Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Orthodoxy, Heresy, and The Da Vinci Code

A recent editorial in USA Today questioned why the media obsessed about the historical accuracy of The Passion of the Christ, yet seems largely uninterested in raising the issue of the historical accuracy of The Da Vinci Code. The author of the editorial does recognize that one purports to represent a historical event while the other is a fictional story, but nonetheless suggests that there is a double standard in how the mainstream media treats topics related to Christianity. There may be a valid point here. The media has a history of criticizing films that contain an overt or positive Christian connection (The Passion, Chronicles of Narnia), while giving a pass to films which themselves are critical of Christianity.

Although many factors are involved, I want to suggest one reason for this dichotomy. In 1934, a book came out in Germany that had a revolutionary impact on the study of early Christian history: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity by Walter Bauer. This book altered the entire landscape of the study of early Christianity by arguing that great diversity of thought existed among the early Christians and many of these ideas were in comptetition with one another. Bauer argues that the ideas that eventually won the day and crystallized into our current orthodoxy (correct doctrine) did so not because they were the most correct or truthful ideas, but simply because the people who held to those views were in the majority and possessed the most political power. They thus suppressed competing versions of Christianity, like Gnosticism, and silenced their voices.

Implicit in Bauer's book is the suggestion that these suppressed, alternate versions of Christianity need to be allowed to speak anew and, if so allowed, might in fact reveal to us deeper truths than can be found in the "official" teachings of Christianity. This idea took hold in liberal circles of Christian scholarship and led to many embracing Gnosticism and other early Christian "heresies" as more true than the teachings of the canonical Scriptures. Essentially Bauer's work led to the belief for many that traditional Christian orthodoxy is in fact heresy and that which the Church identified as heresy is in fact orthodoxy.

Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, essentially works out of this radical reinterpretation of early Christianity. Where things have taken off in mainstream culture recently is that this radical stream of Christian scholarship has dovetailed nicely with our broader cultural emphasis on tolerance of competing voices, lifestyles, etc. The idea that truth is all relative and that any form of institutionalized "truth" (as in the church) is only a matter of power and suppression has dug its roots deep in contemporary American culture. Consequently, Christianity as a whole is viewed by many as an oppressive, power-hungry institution that still seeks to silence any alternate ideas or views.

I've heard many people wonder why those in our society who push for tolerance of all viewpoints and beliefs are often so intolerant of Christianity. I believe the reason lies in their belief that orthodox Christianity is the cause of most intolerance in society -- Christians appear intolerant of other religions, of differing viewpoints, of alternative moral choices, and of alternative lifestyles. In their way of thinking, traditional Christianity must be deprived of its cultural power or else it will only continue to suppress diversity. Consequently, they seek to defend all those whose voices have been supposedly silenced by the oppression of Christianity, while simultaneously chipping away at the perceived cultural hegemony that Christianity is believed to enjoy through its ungodly exercise of political power.

If we are aware of these historical currents, the actions of today's mainstream media should come as no surprise. Of course the media will seek to undermine The Passion of the Christ because it dares to present a version of the crucifixion that is in line with the official Gospel accounts, thus perpetuating Christianity's suppresssion of alternative interpretations of the cross.

Of course the media will knowingly hint that The Chronicles of Narnia are nothing but Christian propaganda because C. S. Lewis is a torch-bearing representative of orthodox Christianity.

Of course the media will gleefully trumpet The Gospel of Judas because it represents one of those early strands of Christianity (Gnosticism) supposedly silenced by the established church and so it must now be allowed to speak loudly and clearly.

Of course the media will feed the Da Vinci Code frenzy because Dan Brown is fighting the good fight in suggesting that the church has used its political power to suppress what was really at the center of early Christianity: the sacred feminine. It is the church's characteristic oppression of women, according to Brown, that obscured the truth about Mary Magdalene.

The problem with this is not Walter Bauer's claim for the diversity of early Christianity. This was in fact one of the benefits of his work. Furthermore, acknowledging that early Christianity was very diverse in its teaching and practice should come as no surprise, since the writings of the New Testament are themselves a witness to the great diversity of thought and practice in early Christianity. In short, the church canonized diversity. The problem is Bauer's reconstruction of the development of early Christian history. Orthodox Christianity won out not because of the strength of its political position but because of the power of its beliefs.


At 11:33 PM, Blogger Bruce said...

Ahh as it says chapter 60, "History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books -- books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napolean once said, 'What is history, but a fable agreed upon?' By its very nature, history is always a one-sided account." ... Teabing (Dan Brown).

But as you note Greg, this is what sets the canonical Gospels apart from other ancient works. Its writers and framers tell disparaging stories about themselves with brute frankness. They never become the hero. Only their shameful crucified leader is glorified ... but even then that can only be seen by those who be given the gift of seeing him. The Gospels can never be equated with common post-victory sychophantic literature.

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

I must admit that I am sympathetic to the notion that Christian groups with the most polictical power decided what was "orthodox." I am not suggesting that God did not use that political power to His advantage during the natural (or unnatural depending on your vantage point)course and preserve for us the canononical scriptures. But it must be admitted that a lot of a Christian's beliefs (both right and wrong) have been handed down from the previous generation's debates and votes. Yes the media is biased against orthodox Christianity but that does not mean that we can ignore the fact of tainted orthodoxy.

Chesterton wrote "Christianity has not failed, it just has not been tried."

This was one of the points of a book I just read titled What Jesus Meant by Gary Willis. It was a short and sweet book that showed that Jesus was not as orthodox as we Christians are. Although I don't agree with him at enery turn, he certainly paints a picture of a more radically graceful Jesus than most Christians understand him to be. I suggest that this book could cause a realignment in the Christian faith and cause us to question much of what we Christians consider orthodox.

At 6:35 AM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

I just had my first epiphany about why certain groups might be upset with this whole Da Vinci code thing. In this morning's Wall Street Journal there is an article that shows that the covservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei is trying to salvage its reputation. Dan Brown's book portrays the group as masochistic and murderous and the public at large has believed the fiction. Now Opus Dei's worldwide communication director is working double-time to correct the damage.

I guess if Dan Brown had written a book that potrayed me (using my name) as a murderous, masochistic, child molester and the whole world now believed that I was evil, I guess that I might be a little upset as well. I guess if I were part of the Opus Dei I would be wondering why he simply couldn't have used a fictitious group to malign.

I wonder what would have happened had Mr. Brown used the Southern Baptists, the United Methodists, or even the Churches of Christ instead of the Opus Dei to be the bad guys in his story?

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Josh.Graves said...

Best post yet, Greg. This could be a rabbit hole, but here goes...

I think this is precisely why it is the responsibility of Christian teachers and pastors to point out the elements in other "religions" that Christians can learn from.

For instance, Buddhists understand and practice suffering much closer to the life of Jesus than Western Christians (myself included).

It has been said a thousand times, but Gandhi's life looks more like Jesus (praxis not belief) than my own.

Why are we so afraid to admit that other religions capture elements of our own religion in a far truer way?

If all truth is God's truth (a statement packed with assumptions) then followers of Jesus can allow Jesus to be "the way" without him being "in the way," to paraphrase one contemporary writer.


At 1:24 PM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

The verdicts are in on the
Da Vinci Code movie = C+

Click here for the results.

At 6:21 PM, Anonymous Leah said...

Hi Greg,

I'm an editor at pop culture publisher BenBella Books. A friend of mine sent me a link to your "Television vs. the Book" post, and as I read your other posts, it occurred to me that you might make a great contributor to our Smart Pop series (www.smartpopbooks.com). I checked around for an email for you, but came up empty-handed. Thus this comment. If you're at all interested, take a look at the site, and shoot me an email at leah AT benbellabooks.com. Hope to hear from you!

At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Lisa H (EHS '85) said...

Greg - Excellent post. Just wanted to let you know that I enjoy your posts and always come away with some food for thought. I only wish now that I had started watching Lost from the beginning.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Thanks for the comments. That can be a problem with Lost. If you jump into the middle of it, it can be almost like doing a cannonball off a high dive. It's a little painful to get oriented to your new environment, but a pleasurable experience nonetheless.


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