On the night of November 19th, Rev. John Sewell was doing his best to be fair and square, honest but understanding -- the third Wednesday in a row he'd had to be before an audience inside the sanctuary of St. John's Episcopal Church at Central and Greer. The crowd wasn't the packed house of the previous two weeks. Still, it was a good showing, there to see some slides, hear Sewell answer them some questions:
Question: "Do you think Jesus had a wife and child?" Answer: "Being married is not a sin. But a child? Would she be a half-God or quarter-God? I don't know."
Q: "What do you think of the Catholic organization known as Opus Dei?" A: "I don't think there are many things in life improved by secrecy."
Q: "Has the Divine Feminine been suppressed by the church?" A: "Probably. The church has a lot to answer for -- the way women have been treated. There's no question."
Q: "What if the novel is true?" A: "What difference would it make? Humanity has always hungered for redemption, some sense of what it means to be human. What's important is that God in Christ has revealed the nature of God, shown us what being authentically human looks like."
Q: "How has the Catholic Church responded to the novel?" A: "I don't think they've paid attention to it one way or another."
That's twice now -- "the novel." The one that's been at the top of bestseller lists for the past 34 weeks. The one about Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, the Vatican, the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Opus Dei, with some chase scenes, some narrow escapes, some bloodshed, some high-tech gadgetry, some mysticism, and some tricky problem-solving thrown in. The novel on the mind of everybody that night at St. John's.
So, last week I read it: Dan Brown's suspense thriller The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday). And I'm not getting into the religion of it. I don't have the space or the faith. But believe what you will: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene maybe got married in a match made in heaven; that Mary Magdalene maybe got the shaft because church fathers couldn't grant such power to a woman; that Mary Magdalene maybe is herself the Holy Grail of Western myth and symbol; that the Roman Catholic Church maybe knows it but doesn't want you knowing it; and that the Vatican is and ever has been a pack of con men bent on hiding the truth to suit themselves and line their pockets, no maybe about it, judging from the response to this book.
Leave it, all of it. Let's focus on Dan Brown, a writer who can write: "Everyone in the reception area gaped in wonderment at the half-naked albino offering forth a bleeding clergyman." ("Wonderment"? How about horror?) Who can have a police captain "let out a guttural roar of rage" as he "heaved a bar of soap out into the turgid waters of the Seine." (Turgid's right.) Who can label a priest in Spain "a missionary." (A case of coal to Newcastle?) Who can refer in passing to the "hundreds of lucrative Vatican commissions" undertaken by Leonard Da Vinci. (Hundreds? Where are they? Art historians would love to see them.) Who can needlessly let us in on the latest in fancy safe-deposit boxes: "[T]he [Depository Bank of Zurich] had expanded its services in recent years to offer anonymous computer source code escrow services and faceless digitized backup." Who can write in French so basic even a numbskull can understand it. ("Capitaine, un agent du Départment de Cryptographie est arrivé.") Who can put us in mind of his characters' deepest thoughts: "The Vatican has gone mad." (Author's emphasis.) Who can write in the best Nancy Drew tradition: a cliff-hanger seemingly every other scene and literally every five pages. And who writes, publisher to protagonist: "You're a Harvard historian, for God's sake, not a pop schlockmeister looking for a quick buck." (But maybe Dan Brown [Phillips Exeter; Amherst] is.)
"My friends, this library is a base camp for Grail seekers," says a research librarian to the hero and heroine near the end of The Da Vinci Code. "I wish I had a shilling for every time I'd run searches for the Rose, Mary Magdalene, Sangreal, Merovingian, Priory of Sion, et cetera, et cetera. Everyone loves a conspiracy. ... I need more information."
So did that audience at St. John's. So they should see Elaine Pagels' newest book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. She's a Harvard historian for real.