The DaVinci Code? This is the best-selling novel by Dan Brown that claims "DaVinci" (more commonly and correctly called by his name, Leonardo) knew of a huge conspiracy within the Catholic Church to cover up the true identity of Christ, his marriage to Mary Magdalene and the son that was born of this marriage. I keep seeing this novel being read on trains and in parks, people are constantly praising it, telling me how it 'gripped' them, and 'challenged' their beliefs. My dad has read it, and keeps recommending it. Yet, I have no desire to read this book.

Why? Well, firstly I am aware of the poor scholarship in the book. It has received criticism from Christian and non-Christian scholars alike for mistakes, and even if I did want to read about the Opus Dei or the supposed 'goddess' spirituality of Mary Magdalene, I would purchase an academic book, not a novel. Secondly, I can't stand airport novels of any description, and I think it is safe to say that Brown's book is indeed one of them. The few parts I have read weren't even vaguely well written. It plays off the conspiracy theories that excite people disaffected with jaded instituitions, such as the monarchy or the Catholic Church. The title is an obvious nod to The Bible Code, another piece of sensationalist conspiracy theory-paranoia designed to make a quick buck. Despite the continual suggestions from my dad, I won't be rushing out to read this novel - there are simply too many other books to read first! It can join the bottom of my list, below Harry Potter. When I have exhausted the canons of literature, I'll consider them.

However, I think it sad the 'facts' presented by Brown's book are taken in my so many people who have had no exposure to this sort of history before. Not surprisingly, it has been condemned by Catholics as 'undermining people's faith'. It seems that you either love this book or love Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ. Why are we deprived a healthy middle ground opinion?

See more at Times Online.

If you want all the fun of a Templar conspiracy theory, with actual literary value (and used as a tool to explore more serious hermeneutical questions), I'd recommend Umberto Eco's novel "Foucault's Pendulum" which parodies the industry.

But it's scary isn't it the way people absorb these `facts' from book like this?

A more benign example is William Goldman's "The Princess Bride" (which, probably unlike DaVinci, is a worthwhile read) - it is presented as an abridged translation of a classic novel from the (obviously fictional) European country of "Florin", where the persona of the translator/editor keeps intruding, and at one point includes an invitation to write to the publishers to request a copy of another scene which the publishers insisted on omitting as too lengthy. Now I can understand someone playing along with this and writing to see what they get (this apparently); but the internet seems to be littered with readers who are happy to admit they had really believed it was an abridgement of this Florinese author's work.

When readers have little or no prior knowledge of church history, they have no canons of plausibility with which to assess Brown's work; similarly when they have no clue about European geography, they may miss the clues that Goldman's Florin is fictitious.

(This extends to biblical interpretation too, as was brought to my attention by Frances Young: our prior understanding of plausibility shapes our reading. To a church father to whom it is `obvious' that God doesn't have passions, passages speaking of God's `anger' will not be read as referring to an emotion; to anyone who knows basic geometry, the measurements in 1 Kings 7:23 are not going to be taken as implying Pi is 3; to anyone who `knows' the earth orbits the sun, Joshua halting the sun is not going to be understood geocentrically; just as to anyone who knows what a tree is, isn't going to understand Isaiah to claim they have hands and arms; someone who doesn't believe in dragons and unicorns is unlikely to match them up with bible fauna as the translators of 1611 did. None of this is actually even a matter of literal vs. non-literal, but of rival literal readings from different plausibility assumptions.)

I've never heard of anyone who believed Tolkien's claim to be translating The Lord of the Rings from "The Red Book of Westmarch", but I'm no longer confident some people mightn't!


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