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.