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Wednesday, May 24, 2006 

Mohler on McLaren and The Da Vinci Code

Since we have been discussing Brian McLaren on the blog, I thought it would be good to link Albert Mohler's most recent post on McLaren's words regarding The Da Vinci Code's popularity, which has already been discussed exhaustively in the blogosphere. But, despite that I think Mohler's article is a fresh perspective and one that should be noted. Mohler first points out Brian McLaren's quote in Sojourners magazine in which he says:
We need to ask ourselves why the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown's book is more interesting, attractive, and intriguing to these people than the standard vision of Jesus they hear about in church. Why would so many people be disappointed to find that Brown's version of Jesus has been largely discredited as fanciful and inaccurate, leaving only the church's conventional version? Is it possible that, even though Brown's fictional version misleads in many ways, it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church's conventional version of Jesus may not do him justice?
And Mohler responds with this:
This is just not a responsible way to deal with a serious theological challenge. Why did the Gnostic cults prefer their conception of Jesus to that of the canonical Gospels? Is this the fault of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? The church's "conventional version of Jesus," where it needs corrrection, can be corrected only by Scripture.

I think Mohler makes an excellent point here, one that bears more consideration given the state of the Church today and the postmodern challenge. You will have to read the article to see the connection between the Left Behind Series and The Da Vinci Code, but it's quite interesting. Here's the link to Mohler's article:

Left Behind by The Da Vinci Code?

, , , , , ,

Just maybe a little suggestion, a comment, about a possibility of a probability, from a layperson who is simply trying to be humble and nice to everyone, though I'm about to say some very controversial things that everyone will agree with, okay? Please don't get me wrong, read me carefully, and be charitable.

There seems to be an implicit assumption in McLaren's question: "Is it possible that, even though [Brown's story is misleading] it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church's version of Jesus may not do him justice?"

Besides the actual form of the question "Is it possible there's a possibility?" (To which, anyone is forced to say 'yes' simply because he couches it in possibilities) McLaren seems to assume that we need to consider attractiveness as part of our criteria for a proper christology. 'Why do people like the Gnostic Jesus better? Something must be wrong with our Jesus!' There may be a hundred sensible ways you could answer why we shouldn't use 'attractiveness' or 'fascinating' as criteria for christology or for sorting through the history.

There is also the implicit assumption of 'versions of Jesus' that we can choose to present. (He divided these up into *different* Jesuses in GO.) It is the proper place, the assumption goes, to construct and reshape Jesus' image--if it isn't good, we'll jazz it up and make it 'relevant.' It is not only our right, it is our job.

Socialists make Jesus a socialist, marketers make Jesus a celebrity, activists make Jesus a revolutionary...should we say:

a) Jesus was all these things.

b) Jesus can be all these things (whatever we make him)

c) We have a very bad habit of hijacking Jesus for our own causes and cultural visions.

C seems to be the most common sense answer. If so, should we be more careful about designing any 'version of Jesus'?

Ryan, I am pretty sure I got your first point and on that we would agree, but I am not sure what you meant by your second point, especially the paragraph that ended with, "It is not only our right, it is our job." I thought I was following you until you said that. Please clarify a bit if you could. But I do agree that many people customize a Jesus and I also agree that McLaren was right about the different emphases each tradition makes, though I think he implied something in that section that was misleading (but I will get to that in a couple of weeks when we make it to that chapter in "Mondays with McLaren," which you might be interested in stopping by for to offer your thoughts).

Thanks again for your thoughts on this post.

Thanks for responding. I think I messed up my grammar on the second point. So, perhaps to try again in different words:

1) What seems to be suggested in the comment about Brown's novel opening up the possibility that "the church's conventional version of Jesus may not do him justice" is that we need a new version of Jesus.

2) The idea that we need a new version of Jesus suggests that the Church can make new versions of Jesus, that we can 'spin' Jesus different ways for different times, audiences, etc.

3) In much of the talk about 'relevance' there is the argument that we not only control the image of Jesus to the world, but that it is our duty as Christians to present Jesus in ways that are acceptable, pleasing, attractive (however you want to argue it).

4) A look at history (especially 20th Century history) suggests that people have always been eager to make Jesus 'fit' their time, culture, values and goals. Jesus becomes a socialist, Jesus becomes a hippie, Jesus then becomes a family values father, then an open-minded, fair-trade, post-structuralist.

5) It is not that we shouldn't apply the Gospel to our lives (absolutely we should), but it should give us pause that in every case Jesus becomes acceptable (attractive) and he provides no new position to the culture. Jesus, for the worldview defender, supports democracy, America, capitalism and moralism. Jesus, for the responding postmodern, supports fighting AIDS in Africa, universal health care and human rights. Are any of these things bad? No. But Jesus provides nothing new but justification for current positions. (I take my position here from Jacques Ellul (The Subversion of Christianity))

6) The kicker is that at every turn we believe we have finally found 'the truth about Jesus'--that we finally get it where other Christians have failed. (We didn't know it before--but Jesus was a socialist/conservative/postmodernist!) In actuality, Jesus has become an empty container for your intuitions. Jesus' message makes sense to us because we have made him fit now.

7) A caution then, when we start to say that the job of the church is to make Jesus into something and moreover to claim that it is our duty to do so. As if Jesus were an idea that it is our job to make sense of--as if we can 'apply' Jesus to things, like he's spackle or varnish. It never seems to bother us that Jesus makes so much sense, that he affirms all of our intuitions. Why? Because Jesus looks true when he looks like everything I already thought was true.

8) Those who knew Jesus, knew that he was a Person--a still-living, not far off Person. Perhaps it's been too long...we now have a wonderfully malliable Idea called Jesus that works so well for us so often.

---

Here is the expanded version of point 2.

Although I am not completely sure where you are going with your point, as to what conclusion you want to draw about Christianity as a whole or McLaren's words here, I think I agree with what you are saying. That is why I feel we must constantly go back, not forward in what the Church has taught for 2000 years. That is why the words of Paul, James, and John are so important for us today. Those who put Jesus at odds with Paul or declare a Jesus separate from the ancient Christians view, in my opinion, are seeking to do exactly what you are saying here -- make Jesus into something that they believe Christians have missed.

And you are right that we must not look at Jesus from our point of view and say, "See Jesus thought 'this' or supported 'that'", but rather we must meld ourselves into the image of the Biblical Jesus, even as the Reformers sought to do. The Latin phrase, "semper reformans, semper reformata" (always reformed and always reforming) meant that the Church had to constantly reexamine itself in light of the message of Christ, the message passed down from the saints, so as not to conform to culture. It did not mean that the Church needed to constantly reform the message of Christ to fit the culture.

Thanks for yout thoughts Ryan.

I ask over on my blog today - aside from the fact that this DVC book is fiction - what exactly troubles so many christians so much about it? Even if it were true in its supposition about the marital status of Jesus, that in no way takes away from the Gospel of Jesus. There is nothing unbiblical in DVC, just extrabiblical.

Or am I missing something?

Dan, Why would Christians want to be looking for extrabiblical explanations of Jesus, when we have the inspired, God-breathed Word? My, oh my, as the song says "I am satisfied with Jesus, is He satisfied with me?" Marilyn

I'm not saying we should be looking for extrabiblical thoughts about Jesus. Just that the ones presented within this fictional story aren't unbiblical, so why spend all the effort and energy and money in opposition to it?

The opposition is what makes no sense to me. Don't believe the story if you don't want to (I don't - it is fiction, after all), but why spend any effort at all in opposition to it? THAT'S my question.

Dan, I suggest you actually read some of the criticisms of Dan Brown's book by conservative Christians. One is Colin Hansen's fine but brief article at ChristianityToday.Com. He says this early on:

Brown claims "almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false." Why? Because of a single meeting of bishops in 325, at the city of Nicea in modern-day Turkey. There, Brown argues, church leaders who wanted to consolidate their power base (he calls this, anachronistically, "the Vatican," or "the Roman Catholic church") created a divine Christ and an infallible Scripture—both novelties that had never before existed among Christians.


Now, I have to admit that I haven't read Dan Brown's book or seen the movie. Though I plan to do both eventually. But there are people that are accepting this as fact. And that is problematic and demands a response as well. Al Mohler wrote an article on this phenomenon entitled, "'Da Vinci Christianity' -- Is Anyone Buying the Message of The Da Vinci Code?"

And speaking of Mohler, he recommends an article by Larry Hurtado called, "Ungodly Errors:
Scholarly gripes about The Da Vinci Code's Jesus
."

Reading these two articles and re-examining the claims of Brown in his book should help you to understand why Christians are responding and should continue to do to The Da Vinci Code.

I think our difference lies in your suggestion that I examine the "claims of Brown" in his book. In fiction, one makes plot lines, not claims.

Yes, some of Brown's characters claim that the notion of Jesus as divine was invented by some church leaders in the 4th century. But it is fiction, they make that claim because it's part of the storyline, not because it is reality. He's not stating this as fact.

He has suggested a good bit of his background info is based on fact but that's just part of his selling the story. We both know that there are factual inconsistencies with Brown's "claims." It's simply part of the plotline in a work of fiction.

Lewis claims there's this other world called Narnia ruled over by another God called Aslan!, but we know that such a world exists only in our imagination. That Brown mixes fact with fiction ought not worry us.

That some Christians mix anti-christian teachings with christian teachings should be of much greater concern than any piece of fiction.

Dan, it is naive of you to make Brown's novel out to be merely fiction, when the author himself has on numerous occasions made the claim that it is based on fact.

From his own website, Brown says,
"The Da Vinci Code is a novel and therefore a work of fiction. While the book's characters and their actions are obviously not real, the artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals depicted in this novel all exist (for example, Leonardo Da Vinci's paintings, the Gnostic Gospels, Hieros Gamos, etc.). These real elements are interpreted and debated by fictional characters. While it is my belief that some of the theories discussed by these characters may have merit, each individual reader must explore these characters' viewpoints and come to his or her own interpretations."

Obviously he is laying the groundwork here for the supposition that he is writing an historical novel, one based in reality, but yet uses elements of fiction to lead the story along. In this way, the novel is much like an historical novel written about the Civil War or WWII. What is understood about historical novels is that they often base the entire story on the facts of the situation. Dan Brown has claimed that much of the situation taking place in the novel is factual or at least legitimate theories. And many people agree with him.

For instance, on another page of his website he says,
"A prankster and genius, Leonardo da Vinci is widely believed to have hidden secret messages within much of his artwork. Most scholars agree that even Da Vinci's most famous pieces—works like The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and Madonna of the Rocks—contain startling anomalies that all seem to be whispering the same cryptic message…a message that hints at a shocking historical secret which allegedly has been guarded since 1099 by a European secret society known as the Priory of Sion. In 1975, Paris's Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. French President, Francois Mitterrand, is rumored to have been a member, although there exists no proof of this."

Thus, he claims that the theories outlined in the book are founded in fact. While others disagree. Among them are Sandra Miesel who wrote "Dismantling The Da Vinci Code" for Crisis Magazine. She claims that such a secret society only existed since around 1956 and that it was merely political, not one made to hide the bloodline of Jesus, something Dan Brown actually believes. Additionally, Meisel points out that Brown's novel cites actual works that claim to be non-fiction and actual scholars and theories regarding Christianity's origins. This is not something that Brown claims to have made up, but rather something that he believes to be true that he is building his story upon.

Brown's own claims regarding letters of thanks from nuns and priests who believe they have been disenfranchised by the Church for holding certain beliefs regarding Christianity and for being unable to serve in certain capacities in the Church further show that Brown believes that he is making more than a novel with The Da Vinci Code.


Further evidence that Brown believes much of the content of his novel is found in a March 2003 interview with Bookreporter.com:

Q: How did you get all the inside information for this book?

DB: Most of the information is not as "inside" as it seems. The secret described in the novel has been chronicled for centuries, so there are thousands of sources to draw from. In addition, I was surprised how eager historians were to share their expertise with me. One academic told me her enthusiasm for THE DA VINCI CODE was based in part on her hope that "this ancient mystery would be unveiled to a wider audience."

And on Amy Welborn's website you can find "an excerpt from a 2003 interview that Dan Brown did with Linda Wertheimer"

At one point he says to the interviewer, who asks, "You're trying not to get too fictional with the facts here?":

Absolutely. The only thing fictional in "The Da Vinci Code" is the characters and the action that takes place. All of the locations, the paintings, the ancient history, the secret documents, the rituals, all of this is factual.

In the end Dan, Brown wants his readers to assume the "facts" that he sets forth in his novel. That is something C.S. Lewis didn't want his readers to do. You continue to try to stick a square peg into a round hole by comparing Narnia to The Da Vinci Code, but when did Lewis ever say these types of things about his books? When did he ever try to pass off the land of Narnia as an actual place? These books aren't even in the same genre -- historical fiction vs. allegorical fantasy? Somewhere there's a Ph.D in literature who is laughing at that analogy thinking it must be made by a first-year P.E. major. Come on Dan, let's get back to reality here.

1. Dan Brown believes the premises upon which the novel is based.
2. He has been a crusader for this conspiracy theory regarding Jesus' marriage and his insistance upon the Gnostic Gospel's validity and the Council of Nicea's and Constantine's influence.
3. People reading the novel can and often do believe the things the character say regarding Christianity's origins and even more often at least assume that some conspiracy to bring about Christianity as we know it exists.
4. Dan Brown's book has helped popularize crack-pot "scholars" and their research on the origins of Christianity and the Catholic Church. Just go to your nearest Borders or Barnes & Nobles and see how many other conspiracy books claiming to be fact surround The Da Vinci Code.
6. The novel has fueled controversy over the major tenets of Christianity and it deserves a response from well-respected Christian scholars and the Church itself.

Look, Dan, I am not saying that Brown is some kind of heretic for writing the novel, but it should be stated that what his characters debate regarding the facts of Christianity are actual theories debated every day in scholarly circles. Popularizing those beliefs has led to people re-examining their faith and they look to the Church for answers to their questions. I actually agree with Father John Sewell of St. John's Episcopal Church in Memphis who Brown quotes on his website as saying: "This [novel] is not a threat. This is an opportunity. We are called to creatively engage the culture and this is what I want to do. I think Dan Brown has done me a favor. He's letting me talk about things that matter."

But without actually addressing the issues raised by The Da Vinci Code we do our hearers a disservice, leaving them to their doubt. That is not acceptable and harmful to the Church of Christ. You and I might not struggle with the "evidence" presented in this novel, but our energy must be exhausted for those weaker brothers and sisters who are affected. As Paul makes clear, we are responsible to our weaker fellow Christians to teach, exhort, and encourage them. Much of early Christian writing is apologetic in nature, Greek and Latin Church Fathers dispelling silly rumors and false claims by Gnostics, docetics, and non-Christians. They believed it was important to defend the faith against any and all attacks, whether small or great.

I agree with your last statement you made in the comments Dan:
"That some Christians mix anti-christian teachings with christian teachings should be of much greater concern than any piece of fiction."

That's part of the reason I debated you on the issue of homosexuality and Christianity. But simply because their are greater issues out there doesn't mean we should neglect those issues that are "minor". We don't neglect research on AIDS in favor of research on heart disease, though heart disease causes more death, do we? No, all people are important in the eyes of the Church and we should seek to encourage and exhort all men. With that I would think you would agree.

I just don't get the effort or energy that people are putting in to "debunking" a work of fiction.

Even if we assume the darkest of ulterior motives of Brown and think that he's hoping to discredit all of Christendom (and I don't - I think he's merely trying to sell a book), so what? It's a work of fiction.

I'm just not convinced that Jesus needs us to defend him from a work of fiction nearly as he would like us to defend him from those pharisees who'd turn folk away from God.

Debate its points all you want, I'm not disagreeing that Brown's plotlines have holes that don't match reality. I just don't think it's worth the effort folk are putting in to it. Its "heresies," such as they are, are minor ones and just not that worthy of debate, at least to me.

Dan,

Your response seems to indicate that you don't care about the seriousness of your brother or sister's doubt. How can you be so cold toward those who read The Da Vinci Code and believe that Brown's assertions about Christianity may be true? Shouldn't the Church proclaim the truth and reveal error when She sees it? Shouldn't we be ready to provide a reason for the hope within us? Is that God-given duty discounted because there are other problems, even greater ones in our midst? Didn't God give some to be teachers, some preachers, some evangelists, and some prophets? Shouldn't those whom God has gifted in apologetics use it for the Glory of God? Or should they listen to those like you who seem to believe that it's not necessary to "debunk" fiction masquerading as "fact"?

The Early Church didn't share your concern and apparently neither did the Apostle John or others who encountered Gnosticism and its forerunner Doceticism in the first 3 centuries of Christianity. They spoke harshly toward writers of other "Gospels" and frequently spent time dispelling rumors regarding Jesus and Christianity.

I noticed that you didn't deal with any of the evidence that I presented that Brown does indeed believe what he has written in his book. I mean, what further evidence do you need that the man believes that Jesus is not divine and that He was married and did have a child than his quote to Linda Wertheimer? After all Dan, Brown only presents his view as representative of other real-life scholars. Those scholars' beliefs need to and should be "debunked".


And your statement here Dan:
"Its "heresies," such as they are, are minor ones and just not that worthy of debate, at least to me."

Are you suggesting that the idea that the Council of Nicea made up the the fact that Jesus was divine or that they decided what books went into the cannon and not the universal Church's testimony are not important to Christianity? Dan, do you think that one can believe that Jesus is not divine and yet still be saved? Is that what you are suggesting? What about the bodily resurrection of Christ? Is that not important to one's salvation either?

Finally, that's fine that you think it is a waste of time to debate the merits of a "fiction" books claims (even though they are also the real-life claims of it's author, which is really what is at stake here), but I could easily suggest that it is equally, if not more so, wasteful to go around and debate the merits of debating the merits of a fiction book, as you have done on at least 3 websites (your own, mine, and Matt Hall's). Why are you spending so much energy debating this with other people? At least we can point to real life examples of people who have been confused by the book's claims (though it seems you think these people are just stupid and thus not worth your time to help) and the help they have received from thoughful Christians who are knowledgable in this arena.

Dan, if you are so worried about Christians tackling the "real" problems then get to work and leave us "Pharisees" alone while we ruin the Kingdom of God for His glory.

"Are you suggesting that the idea that the Council of Nicea made up the the fact that Jesus was divine or that they decided what books went into the cannon and not the universal Church's testimony are not important to Christianity?"

I was talking more about the marriage of Jesus as a "minor heresy" - these other bits of discussion are background info in the story and not central to the main plot.

"but I could easily suggest that it is equally, if not more so, wasteful to go around and debate the merits of debating the merits of a fiction book,"

I do this I reckon for the same reason you feel it important to "debunk" the DVC - that the debunkers are harmful to the church. You're straining the gnat and swallowing the camel and it is offputting to folk not involved in the church, at least it seems so to me. And so, I've done what I've done and you've done what you've done.

There you have it. We each choose our battles, I reckon.

"leave us "Pharisees" alone while we ruin the Kingdom of God for His glory."

Ahh, but Jesus saved his best criticisms for the pharisees, so shall I. (self-righteousness doesn't play out so well when you're on the receiving end, huh? - and to be clear, that is a jab at me, not you.)

Again Dan, I have to disagree when straining the gnat and swallowing the camel means helping my weaker brothers and sisters to be strengthened in their faith and learn a little real Church History in the process.

And of course as Father John Sewell said, it's another opportunity to bring up the name of Jesus Christ and have seekers ask us questions. My hope is that we will be ready with answers and not blank stares.

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Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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