From 'Da Vinci Code' rattles some Christians by Alexandra Alter, Contra Costa Times, Saturday April 22, 2006:
. . . The Da Vinci Code may be having an even more profound cultural impact. Resurrecting arguments that date to the second century, the novel has provoked a public debate about the origins of Christianity, clandestine schools of Christian mysticism and the role of women in the church.
Da Vinci fans argue Brown unearthed evidence that Christianity once took a variety of forms, including mystical practices involving goddess worship. Critics say such ideas were rightly disposed of in the second century as heresy.
"To see a global bestseller claiming that people of faith have got it all wrong is disconcerting, to say the least," Robert Hodgson, dean of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society. "This book is ultimately a travesty for people of faith."
Christians today are suddenly seeing the foundations of their faith under fire. The classic version of the Good News has been challenged by newly translated texts such as "The Gospel of Judas" and ""The Jesus Papers,"" a new book that argues the crucifixion and resurrection were faked. Christian leaders are responding by organizing a massive campaign complete with pamphlets, DVDs, Web sites and study groups aimed at countering the book's claims.
Why such fuss over a work of fiction?
Christian leaders and theologians point to the "fact" page at the book's opening, where Brown notes that references to the Priory of Sion, a secret religious society, the Roman Catholic group Opus Dei, which has 85,000 lay and clergy members, and the descriptions of art, architecture and rituals are accurate.
According to the Barna Group, a Christian research and polling agency, 53 percent of adults who read The Da Vinci Code report that the book has helped their "personal spiritual growth and understanding."
"An amazing number of people were reading it as this exciting guide to church history," said Carl Olson, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in the Da Vinci Code. "A lot of Christians have been thrown by the novel."
Brown's plot-twister isn't close to outselling the Bible. But it has led scholars, theologians and lay people to ask questions that might sound familiar to anyone who attended the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., when church leaders first codified the orthodox Christian creed. Among them: Was Jesus fully human or divine? Which gospels are the true gospels?
The Da Vinci Code has clearly touched a cultural nerve.
I have mixed emotions about this article. First, to a certain extent I find it unnerving that Christians should find The Da Vinci Code helpful to their spiritual growth and understanding. In many mainline churches where the truth of the Gospels seems to have been abandoned in favor of the all-encompassing view of God as the non-judgmental God of love, this is somewhat understandable. After all, if the Gospels are not trustworthy and contain only stories fabricated by the early church to make Jesus divine, then why not believe the Gospel of Judas as being equally accurate as Mark, Matthew, John and Luke? My concern is that I have had very committed Christians ask me if The Da Vinci Code is accurate history. I have tried to set them straight by pointing out that there is no reliable evidence that supports the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, but the mere fact that I need to try to straighten this matter out is somewhat troubling.
But then, as a second emotion, I find myself saying, "Good! The church needs to have this discussion!" In other words, too many Christians are stumbling through life without any idea as to why we trust that the four Gospels are the four reliable accounts of the life of Jesus and why late-second century Gnostic writings like the Gospel of Judas are dismissed as "garbage" (as recently affirmed by the Archbishop of Santa Fe). Until Christians get a better understanding of the solidity of the Gospels as the accepted canon of the church from well before the Council of Nicea, we will continue to be surprised and unable to answer claims that the Council of Nicea picked and chose the books to be in the Gospel from a group of equally viable candidates. Let me counter that claim right here:
The notion that the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Thomas were equally accepted by Christians as inspired works prior to the Council of Nicea has no basis in fact whatsoever. The website The Development of the Canon of the New Testament has a very nice Cross Reference Table: Writings and Authorities which catalogues the opinions of the early church fathers on the various Gospels and Epistles. The table clearly shows that with the exception of two church fathers, Ignatius of Antioch and Marcion -- the latter of which had views that were widely rejected in the early church -- every church father viewed the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as being "accepted; true; scriptural; or quoted from very approvingly".
By comparison, how does the Gospel of Thomas fair with these early church fathers? The Gospel of Thomas is apparently not even mentioned until Origen and Eusebius -- both of whom wrote in the 3rd Century B.C. -- and both shared the view that the Gospel of Thomas was "false; heretical; heterodox; quoted from very disapprovingly".
While the Gospel of Judas is not listed on this chart, the earliest reference to it appears to be from Iraneus who wrote around 180 A.D. and made it clear that the Gospel of Judas was not accurate when he wrote that Gnostics "produce fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."
One could look at it this way: when the Council of Nicea got together, it was already settled that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were "accepted; true; scriptural" because no one voiced concerns to the contrary. It was the typical "no-brainer" whether to include them in the canon. It appears that there were no other Gospels that were seriously considered for inclusion in the New Testament canon because none of the other "gospels" had any type of widespread support from the early church. There may have been some individuals at the council who were making a case for one or more additional writings to be included, but it seems as the task of excluding works that were not consistent with the Christian teachings was made much easier by the fact that the vast core of the New Testament was already settled by the time the Council met (only James, II Peter, II and III John, Jude and Revelation appearing to have mixed support).
Do I think that The Da Vinci Code has anything "spiritual" to say? No, not at all. The sum of what is "of God" can be determined by comparing it to the teachings contained in the Bible which were "once for all delivered to the saints." (Jude 3) To the extent that the Brown novel suggests a different Jesus or a Jesus inconsistent with the Jesus described in the New Testament, then it is not "of God" and has no business in my Sunday School class -- except for teaching about heresies.