Michael Coren is a Toronto-based columnist and broadcaster, and a Christian social conservative. In a recent column in the Toronto Sun entitled Da Vinci Code a ‘disgrace’, he makes sense of what should be the worrying popularity of Da Vinci Code, by means of the Christian narrative of persecution by the wicked. Although he doesn’t use the word “persecution,” his article speaks of secularism’s obsessive anger at the Catholic Church, of the “fetish of hatred” against the Church, and of Catholics and evangelical Christians as “perennial victims of popular culture.” Coren even links the unfair criticisms of the Church by Da Vinci Code with the imprisonment, torture, and killing of Christians in oppressive countries where “there are concerted campaigns to eliminate followers of Jesus Christ.”
Coren points out that Dan Brown’s novel is filled with errors about the Church, that the makers of the film adaptation refused to introduce the film with a warning label, and that Tom Hanks wouldn’t star in a movie that questions the Holocaust. The best explanation of these facts, according to Coren, is that there is a double standard against Christianity. Coren suggests that non-Christians are afraid to have something as pure and as good in their midst as the Church, and thus they revile the Church, not knowing what they’re doing. The underlying message is plain: the strange popularity of Da Vinci Code in largely Christian nations shouldn’t worry true Christians, because the New Testament warns Christians that, like Jesus, they would be unfairly persecuted.
What Coren doesn’t appreciate is that Dan Brown’s book taps into the widespread dismay with the compromise of Christian ideals by the Church itself, going back to Constantine’s political use of Jesus’ Jewish cult. The compromise was the inevitable result of this cult’s transformation into the imperial religious institution of Christendom. Since at least the overall message of Da Vinci Code reflects the disillusionment regarding Christendom, Christians aren’t unfairly attacked by anything like Dan Brown’s book.
Christendom as the Betrayal of Jesus
Let’s consider Michael Coren’s response to liberal secular hostility toward the Church, to see whether the response itself validates the disillusionment. The genuine Christian might be expected to turn the other cheek. When a Christian complains about how offensive he or she finds a certain slanderous movie, calling for a warning label, the Christian behaves more like the decadent secular liberal whom the Christian criticizes, than like someone interested in imitating Jesus. I’m thinking of the moderate Christian who lives in what Kierkegaard called Christendom, in a secular society preached to by a wealthy Church which has been emasculated by the manifest success of the scientific, naturalistic worldview. Precisely because of the encroachment of secular culture on Christianity, many Christians now pay lip service to the religion for reasons of fashion and political correctness. These moderates hardly live like Jesus lived: they would much sooner die for their family, their country, or their material possessions than for their religion.
The way to be “Christ-like,” to be a follower of Jesus rather than a member of a disconnected institution like Christendom, is surely to stop whining when attacked and to fight evil with a demonstration of virtue. Even if secular liberalism were evil, the Christian would do best not to confirm the victory of secular liberalism over Christianity, by whining about what is felt to be offensive. The postmodern, decadent secularist is the one who is supposed to be so far removed from real danger and from real life that he or she sounds the alarm when merely offended by some aspect of consumerist culture, by some such piece of corporate art as a video game or a movie. Instead of waging the holy war of good against evil, the moderate Christian complains about not being able to display pagan symbols of Christmas in public, unaware that these symbols were early compromises of Jesus’ Jewish ideals. Again, the moderate Christian protests against children’s inability to pray in public school, whereas Jesus said to keep prayer private. Jesus wasn’t content to be offended; according to the religion, he was beaten to a pulp and hung on a cross to die. That’s the difference between the compromise of Christendom and the ideal of Christianity.
Michael Coren says that the Church holds up a mirror to secular liberal culture to show the absurdity, moral decay, and self-indulgence of this culture. But Christendom is hardly blessed with the mirror opposite of these severe failings. Some priests in Christendom sexually abuse boys and others cover up the crime. Moderate Christians enjoy their material possessions more than helping the millions of diseased, impoverished people. It seems like a show of mere Catholic pride to stand against contraception even while many Africans die of AIDS from unprotected sex. What Coren doesn’t appreciate is that a great many people regard the Church as especially absurd, morally suspect, and permissive of self-indulgence (of priests raping boys, for example). Many see that Christianity is little more than Christendom–an empty, absurd, emasculated, irrelevant religious institution.
Christians are no longer distinguished for being truly persecuted; instead, Christians left behind their victimhood as soon as Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Coren points out that Christians are imprisoned, tortured, and killed in repressive countries like Saudi Arabia, China, and North Korea. This is true, but these Christians aren’t mistreated for being followers of Jesus. They’re mistreated for some tenuous link between them and the Bush administration, or for not being a communist, or for not obeying the whim of some mad dictator. None of the rulers of these repressive countries care enough about a pie-in-the-sky, peaceful follower of Jesus to hound this person specifically for being Christian. These rulers oppress Christians and non-Christians alike to maintain their political power. And the majority of Christians today live in poor, Southern countries where they struggle mainly to keep transnational corporations from plundering their natural resources. Then there are the free, Northern countries where Christendom dominates and where the moderate Christian is reduced to making a fuss about an anti-Christian novel–horror of horrors!–in a bid to appear persecuted and Christ-like.
Coren speaks of the absurdity of secular liberal culture, yet he doesn’t seem to appreciate how absurd basic Christian doctrines are to many people who live in societies visibly transformed by applications of nontheistic scientific theories. Jesus was supposed to have changed water to wine, walked on water, raised Lazarus from the dead, and risen himself in some “spiritual body,” or ghost. Those are blatant absurdities sustained only by faith. That kind of faith is a vice, because it’s an admission that a person lacks the fortitude to live with uncertainty when there’s insufficient evidence for the rational justification of a belief.
It’s absurd to believe in miracles when modern societies have been reshaped by technological applications of science; these societies wear the truth of nontheistic naturalism on their sleeves, as it were. It’s absurd to be a Christian in Christendom, to pretend to be a follower of Jesus when Bishop John Shelby Spong is right about the incommensurability of the ancient worldview (according to which the world is flat, heaven is above, diseases are demons, the world is going to end very soon, and so on) and modern, scientific naturalism. It’s absurd to be a Catholic, given the priest sex scandals and the Church discipline of celibacy for priests which has proved to be an irresistible opportunity for sexual predators who harm those Jesus said most deserve protection.
Da Vinci Code and Christendom
Let’s turn now specifically to Da Vinci Code. Why did so many Westerners read this book, despite the facts that the majority of Westerners claim to be Christian, and that the main conspiracy in the book has been shown to be based on a fraud? Here is a similar question: Why in all major Western bookstores is the New Age section about as large as the religion section, not to mention the philosophy section? The answer, again, is that people can’t help but see Christianity as little more than Christendom, and thus they seek elsewhere for answers to questions of value which science doesn’t address. This is evidently true even for moderate Christians. Even were Dan Brown to have gotten wrong every single detail about Christianity, the book’s themes would still have hit home for millions of people. I haven’t read the book, although I’ve seen the movie. Clearly, though, one of Brown’s themes is that for a long time there has been something very wrong with the Catholic Church which has put the Church on the defensive. This theme resonates with those who are appalled by the absurdities of Christendom.
A more specific Da Vinci Code theme which has likely resonated with those suspicious of Christendom is the book’s feminist view of the persecution by the early Catholic Church of the Gnostics as heretics. The movie of Da Vinci Code, too, refers to the Church’s destruction of Gnostic Christianity which, unlike the Priory of Sion, is perfectly historical. Certain Gnostic sects had the temerity to permit women to be priests. The Catholic response to the feminist criticism is that the Catholic Church honours Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother Mary. Seldom does the Catholic spokesperson get past this sound bite to address the question of why the Catholic Church elevated these two women only by turning Magdalene into a whore and Jesus’ mother into a virgin. Such “honours” were bestowed upon these women despite there being no reference in the Gospels to Magdalene as a prostitute, and despite the fact that the notion of a virgin birth is preposterous. The Catholic Church symbolically affirmed the role of women in the Church only with extreme difficulty, and awarded men all the real power in the Church hierarchy. Of course, the official Gospel record includes references to Jesus picking only male apostles, but this record was canonized for its agreement with those Christians who were willing to annihilate the more women-friendly Christian sects.
On his television show, Michael Coren has said that the Gnostic texts were rejected by the orthodox Church because of their “unreliability.” This can’t be correct, since the canonical Christian texts are unreliable. For example, Matthew and Luke edited Mark to suit the interests of their own readers’ communities, not to give an accurate historical account of Jesus’ life. The Gnostic texts were rejected because they tended to regard the gospel as containing esoteric wisdom with metaphorical rather than literal significance.
So there are at least two themes in Da Vinci Code that call attention to the dark side of Christianity. First, Christendom represents an absurd betrayal of Christian ideals. Second, the betrayal was covered up by ruthless Catholic persecution of so-called heresy. Michael Coren’s charge that Da Vinci Code is part of an unjust secular campaign against Christianity is particularly hard to sustain considering that Christendom is now criticized largely for its own unjust persecution of its earliest critics. These critics, such as Gnostics and Pagans, were just as appalled by the consequences of imperial Rome’s co-optation of a Jewish cult as are today’s secularists and moderate Christians.