Dan Brown has reproduced in fictionalized form some of the great myths of the
postmodern world. His achievement, in fact, is so spectacular that it is hard to
begrudge him his newfound millions. He has taken a set of ideas and speculative
historical reconstructions, each of which is highly implausible in itself, and
by weaving them together has not only created an exciting plot, but has also
made the several implausible elements appear for a moment as though they just
might be true.
All the books of this type seem to be convinced that mainstream Christianity
thinks of Jesus as divine, sustaining the church’s political power, whereas the
secret traditions see him as just human. They fail to notice that if they are
right it is hard to explain the rise of Christianity in the first place. If
Jesus’ body is buried under a hill in France, why should anyone think he was divine?
We may safely conclude that The Da Vinci Code is fiction in its characters and
plot and in most of its other details as well. But its real importance lies
elsewhere: in its reinforcement of the “myth of Christian origins.” This myth is
well known and widespread. I have met it at Harvard, in Baptist churches in the
South, all over the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature— this myth is anything but scientific or historical.
This is the myth: First, there were dozens if not hundreds of other documents
about Jesus. Some of these have now come to light, not least in the books
discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt 60 years ago. These focus on Jesus more as a
human being, a great religious teacher, than as a divine being. And it is these books which give us the real truth about Jesus.
Second, the four Gospels in the New Testament were later products aimed at
divinizing Jesus and claiming power and prestige for the church. They were
selected, for these reasons, at the time of Constantine in the fourth century,
and the multiple alternative voices were ruthlessly suppressed.
Third, therefore, Jesus himself wasn’t at all like the four canonical Gospels
describe him. He didn’t think he was God’s son, or that we would die for the
sins of the world; he didn’t come to found a new religion. He was a human being
pure and simple, who gave some wonderful moral and spiritual teaching, that’s all. Oh, and he may well have been married, perhaps even with a child on the
way, when his career was cut short by death.
Fourth, therefore: Christianity as we know it is based on a mistake. Mainstream
Christianity is sexist, especially anti-women and anti-sex itself. It has aimed
at, and in some places achieved, considerable social power and prestige,
enabling it to be politically quietist and conformist. This, I find, goes down especially well with those who are escaping from either fundamentalism or
certain types of Roman Catholicism.
Fifth, the real pay-off: It is time to give up, as historically unwarranted,
theologically unjustified, and spiritually and socially damaging, the picture of
Jesus and Christian origins which the church has put about for so long, and to
return to the supposedly original vision of Jesus himself, not least in terms of
getting in touch with a different form of spirituality based on metaphor rather
than literal truth, of feeling rather than structure, of discovering whatever
faith you find you can believe in. This will revive the truth for which Jesus
lived, and perhaps for which he died.