Editors Introduction : The ancient heresies known as Gnosticism are very much in our midst, forming an integral part of the “culture of death” referred to frequently by the Holy Father. In this powerful critique, Gary Potter confronts one of its latest literary expressions: The Da Vinci Code .
The Da Vinci Code , by Dan Brown, has been the book-publishing phenomenon of recent years. By May, 2004, it had been at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for a year; something like seven million hardback copies had sold; it was being translated into more than forty foreign languages; and Columbia had bought the movie rights with Ron Howard reportedly slated to direct the picture.
Since the novel, even as a thriller-romance, is far from first-rate, numerous observers have been left scratching their heads as to why the thing could be so successful (not that very many truly first-rate books ever become best-sellers). If they knew it has been the subject of study in adult-education classes in Novus Ordo Catholic parishes all over the country, they might begin to understand. Gnosticism sells big among Christians. It always has. Its temptation is never far because temptation itself never is.
Gnosticism? Beyond its plot-line, such as it is, that is what The Da Vinci Code is about. Why are we going to pay attention to this less than first-rate novel about gnosticism here? For better or worse — usually for worse these days — the views and beliefs of readers and movie-goers are influenced by the stuff they read and movies they see. Folks who have not read a book in years, or maybe never have, have read this one. They are bound to see the movie when it comes out.
So? The life of the Faith has been seriously disrupted by past historical outbreaks of gnosticism. Inasmuch as right now that life is not exactly robust, it is desirable to pay attention to Brown’s novel, not for its sake, but on account of what it represents. It may be unlikely that many who read From the Housetops would also read the novel, or believe its purported “facts” if they did. However, in view of the novel’s extraordinary success, it is equally unlikely that an average Housetops reader knows no one who has not read the book, or will — read it and wondered if there could be anything to it. This wonder — the doubts about the teachings of the orthodox Faith sowed by the book — will endure even when the attention of the public has fixed itself on newer novelties. What is said here is meant to help our readers to be able, without having to read the book themselves, to know and even explain that what there is to it is wrong. That and to understand why the thing is as successful as it is. Certainly it panders to baser appetites, intellectual as well as others, but saying that does not say much in a day when a great deal else also does.
We shall begin our consideration with an historical survey of some of the ways gnosticism has manifested itself over the millennia. Then we shall turn to the novel, not to review it, but so that the gnosticism of it may be seen.
We must begin with the historical survey because there is no pithy definition of gnosticism. It might be compared to insanity. We all know what it is and will say, “That was insane,” when we hear of someone acting so crazy as to warrant it — someone who leaps from a high building on a dare or stands in a busy intersection howling at the traffic or murders all her children — but in fact the term encompasses a very wide range of behavior. It is like that with gnosticism. Our hope is that by describing some of its faces as they have appeared in history and show themselves today, not simply may we discern a few features common to all the faces, but the reader can get his mental arms around more of the subject than if we attempted to offer a definition. We know in advance that, one way or another, there is almost always one feature that shows itself. This moves us to warn that anyone who is uncomfortable with talk that touches on the physical expression of love, pure or impure, needs to know such talk will be unavoidable in our discussion of gnosticism. 1
That is, it can be said gnosis is a Greek word for knowledge, but modern English-language dictionaries that define the term as secret, esoteric or occult wisdom or knowledge are begging the question: knowledge of what? Simply of matters secret, esoteric and occult? If the dictionaries, and even some gnostics, leave it at that, Dan Brown in his novel defines gnosis as “knowledge of the divine,” and says, as would others, the “sole means” by which a man can attain it (and thus become “spiritually complete”) is by “physical union with the female.”
To anyone familiar with the career of Aleister Crowley, Brown’s “gnosis” sounds awfully like the promised outcome of the peculiar kind of “magic” the self-proclaimed Satanist promoted in his heyday. Crowley, an Englishman who billed himself as “The Great Beast 666,” flourished in the early 20th century, attaining sufficient celebrity that he served as the model for W. Somerset Maugham’s first novel, The Magician . He died six decades ago, but there are still persons trodding his pseudo-spiritual path by basing their lives and behavior on the sole commandment of a “church” he founded: “Do thou what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
The influence of Crowley’s brand of gnosticism extends beyond those who are self-consciously followers of his teaching. It can be discerned in the maxim of so-called chaos magic, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
Chaos magic, the recent emergence of which more or less coincided with the rise to popularity of punk rock “music,” is but one current expression, though one of the better-known, of gnosticism. It has produced several discrete sects. One of them, the Thanoterians, will be worth our brief consideration in a few moments. Meantime it wants to be noted that the iconography of chaos magic, like that of feminist Wiccan witchcraft, often prominently displays a “horned god.” In the instance of chaos magic, the image specifically is that of Baphomet, who is hermaphroditic. It also figured in several paintings done by Aleister Crowley that are still extant. Last spring the present writer saw it emblazoned on the T-shirts of a number of suburban teenagers on their way to a downtown Washington, D.C. rock concert.
Did the kids know what they were wearing? Does it matter? Belloc said that “He who dips his fingers in holy water, for whatever reason, will end by believing.” The opposite can also be true. Mess around with gnosticism in any of its forms, even if it only seems “cool,” and expect evil to result.
If the hermaphroditism of Baphomet is mentioned at this juncture of our article, it is because it is not unrelated to the androgyny we shall see as important in The Da Vinci Code .
As with some others who have mixed eroticism and religion (Russia’s “mad monk” Grigory Rasputin comes to mind) it is difficult to say how much Crowley really believed in the claptrap he preached, and how much of it was simply calculated to bring in money and, not incidentally, obtain the compliance of emotionally unstable women. It is for sure that Crowley, like The Da Vinci Code , would be laughable, except for the real damage he did to numerous lives. (Rasputin’s doings, of course, helped bring down an empire.)
What also is not laughable, especially in our day, is that the physical union between men and women practiced by gnostics and that has been generally characteristic of them throughout history, is invariably sterile. Children do not result from it. Indeed, the physical union would be abhorrent if they did. This does not make gnosticism less attractive to many persons. On the contrary, it is what makes it an element in religion as now practiced by countless men and women, if they practice any at all, and even if they have never heard of it. Judging from numerous surveys in recent decades on the use of various techniques of contraception, the countless include as many or more Catholics as anyone else.
Gnosticism certainly predates the Incarnation and foundation of the Church. Some specialist scholars still bicker over where and when it first arose, but most now agree it had its origins in the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Though not a major religion anywhere in the world today, Zoroastrianism still has adherents, mostly Indians in and around the city of Bombay who call themselves Parsees. However, some Zoroastrians remain in the north of modern Iran. There is a group of them who claim to be tending a sacred fire in one of their temples that was originally lit thousands of years ago by their supposed founder, Zoroaster (also known as Zarathrustra).
The distinguished symphonic conductor, Zubin Mehta, grew up Parsee, and the immigration into this country in recent years of very many other Indians and Iranians, an immigration that has transformed, if nothing else, the face of the hospitality industry, has probably brought with it some additional number of Zoroastrians. The number is likely to be small enough, however, that nobody ought to expect to find anytime soon a sacred fire, along with a Gideon Bible, in his motel room.
What interests us about Zoroastrianism is not its fire worship, but its dualism. Believers held that there are really two Gods, not one. There is a good or benevolent God whose domain is of pure spirit. The other God, who is malevolent, is the one who created the material world. This makes everything material intrinsically evil. A person finds salvation by freeing himself from the desires and even legitimate demands of the flesh. Christians, of course, have always esteemed self-denial but know that the One True God not simply approves His material Creation. He sanctified it with the Incarnation — by becoming the Word made flesh, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the historical West other philosophies and belief systems besides gnosticism have contemned material Creation, notably Stoicism and Neoplatonism. In the East, Buddhism, which is not dualist but essentially atheist and now has very many Western adherents, also despises the material. In fact, Buddhists say it does not exist. It is an illusion. Escape from the illusion and you achieve Nirvana — nothingness.
Our reference to Nirvana is not accidental. Dan Brown makes crude reference to it in very biological terms, likening Nirvana to a mystical, permanent prolongation of the fleeting sensory shut-down — an oblivion amounting to “nothingness” — that culminates physical intimacy. Thanoterians, the chaos magic sect that we mentioned a few paragraphs ago, ritualize this moment. They do it with a litany that invokes the ancient Greek god of love, Eros, and the ancient Greek god of death, Thanatos. The aim is to make a person simultaneously aware of both the “nothingness” and death in order to experience something of death. That is to speak of death imagined, as Christians know it not to be, as the annihilation of self. It is also to say that gnosticism, as we hope to make clear in these lines, is always anti-life.
It claims otherwise, of course. It is common, in fact, for gnostics of all sorts to aver that their beliefs and practices are life-enhancing, that they celebrate life. When we hear this, we want to remember the spiritual being whose very name meant Angel of Light, Lucifer, is in reality the Prince of Darkness.
The past and present influence of the other philosophies we have named helps to open the modern mind to the appeal of gnosticism. Even without that influence, however, the dualism that is its basis makes gnosticism appealing as a belief system because it seems to answer a question troubling to the minds of some men in every historical age: If God is good, why does He allow evil to exist, why is Satan part of His Creation? The apparent solution to this problem offered by dualism attracted errant Christians even in the early days of the Faith. Total rejection of the flesh, and thereby the selfish passions arising from it, seemed to them to harmonize with Our Lord’s teaching. They even saw it as His “real” teaching. It made them regard normal physical intercourse even in marriage as wicked or evil, as cooperation with the Devil, since it could beget children, the birth of whom perpetuated matter. So it was that as early as the second century a heretic named Marcion prohibited his followers from marrying and made celibacy a condition for baptism.
(Apart from its being gnostic, it is useful to mention this early heresy of Marcionism because it is illustrative of how heresies work. They seize on indisputable truths, in this case that indulging the flesh too much is always selfish and therefore to refrain from it by sacrificial self-denial is pleasing to God, and takes them to an unbalanced extreme or twists them to mean something else, often their opposite. In a word, heresy consists of the perversion of truth.)
Marcion was not as radical in his rejection of the world as Mani, another Persian (like Zoroaster, if he really existed). Mani asserted in the third century that, to avoid being corrupted by Creation’s evil, men should refuse to work or fight, as well as not marry. The radicalism of his teaching — widespread acceptance of it would make life in society impossible — led to Mani’s execution, but by the end of that century his ideas, which we know as Manicheanism, spread to the Roman Empire. The young St. Augustine embraced them for a time. (In our day Manicheanism has come to be a term often used to signify not so much dualist belief itself as the practices of especially repressive religious groups — Puritans among the Protestants or Jansenists in Catholicism.)
The Marcionites were not the last Christian gnostics. A body known to history as the Paulicians became a force in the Eastern Roman Empire, but especially in the life of Armenia, starting in the fifth century. Orthodox Byzantine emperors would in time dispatch military forces into the country to curb their power, and most who survived were eventually deported en masse to Thrace in northern Greece. This was in the tenth century. It was an unfortunate move. The Paulicians’ dualist beliefs spread into Bulgaria where they were taken up by disciples of a priest named Bogomil and became the basis of a full-fledged heretical “church.”
As had the Paulicians, the Bogomils rejected orthodox teaching on baptism, the Eucharist and other sacraments. Why? It ought to be obvious. Water is needed for baptism, bread and wine for Communion, oil for other sacraments. These things are all goods of the earth. To a gnostic who sees evil in matter, they are not goods, and neither can be anything which depends on them for its efficacity. Most notoriously, the Bogomils’ dualist belief in the evils of the flesh and (therefore) procreation led them to the routine practice of the vice of sodomy. This was to such an extent that our English word “bugger” is believed to derive from Bulgar.
Try as they did to crush the Bogomil Church, the Byzantines failed and there were still very many of these heretics at the time of the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. Bosnians who converted to Mohammedanism at that time were mainly Bogomils. (For a discussion of the Mohammedan attitude toward Creation as compared to the Christian, see “Islam Vs. the Faith,” From the Housetops No. 43.) Moreover, the Mohammedan advance drove some number of Bogomils and their beliefs from the Balkans deeper into Europe.
At the same time, knights of the First Crusade also encountered the remnants of Paulician communities in and around Antioch and Tripoli in the Levant. Some of these crusaders brought dualist notions back to their homes in Flanders, the Rhineland and elsewhere in western Europe. However, it was in southern Europe that gnosticism would gain the strongest foothold and become more dangerous than anywhere else in the West up until then. This was with the rise of the Cathars, also known as Albigensians from a town in southern France, Albi, that was one of their centers.
Like other gnostics, the Cathars rejected the sacraments, except for one they made up, a sort of Last Rite called the consolamentum . However, unlike some other dualists, there was a pragmatic side to the Cathars. They frankly recognized that most men and women are incapable of lives of total self-denial. Those who could manage it were honored by the Cathars as the perfecti (the Perfect Ones). Most were simply credentes, ordinary believers. The difference ultimately did not much matter since the consolamentum was held to absolve believers from all sins so that it was not necessary to try to live virtuously. This meant, in practice, that Cathars could (and often did) give themselves to lives of orgiastic debauchery and remain confident in being “saved” — as long as they received consolamentum at the end. “Should a Believer survive after having been given the consolamentum , he would be smothered to death by his family in a practice known as the endura. The endura was necessary because the administration of the consolamentum could only be performed once in a person’s life, and it was seen as absolutely necessary to assure the salvation of the non-Perfect among the members of the community.” 2 (This writer has tried to research the point, but cannot say if there were any Cathar theologians who taught consolamentum “by desire.”)
Another difference between Catharism and some other forms of gnosticism was that in its ranks women were more-or-less equal to men. They, too, were seen as capable of becoming perfecti to the extent very many of either gender could. It appears women may even have played roles in Cathar ceremonies in the way that female lectors, acolytes and Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers do in the Novus Ordo Church. It should go without saying that among the Cathars suicide was not regarded as sinful. On the contrary, this world being evil, leaving it voluntarily was perfectly reasonable, even virtuous.
By 1167, the Church knew the Cathars posed a real challenge. That was when the Cathar “pope” of the day, a Greek named Niquinta, presided over a council in the town of Saint-Felix-de-Carmen in Languedoc. “Bishops” were named for several places in the South of France at this time. (Toulouse and Carcassone, two strongholds of the heresy, would be the ones familiar to many Americans today.) Catholic bishops of the region became alarmed by this development, naturally. For some years they tried to stop the spread of the heretical movement through argument, truth against error, but made little headway against a “church” that, in effect, allowed its members to do anything they wanted in the belief that last-minute salvation could be attained through the consolamentum.
The situation was not unlike today’s when somebody dies — somebody who was not Catholic or much of anything else — and we are assured he has gone straight to a “better place,” one to where everybody goes upon dying. Since everybody does, why submit oneself to the limitations and downright deprivation of a Christian life or bother even with nominal membership in the Church? So as to enjoy from time to time the emotional uplift of feeling “spiritual”? Fifteen minutes of controlled breathing and silent recitation of a mantra can do that for you.
We began these remarks by saying gnosticism has always sold big, including among Christians. Why this is the case ought to be clear by now. Christianity is demanding. It is a hard religion to practice. A gnostic religion like Catharism that lets its members do most anything they want, especially anything sensual (as long as children do not result), is bound to make converts, and Catharism did. Remember, we are talking about a religion whose members did not reproduce themselves and who even found virtue in suicide. The only way it could grow as it did was by making converts.
By 1203, it had grown to the point that Pope Innocent III called on the Cistercians to undertake a systematic effort to reconvert the Cathars. The Pope’s thought was that the example of the austerities genuinely practiced by the Cistercians would impress men who professed the renunciation of the world to be their own ideal. Not too surprisingly, perhaps not even to Innocent, the Cathars were unimpressed. Still, in 1205, when St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) asked the Pope to authorize a mission to Russia, Innocent was willing one more time to try persuasion as the means for dealing with the heresy. He directed Dominic to the South of France instead of Russia.
It may not be acknowledged readily in hagiographies of an especially pietistic bent, but St. Dominic also failed. In 1207, the Cathars expelled the Catholic bishop of Carcassone from the city. Thereupon the Pope sent a legate to treat with Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, the principal ruler of the region. The mission of the papal envoy, Peter of Castelnau, was to prevail on Raymond to use force to stop the further spread of the heresy. When Peter was assassinated by one of Raymond’s nobles, the Pope at last proclaimed a Crusade against the Cathars, the only Crusade proclaimed against anyone besides the Mohammedan occupiers of the Holy Land. (It is now generally known as the Albigensian Crusade.)
Twenty years of warfare followed. It ended with the extirpation of the heresy and the incorporation of Languedoc into the Kingdom of France early in the reign of King St. Louis IX, but after much killing. Historians debate over how many Cathars were killed by crusaders and how many, like members of some modern suicide cult, killed themselves.
(The heresy was extirpated, but lately there has been a great interest in Catharism, if not a formal revival of the false religion itself. Some travel agencies now offer tours of Cathar country in the South of France and, as in a visit to colonial Williamsburg, you can see reenactors portraying Cathar daily life. As would be expected, the tours highlight the intolerance and undemocratic spirit of orthodox Catholicism for not allowing “freedom of religion.”)
There is something else historians debate, especially historians of culture. Life among the Cathars was often unusually refined, unusually cultivated. The troubadours and their songs of courtly love flourished among the Cathars. How could beauty find a home among men with their bleak beliefs? There is no mystery to us. We have already said that whatever their beliefs, many Cathars gave themselves to lives of orgiastic debauchery. The words were ill-chosen if they connote riotous living. Debauchery can be, and usually is, far from riotous. Think of today’s “gays.” Driven by their inner demons, their lives are seldom truly gay, let alone riotous, but, by definition, they are debauched. Yet no one in American society is more celebrated for their taste in everything from art to home furnishing. Anyway, everybody knows that the refinement of a little music, dim lights and a nice wine will enhance physical intimacy. That will be the case even when the intimacy is unnatural.
From the Christian point of view, most physical intimacy nowadays is unnatural. That is because, for most couples most of the time, it will be contraceptive. It is intended that it will be sterile — just like it was among the Bogomils and Cathars. This is important to observe. It shows that the Bogomils and Cathars may have passed from history, but gnosticism has not.
To be sure, the average American non-Hispanic white couples who seek to prevent conception will not think of themselves as dualists or see the material world as evil. On the contrary, if they seek to prevent conception it usually will be due to their wanting material things — still another vehicle, to invest in a piece of real estate they could not otherwise afford, or to vacation in places they would never see if there were additional children to rear. It remains, as they contracept and abort themselves out of existence to the point that within a half-century they will be a minority throughout the country (as they already are in California), they are rejecting the greatest good this world has to offer: life itself. That is to say, life must not mean to them all that it should or they would not seek to prevent it. In seeking to prevent life, for whatever it is they want to put in its place, life must appear evil to them to some degree insofar as they see it standing in the way of obtaining the things they desire. To that degree, it is gnosticism that they are practicing. Its practice has social, as well as personal, consequences.
Divorce the marital act from procreation and sooner or later you reduce it to mere sensation. In time, perhaps not for some individuals but across society, first the identity and then not even the gender of one’s partners will matter as long as the sensation is present. American society is now very close to this point, if it has not already arrived. It is why the union of men with men and women with women can now be socially legitimized as “marriage” in Massachusetts, and soon will be elsewhere.
Another consequence flows from this reduction to mere sensation. Not everybody is yet ready to experience the sensation with everybody or anybody else, but no one will deny that the differences between the sexes are not as marked as they used to be. They have become blurred. The word for this blurring is androgyny. Persons who are not clearly masculine or feminine are androgynous. It is a fair description of numerous of the most prominent figures in American popular culture today, notably certain rock music stars and movie actors who cannot be imagined in unabashedly masculine roles — when such roles exist. Now we are encountering such figures in popular fiction.
It is to anticipate our examination of The Da Vinci Code , but a reader is struck by the first appearance in the novel of its heroine, Sophie Neveu. We are told she “radiates a striking personal confidence” and fixes the hero, Robert Langdon, “in her strong gaze” with eyes that are “incisive and clear.”
Doubtless Sophie is a feminist fantasy of what a young woman should be at the beginning of the 21st century, but with her confidence, strength and incisiveness she could also just as well be a man — at least she could when those qualities were still associated with masculinity.
Androgyny, as we shall see, is featured in The Da Vinci Code in other ways, as is to be expected in a book about gnosticism.
The belief system, if that is what we want finally to call it, is about far more than practices recognized by Christians as sinful. Yet one of its central notions, one we hear expressed very widely today, can easily be seen as arising from physical union wrongly-directed — i.e., arising from self-indulgence. The trouble with indulging the self, and not simply sensually, is that the self will soon loom larger in one’s eyes than God. In fact, we may lose sight of Him altogether. Our self is in the way; it replaces Him. However, few men are so bold as to set themselves up openly and self-consciously in the place of God even if our very political system is predicated on our doing so (as is attested by the national belief that government should be conducted according to “the will of the people” instead of His). Accordingly, having a belief system based on self is more than a comfort, more than a reassurance that there is nothing wrong with putting self first. It validates our self-centeredness. Gnosticism, to be precise about it, is what we are hearing whenever it is said that God, or Heaven, is within us. Apart from such a notion making possible Aleister Crowley’s commandment, we also see in it that gnosticism invariably leads to pantheism.
Of course Our Lord Himself told His disciples on a notable occasion that the Kingdom of God was within them. Indeed it was. With Him standing in their midst, they and He constituted the entire Church at that time. That is the orthodox understanding of that saying of Our Lord. The notion that God is “within” us in the sense that His divinity and power are also ours, that this power makes all things possible to us, that, in effect, we are God, is a gnostic distortion. The distortion touches on another feature of gnosticism, the only other one that needs to concern us here.
As the dictionary definitions suggest, gnostics always claim to possess secret, esoteric or occult knowledge. The Marcionites were making that claim when they thought they knew of what Christian self-denial truly consisted. So it is that from the higher reaches of Masonry to mail-order Rosicrucianism, from Crowleyites to Theosophists to New Age, gnostics always assert that hidden truths lie behind the teachings of Jesus and other “spiritual leaders,” that they understand the truths, and thus that they know what the teachings really mean. Incidentally, if you also want to know, they will be happy to share their knowledge for the right amount of money or big enough “donation.” In the case of The Da Vinci Code , the amount is $24.95 for those paying list-price for the book.
This writer’s own view may be distorted after 38 years of living in Washington, D.C., but it seems to me it is a rare man who will never feel the itch to know what really is going on, to be privy to “inside” information, to know what is happening “behind the scene.” It is an equally rare man who will never scratch that itch. In Washington, inside information equates with power or proximity to it, but scratching is what we all do whenever we listen to gossip we should ignore.
With some, the itch is bad enough that scratching it turns them into political gnostics. No matter what happens in Congress or at the White House, their “inside” view allows them to see 32nd-degree Masons, Skull and Bones or the CFR at work. Lately it has been the doings of neo-conservatives, most of whom are Jews, that explain everything. (The involvement of these forces of “organized naturalism,” as Father Denis Fahey would call them, does explain a lot, but the U.S. was bent on making the world “safe for democracy” long before Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz appeared on the scene.)
That was an aside. Earlier in these remarks we spoke of gnosticism pandering to baser intellectual as well as other appetites, and this is where it can become most dangerous — most especially when it comes to religion. An appetite for the “hidden truth” behind Christian teaching can lead to a worse state than moral confusion if, upon discovering it, the alleged truth seems to justify either unbelief or behavior we would curb as long as the “truth” remained unknown to us.
The great “hidden truth” revealed by The Da Vinci Code and that can have one of these effects is by now known to everybody who has not spent the past year living on Mars. It is that St. Mary Magdalene supposedly bore a child fathered by Our Lord, a child who came into the world in southern Gaul, the South of today’s France, after Mary arrived there following the Crucifixion.
As heresy perverts truth, this blasphemy perverts, if not historically certifiable facts, a tradition among French Catholics that is too ancient to be dated. In fact, its origin is so completely obscured in the mists of history that it becomes difficult to believe it ever “originated.” It seems more likely to be simply the relation of events reported as soon as they took place, reports we are still hearing twenty centuries later. In any event, for the sake of full disclosure this writer confesses that he holds to the tradition.
To be brief, according to the tradition, which identifies St. Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, she arrived in Gaul and settled there along with her sister, Martha, and brother, Lazarus. Some say the three had been driven from Palestine, along with others, by the Jewish persecution of Our Lord’s disciples following His death, Resurrection and Ascension. To me, it is as likely, or more so, that they were simply being obedient to His last commandment to His followers: to make disciples of all the nations. After all, we believe through tradition, or know on the basis of good evidence, that except for James who remained in Jerusalem, all of the Apostles went forth to evangelize many lands of the Empire, and some lands beyond. Besides the Apostles, other followers of Our Lord did likewise. For instance, tradition tells us that the son of the widow of Naim who, like St. Lazarus, was raised from the dead by Our Lord, became the first bishop of Cologne in Germany.
Whatever, according to the French tradition of which we now speak, St. Lazarus became the first bishop of Marseilles. The sister of St. Lazarus, St. Martha, moved to a pleasant spot inland from the Mediterranean coast and organized a community of unmarried Christian women — the world’s first convent, in effect. As for St. Mary, she retired to a grotto, a cave, on the side of a hill now known as La Sainte-Baume. She did not do this in a penitential spirit. Her sins were long since expiated. No, it was simply that, ever the contemplative, there was nothing more that she wanted to do with her remaining years than spend them in seclusion, meditating on her unique memories of her Savior. Her cave can be visited today.
At some point after St. Mary’s death, her remains came to repose, not in a subbasement of the Louvre, but in a tomb in St. Maximin, which is not far from her cave. Like the cave, it too can be visited, but also like the cave, not without some trouble. (These places are away from the well-beaten path of today’s usual tourists in Provence. The tourists typically want to see Roman ruins and sights painted by Vincent van Gogh.) Since he will almost certainly be conscious of himself as a miserable sinner beside that tomb, as perhaps no place else he could visit, it is doubtful that any pilgrim who has made the effort has thought, kneeling there, that “he heard a woman’s voice… the wisdom of the ages… whispering up from the chasms of the earth” like that of a Wiccan goddess.
That is what Dan Brown tells us his hero, Robert Langdon, thought he heard when, at the end of The Da Vinci Code , he falls to his knees at “the bones of Mary Magdalene” in the basement of the Louvre. What a howl!
At least it would be if so many readers were not apparently sucked in by Brown’s assertion of “FACT” that: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Well, here is “accuracy” for you. In the first paragraph of Chapter 1, Robert Langdon is awakened by a ringing telephone in a “plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture”!
There is more “accuracy” just a few lines later. You see, the Renaissance bedroom with furniture from two centuries later is in Paris’ Hotel Ritz, most famous these days as the point of departure for Princess Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayad, on their fatal car ride. The Ritz is in Place Vendome. In the novel, a policeman has come to fetch Langdon to the Louvre where a murder was committed in the book’s Prologue. The men leave in a police car and we read that “air whipped through the open window of the Citroen ZX as it skimmed south past the Opera House and crossed Place Vendome.” The car is going in circles!
Somebody who has never been to Paris and does not know where the Ritz is located might not realize that, but a novelist pretending to be “accurate” about his “facts” ought to consult a map of the city.
So replete is the novel with these “accuracies” that the present writer grew tired of noting them by page 88 (of 454) when Brown starts talking about the Church of St. Sulpice, we read about the “first pew” of a church that has no pews, and soon hear that “tourists from around the world” come there without being told why they really do: that arguably the most magnificent pipe organ anywhere, and certainly the most magnificent in France, is at St. Sulpice. That is what makes the church famous, not the light falling through a particular window and shining on a particular spot on a particular day each year, as The Da Vinci Code would have it. It is why countless persons who care nothing for the Faith but love organ music, visit. It is why I first went there when I was still years from becoming Catholic.
(Of course one thing will lead to another. You go to a church to hear the organ but also see your first High Mass. Afterward you get to wondering what that was about and, well, one thing leads to another.)
When Brown contrasts the “lack of decor” of St. Sulpice (including a mural by Delacroix?) with the “colorful frescoes, gilded altar-work and warm woods” of the Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame, you have to wonder if he has even looked at books about these places, let alone visited them. As far as that goes, is he as ignorant of the Gothic as he is the difference between Renaissance and Rococco? That is the point of dwelling on these “accuracies.” If Brown does not know enough to get this stuff right, and apparently could not be bothered to learn what he did not know, what about his “hidden truths” when he starts revealing them?
Given his obvious anti-Catholicism and clear intent to move readers to share his detestation, it is surprising that Brown is as constantly careless as he is. Any writer knows that to get even a few facts wrong, or sometimes only one, is to risk discrediting an entire work. Is he contemptuous of his readers? Did he assume true accuracy did not matter because no one, or very few, would know enough to spot all the errors? Or is he simply ignorant? The Louis XVI furniture in the Renaissance bedroom and “warm woods” in a Gothic cathedral make you wonder. On the other hand, if he was contemptuous, he might be justified. After all, his editors at Doubleday, persons presumably of some education who have probably done a bit of traveling, let the errors pass.
Another possibility exists: Nobody, neither Brown nor anyone at Doubleday, supposed the novel would amount to much. He needed an advance on something and had an idea. On its end, the publishing house is looking for ideas constantly because publishing something is what they do many times a year. They are out of business if they don’t. That most of what they publish is not worth reading — like The Da Vinci Code — is irrelevant. Cumulatively, all of it will still make money. As the pages of The Da Vinci Code , a novel conceived as just another writing job to make a few bucks, sped from Brown’s computer through the editing process at Doubleday — sped through with nobody looking for any errors except typos — it was not foreseen they would be read by millions. How many would care about the factual sloppiness? The thing would soon be remaindered. That is what everybody supposed. Meantime, Brown would have his advance and the self-satisfaction of dumping on a religion he genuinely sees as an obstacle to what is important to him (and he thinks should be to everybody else): the freedom to do whatever one feels like doing.
In any event, if he could not be bothered to look at so much as a Michelin guide to the city of Paris to assure real accuracy for his unimportant “facts,” when it came to his “hidden truths” it is for sure that he had certain books — one in particular — right at his elbow. The particular book is Holy Blood, Holy Grail , by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, published in this country as a mass-market Dell paperback in 1982. Without this book, The Da Vinci Code would not exist.
It was Holy Blood, Holy Grail that first popularized the notion, if it can be said to have become popular, of St. Mary Magdalene as a living Grail because she bore within her the Body of Christ in the form of His child. That the book’s publication as an inexpensive paperback in the 80s “caused quite a stir,” as claimed in The Da Vinci Code , is an exaggeration. Had it, The Da Vinci Code would not now seem to so many to reveal “hidden truth” of which the world has never before heard. No, few ordinary folks, even ones who read, noticed the book back in ’82. If this writer read it then, and I did, my interest in religious matters is not ordinary. I’ve been reading and writing about them, professionally, since the 60s. I still have the copy of Holy Blood, Holy Grail that I bought late one night in a drugstore.
Now, the main thing writers do when they are not writing is read. They must. If, as the computer people say, what goes in is what comes out, if nothing at all goes into a writer, nothing will come out. Reading the work of others is something writers do in order to replenish themselves. They also read, of course, for the same reasons everybody does, but they have this additional one. The amount of their reading can be prodigious. As a consequence, and though they would not wish it, there will be few writers who do not on occasion say something that has been said by another, and sometimes in words very close to the ones used by the other. This is perhaps most apt to happen among writers who know one another. Then their conversations, as well as their writing, can become a source of inspiration. I know that many times over the years I have had reason, while reading somebody else or hearing somebody else give a talk, to say to myself, “You got that from me!” I do not become angry about this because I know how and why it can happen — that it is not a matter of “stealing.” One simply reads and talks that much.
That said, The Da Vinci Code is not merely derived from Holy Blood, Holy Grail . There are passages in the two books that are so close I am surprised Brown and Doubleday have not been hit by a lawsuit for plagiarism. Were they lifted from Holy Blood, Holy Grail because, despite his claim that the book “caused quite a stir,” Brown knew in fact that it was so obscure he thought he could count on no one noticing? Probably no one would have done so if The Da Vinci Code had not wound up reaching such a wide audience it was bound to include some of the few readers familiar with the “hidden truths” as they were presented in the earlier work.
I am not going to take space here to compare passages from Brown and Holy Blood, Holy Grail . Others have done so elsewhere, including Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel in their book The Da Vinci Hoax , recently published by Ignatius Press. It must be noted, however, that Brown at least does not make his own the preposterous political agenda that figures in Holy Blood, Holy Grail . According to the latter book, some descendant of the child of St. Mary Magdalene and Our Lord managed to marry into the Merovingians, rulers of France in early Medieval time. History knows the Merovingian dynasty to have come to an end when it was replaced by the Carolingians. Holy Blood, Holy Grail would have it, however, that the Merovingian bloodline — in effect, Christ’s bloodline — did not die out, members of it having continued to live down through the centuries right to our own day, protected all the time by a powerful secret society, the Priory of Sion. The mission of the Priory, besides the safeguard of all these descendants of Our Lord and St. Mary Magdalene, supposedly has been the restoration, when the time was right, of the Merovingians as Kings of France and even, beyond that, establishing them as world rulers.
It would be going too far to say that the time must have been thought by someone to be almost right when Holy Blood, Holy Grail was written and published. It is much more likely someone thought some money could be made by setting out such an idea in a book. As with The Da Vinci Code , the very existence of the book shows the thought to have been correct. In any event, Holy Blood, Holy Grail revealed the identity of the supposed current Merovingian pretender, one Pierre Plantard, who also just happened to be head of the Priory of Sion. Alas, subsequent to the book’s publication and following the suicide of an associate of Plantard, the “true King of France,” Plantard admitted, under oath during French legal proceedings, that the Priory of Sion did not come into being in 1099 in Jerusalem as he had claimed. No, as any straight-thinking person would surmise, the whole thing — the Priory, its supposed historical mission, his royal pretension — was fabricated by him.
Plantard died in 2000, but there are still a few persons promoting the story of the Priory, presumably to get whatever money they can out of it from folks who are beyond gullible.
They may be more than gullible, but like readers who buy into The Da Vinci Code , it is easy to see them as persons so inclined to disbelief in all that Christians hold to be true, it is perhaps possible to say of them that they must be looking for reasons not to believe. Holding to truth, after all, would require their giving up whatever it is that is dearer to their self than God — maybe sterile physical relationships, maybe an unappeaseable lust for “inside information” or “hidden truth,” maybe their belief that God is “within” them and that therefore they do not need the Church to find Him. In any case, you can certainly read about the Priory of Sion in The Da Vinci Code , but not the political agenda of a Merovingian restoration as made known in Holy Blood, Holy Grail . Instead, we hear that the Priory’s “real” mission is threefold: to safeguard, yes, the Merovingian bloodline, but also to help secure documents that “prove” Our Lord fathered a child by St. Mary Magdalene, and, above all, to worship as would everybody if the wicked, misogynistic Church had not suppressed the “hidden truth” behind orthodox Catholic teaching. That is, “the Priory of Sion, to this day, still worships Mary Magdalene as the Goddess.”
Forget that before The Da Vinci Code was written the Priory of Sion was confessed in a court of law to be a hoax. Brown probably knew that, but could still use the fabrication for his story-line. What is more interesting is that in ignoring the Priory’s supposed political mission of Merovingian restoration as revealed in his source-book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail , he shifts the Priory’s mission to a feminist one. Why that choice? Well, nobody except a few eccentric Europeans believes in monarchy anymore (least of all the monarchy of Christ the King). Feminism, however, not simply lives. It thrives. In fact, it is such a force that, for more than 30 years, mainstream Catholics have seen prayers and other sacred texts rewritten so as to make God other than unmistakably male. Consider that in light of the strenuous efforts made during the past 200 years to replace Christ as God with the Life Force, Great Architect or vague Supreme Being. Why not finally replace Him with the “Goddess,” St. Mary Magdalene?
(The replacement is made easier, of course, by first making Him a man like other men in all things even unto having “physical union with the female,” St. Mary Magdalene, and this even if His motive was not purely carnal but to be “spiritually complete.” To be sure, His “replacement” will not be all that results from so making Him. Men to whom Christian self-denial is indeed hard can find a reason not to practice it if they believe Jesus Himself did not. I.e., if they buy into The Da Vinci Code ‘s gnostic “hidden truth.”)
Perhaps the reader can tell we are getting back to the subject of androgyny. It brings us directly to Leonardo da Vinci, artist and supposed past Grand Master, according to both Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code , of the Priory of Sion. As soon as we turn to Leonardo, Dan Brown astounds us once again with his apparent ignorance. He does this when he tells us that Leonardo prospered from “hundreds of lucrative Vatican commissions.” Does he really not know what is known to everybody else: that one of the most famous things about Leonardo’s paintings is that there are few of them? In fact, a grand total of seventeen are known to exist. Four of them are unfinished. If Brown really did not know this, a few minutes with any standard art textbook would have revealed it to him. Further, he has made much of it in television interviews that his wife is an art historian. Do the two of them not speak, or is Mrs. Brown an art historian only in the sense that so many nowadays are regarded as “expert” in art and other academic fields? This is to speak of experts who specialize in some very narrow little niche of their discipline like, say, Impressionist Paintings of Sunsets Executed by Left-Handed Artists with Myopic Eyesight, but otherwise are quite ignorant of the larger field in which they work.
Whatever, three of Leonardo’s paintings figure in The Da Vinci Code . One of them adorns the dust-jacket of the book. It is the most famous of all. One supposes, in fact, it is the most famous painting in the world. In the English-speaking world we know it as the Mona Lisa. It hangs in the Louvre. Frenchmen know the painting as La Gioconde, this on account of the generally-accepted belief it is a portrait of the wife of an Italian merchant of Leonardo’s day, Francesco del Giocondo. The picture can be hard to see in the Louvre nowadays because there is usually a horde of chattering Japanese tourists congregated in front of it, but, so far as she can be glimpsed, the subject certainly looks like she could be somebody’s wife. That is, she looks like a woman.
Looks can be deceiving, according to Dan Brown. Having already asserted that Leonardo was a “flamboyant homosexual,” he informs us it is “quite possible” that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait of Leonardo in drag. In any event, the picture “carries a subtle message of androgyny. It is a fusing of both” male and female. This is the reason for the subject’s famous smile. He/she is enjoying his/her little joke that “she” is not really female.
The point here is that it is gnosticism which would find the union or fusion of the male and female to be “divine.” Christians, before some of them started praying “Our Creator who art in Heaven,” have always preferred women to be women and men to be men — as manly as was and is their Divine Lord Himself. After all, it is only in the earthy coming together of the two, and not for the sake of some imagined gnostic “spiritual completion,” that children are made. Hermaphrodites can’t do that.
We are not going to deal here at length with the second of Leonardo’s paintings that figure in Brown’s novel. It is The Virgin of the Rocks, of which two slightly different versions exist. All that we shall note of it is that Brown transposes the identities of the two infants depicted in the painting, the infant Jesus and the infant St. John the Baptist, so that he can claim “it was baby John who was blessing Jesus…and Jesus was submitting to his authority.” This transposition is in accord with the teaching of some gnostics that the Church of Christ should be the Church of John — that St. John was the “true” Messiah. Naturally it is forever-wicked Christians who have kept that “truth” suppressed.
Cumulatively, the revelation in The Da Vinci Code of so many such supposed truths (we are citing but a few) is designed to convey but one message: If the Church has suppressed all of them, on what point can her teaching be trusted? Answer: None.
It is in Leonardo’s Last Supper that the biggest suppressed truth of all is revealed, at least for those with eyes to see, which would be anyone smart enough (like Dan Brown) to see through the Church’s lies. Not merely all those who have read The Da Vinci Code , but the millions who have seen the broadcasts of an ABC-TV “special” about the novel, know what the Last Supper is supposed to show. In the event some reader has not yet heard, the beardless youth sitting to Our Lord’s right in the fresco is not St. John the Evangelist. In fact, that is not a beardless youth. It is a young woman (more androgyny), and not just any young woman. It is no one less that Our Lord’s “wife,” Mary Magdalene. If the reader thinks he needs to know Brown’s tiresome “proofs” of this, consult The Da Vinci Hoax . For us, the point is at hand for winding up the present article.
There is a common modern saying among us Americans. The present writer became aware of it the first time in an article about the late Liberace in an issue of TV Guide back in the fifties. It was observed in the article that many might laugh at the performer with his lisping speech, sequined suits and candelabra, but he and his equally effete brother George were laughing “all the way to the bank.”
Doubtless the same can be said of Dan Brown. All of his novel’s “hidden truths” are absurdities, even as nearly all of his “FACTS” do not check out, but with his sales and the movie rights, he has plenty to laugh about. However, we may suppose that even poor Liberace stopped laughing as he lay dying of AIDS.
For all of us the laughing does always finally stop. The business of life is too serious for it to be otherwise. This is exactly why many become anti-life. The hard realities of life are too much for them — realities such as that evil exists, not because God wills it but because men do it, and, as a consequence of it, death is part of life, not the annihilation of it. To such realities they prefer “hidden truths” that explain away everything.
Some things, sacred things and things that touch on the sacred, should never be matter for laughter. Yes, his gallantry or simply the need for mental balance can move the Christian to turn life’s harder realities into something akin to gallow’s humor. However, there is nothing laughable about countless couples, as was here earlier observed, really practicing gnosticism even if it is the One True Faith they claim as their religion. Neither is it laughable when gnosticism is taught to school kids under the guise of “sex education” or when government agencies promote the use of condoms so sodomites can practice their vice “safely.” Above all, it is not laughable that gnosticism, whether as popular novel, cult or entire false religion, sells big and always has. It is a reminder that, through our fallen nature, there is no man who does not sin, and that with too many sin can become inveterate, so ingrained they will turn to false beliefs (such as that God is “within” them) to convince themselves they do not and even cannot sin. How can they? Sin does not exist, they think. How can it when all of us are God? (“Do thou what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”)
That truth reminds us of another. Each of us has the duty to avoid sin so as to save himself, but, even recognizing that ill-will exists, that there are persons so driven not to believe Christian truth that they never will, there is this other duty: to do all we can to make society, any society (beginning with the family), one in which persons will not risk damning themselves simply because they are members of it.
What do we mean by that remark in terms of The Da Vinci Code ? In a Christian society, someone might dare to write such a novel because there is always someone prepared to do as he should not, but the thing would not be published. To say that is to admit as being true at least one of Dan Brown’s allegations — that the Church is intolerant, or would be if she were more truly herself than she is today. However, real truth will not once again rise above the “hidden truths” of gnosticism until it is not simply admitted, but proclaimed more widely than at present “from the housetops.”
Christian truth saves. Anti-life gnosticism kills, and therefore is intolerable.
1 We seriously considered whether some of the content of this article was too explicit for us to publish. Our conclusion was to run the piece, considering that the subject was handled with great circumspection and care. “Why bother with such perversity?” some may ask. Well, simply saying that Dan Brown’s book is “dirty” (which it is) will not help the reader to grasp the connection there is between aberrant love and the false religious beliefs of gnosticism, nor the nature of this particular attack against Catholicism, nor its connection to the evil popular culture currently dominant in the West. The informed Catholic should have some nodding acquaintance with the history of the “culture of death” in order to recognize its “faces” and counter it. In short, this article is “moral apologetics” in the form of history and literary criticism. At times, the apologist has to state the blasphemous belief of his enemy in order to refute him. Here, in treating the subject of impurity in religion as anti-Catholicism, we must state the position of the enemy. Every attempt was made to do so in a manner that will not shock or disturb the reader.