A Basis for Discussing the Christian Story
Once upon a time, Dan Brown wrote an engaging yarn about an ecclesiastical cover-up. As I learned when I turned to his previous books for breezy reading on airplanes and beaches, The Da Vinci Code followed a formula he’s used for other plots. Robert Langdon, Mary Magdalene, and Leonardo da Vinci were plugged into the roles other kinds of figures play in other thrillers. But with this story, Brown’s literary devices colluded with our culture’s fascination with religion and spirituality. They also tapped into the disconnect many feel with the way Christianity has been passed down by tradition. A mega-best-seller was born. And this month, at a theater near you, Ian McKellan is proclaiming with sinister panache that “the greatest story ever told was a lie.”
The trouble is, most of us don’t know enough about the early centuries of Christianity to sort through The Da Vinci Code‘s dizzying mix of church history, pagan lore, and fantasy. In this program we take on some of the genuine, intriguing questions The Da Vinci Code raises: Who defined Christian orthodoxy? Why were some early writings included in the Bible and others — such as Gnostic texts — left out? What do scholars actually know about Mary Magdalene and other women during and after Jesus’ lifetime? I agree with this week’s guest, Luke Timothy Johnson, that the real story is both simpler and more interesting than conspiracy theories can suggest.
Both doctrine and fiction, of course, can obscure the rich, mundane, messy dynamics that shape all of history. I’m committed to exploring theology and religious history with all of their attendant mess. So I began by asking Luke Timothy Johnson, who’s spent his life steeped in the theological, historical, and sociological background of the New Testament writings, how he has come to visualize the human dynamics by which the Christian Bible came to be. He starts with the fact that in the fluid early decades of the Church, local Christian communities began to “read each other’s mail.” Canonization was a process that flowed through layers of human community, and it was centuries in the making. That context alone makes the kind of tightly-held secret, around which Dan Brown’s plot revolves, implausible.
But when we let the ancient world speak, it does often echo wisdom we believe we’ve discovered hundreds of years later. As The Da Vinci Code and other books have revealed to many for the first time, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. New Testament scholars have long known this, but their knowledge didn’t penetrate to the people teaching Sunday school. The disconnect between scholarship and the life of the Church is something we might now analyze as fervently as we are probing into the private life of Jesus.
At the same time, as Luke Timothy Johnson passionately argues, sacred writing became sacred not by being read, but by being lived. Our cultural focus on individual enlightenment and historical fact can alienate us fundamentally from what these texts have to say. There is a sense in which we will only ever understand them, he says, if we are willing to inhabit them in practice — and in community.
My other guest in this program, Brandeis scholar Bernadette Brooten, became famous for exposing a real biblical cover-up. She discovered that a disciple praised by the Apostle Paul — and portrayed by generations of translators as a man — was, in fact, a woman. Still, she challenges us to be cautious in the way we apply our modern sensibility to new revelations about ancient realities. For example, she asks, is it progressive to liberate Mary Magdalene from her role as prostitute — as The Da Vinci Code and other recent works would do — only to remake her as a consort? Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ closest associates, one of the most important disciples in fact if not in title. We don’t have to sexualize her anew to give her substance, or fete her as this year’s “‘it’ girl” as Newsweek did. We might instead ponder the implication that first century Christians pioneered a theology of gender equality as radical in their time as it is in many places in ours.
I’d love to hear how the questions and conversations The Da Vinci Code has sparked are unfolding in your communities. Stay tuned this summer for a Speaking of Faith discussion guide to accompany the book, the movie, and this program.