Tuesday, 20 August 2013

How Not To Tackle Dan Brown And ‘The Da Vinci Code’

I just finished reading ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown for the second time. I read it for the first time in 2007 while living in Rome, Italy. While reading the finishing pages of the masterpiece on my way to walk this morning, I had a chanced encounter with a Roman Catholic priest on Jubilee Line. He is a Nigerian priest of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.  Apparently aware that I am of Nigerian origin too, he asked why I was wasting my precious time reading such a ‘nonsense’ book. Yes, he referred to the book as ‘nonsense’. Well, I expected this from a Nigerian priest, for anything that challenges or do not conform to the bible is nonsense to them. I can tell you that this priest has never gone beyond the cover of the book to know what the book is all about. He threw caution to the wind and judged the book by its cover and title neglecting that wise old saying: ‘never judge a book by its cover! But, I can assure you that this book is one of the greatest things that have ever happened to humans since the evolution. The effort and research put into the book is awesome and unprecedented. I doff my cap for Dan Brown and to tell how much I have come to love this guy, I have read all his works and will begin reading his latest work ‘Inferno’ in the next couple of days.
 
As I noted at the outset, the priest’s reaction never flummoxed me. I have been dealing with people for long especially on Facebook and Twitter to know how and why they react to issues and why they react that way sometimes or all the time. But the priest’s reaction brought back old memories of the reaction of the Roman Catholic Church when the film version of the book debuted. The film debuted at the commencement of the 59th Edition of the Cannes Film Festival and the Roman Catholic Church reacted like a wildfire. Even the Pope, who rarely comments on films, gave a reaction and that actually helped to sell the film.
 
The film is quite interesting from two angles in the sense that even though it is a very controversial film bordering on the faith of over 2 billion world Christians and about 1 billion Roman Catholics, it is at the same time a lesson on how not to handle a very sensitive issue that borders on the faith of the people. This becomes very important against the background of the then controversy surrounding the publication and republications of cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, which some Muslims claimed was offensive to them, their faith and the person of the prophet.
 
The Da Vinci Code due to what has been described as its sacrilegious and scandalous tone also attracted same criticism from different quarters of the Christian world. The loudest noise came from the Vatican and the Opus Dei; the two main characters or hinges upon which the door of the film revolves. But the fact is that unlike what happened with the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy, the Vatican and the Opus Dei were very diplomatic in their protests and criticisms. And I must add that it is exactly what is expected from whoever feels that his faith has been insulted or offended. I believe that sometimes two wrongs may not make a right. We may not right a wrong by committing another wrong. What happened in Nigeria during the cartoon controversy was a good example of why violence cannot and should not be used to send a message on how aggrieved one is an certain issues. The killing of Christians and burning of both their houses, businesses and churches met with reprisal attacks in the South especially in the Southeast of the country. A friend from the Southeast justifying the reprisal attack noted that nobody or religion has the monopoly of killing others. Is that not senseless and stupid of us all?
 
Even though I began by eulogising the Vatican and the Opus Dei on the diplomatic way they handled the film, I still had reservations on certain moves I saw as barbaric in that diplomacy which reminded one of the almighty Roman Catholic Church of the middle ages when men and women were wantonly burnt at stakes over flimsy excuses and ignorance. The persecution of Galileo and lots of others who suffered the same fate in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church is still fresh in the minds of the people. While the hullabaloo surrounding the film was still going on, some high ranking clergy of the Roman Catholic Church threw caution to the wind by covertly calling for violence. They urged the Roman Catholics to boycott the film or take a legal action. In fact one of cardinals asked Dan Brown the author of the novel to do such a film on the Prophet Mohammed and see how the Muslims would welcome it. This is a statement, I considered as taking the issue too far. I am just trying to figure out what this cardinal had in mind in making that statement. But whatever he had in mind, the Cardinal should have been openly denounced for taking it that far. The Church did nothing!
The novel whose film version featured some famous artists including Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Sir Ian Mckellen, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina and Jean Reno, sold more than 36 million copies in 44 languages within months of its debut. The story line amongst other things claimed that Jesus Christ did not actually die on the cross but that after his ordeal, he later got married to Mary Magdalene and lived happily ever after in the present day France where his descendants eventually became the French monarchs and spawned a royal line. Also the Opus Dei, a famous religious organization in the Roman Catholic Church was depicted in both the film and the novel as an influential controversial murderous organisation taking lives wantonly in order to conceal the ‘fact’.
 
The Opus Dei has a special status of a personal prelature in the Catholic Church meaning that even though they are present in a diocese, they do not necessarily owe allegiance to the local bishop but to their own bishop who reports directly to the Vatican. This arrangement created a very complicated situation because most often the Opus Dei do not consult the local bishops before taking actions the local bishops should ordinarily be aware of simply because the Opus Dei and its members have been structured by the Vatican not to owe allegiance to them. This no doubt could be embarrassing and insulting to these local bishops.
 
The Opus Dei itself is also not helping the matter. It is no secret that in this age of globalisation and information technology the Opus Dei still prefers to keep most of its activities secret thereby opening up room for suspicion. To give a picture of what Opus Dei looks like to some Roman Catholics I would like to quote extensively from a letter that appeared on page 19 of an English Roman Catholic weekly, the Tablet of October 15, 2005. The letter was written by a Jesuit priest, James Martin SJ as a reaction to an article earlier published in that weekly. The letter was titled; ‘Opus Dei Secrecy’ and I quote,
 
“May I offer a brief but substantive correction to Christopher Howse’s review of John Allen’s book on Opus Dei (Books, 1 October)? In his review, Mr Howse recounts the story of my research for a 1995 article on Opus Dei for America. Mr Howse notes that although I reported that Opus Dei’s statutes were secret, in reality they are-and were at the time-readily available. But as John Allen accurately recounts in his new book, the truth is more complex and more revelatory of Opus Dei. When I first asked the group for a copy of their statutes, they said that they were not permitted to distribute them to non-members. After I spoke with a canon lawyer who disputed this claim, Opus Dei then replied that the statutes had not been translated into English and besides were in “church Latin”, whatever that meant. Eventually I obtained them from outside Opus Dei. (As for Mr Howse’s comment that Opus Dei’s statues were easily retrieved from the internet in 1995, I note for the record that Google, for example, started operations in 1998). The main point is how odd it was for a catholic organization, time and again, to withhold something as simple as their statutes from a Catholic writer interested in learning more about the group. It is this kind of secrecy, which Opus Dei now says it is trying to change, which has long frustrated and even angered so many Catholics”.
 
It was quite interesting and coincidental that this film came out at that time of history. As I pointed out earlier, shortly before the release of the film, there was a little air of panic round the globe as a result of controversy generated by the publication of the cartoon of Prophet Mohammed by the media. The dust generated by that panic was yet to settle down before this controversial film made its debut. The Vatican and the Opus Dei, the two main characters in the film fought tooth and nail to ensure that Christians especially Roman Catholics did not patronise the film. That reaction did more good than harm to Dan Brown; he sold more books and much more film was even sold. People were curious to know about this book and the film and they simply bought both!
 
At the time of the controversy over the film, I wrote a piece cautioning that the Roman Catholic Church should accept that the era of the Holy Roman Empire when the Vatican had the almighty power to dictate which books to be or not to read is gone. It simply had no more power to burn books or list them in the Index of Forbidden Books or issue imprimatur or nihil obstat. The Catholic Church should not have taken such a stand because that was being primitive. Dan Brown has the right to write whatever he wants to write and Christians have the right to read the ones they want to read. Dan Brown by writing The Da Vinci Code was as an American exercising his First Amendment right and Christians by refusing to read the book would also be exercising their own right just like the Vatican had also the right to criticise the film. But going a step further to cow the Catholics into boycotting the film was a step taken too far in the wrong direction.
 
On a very personal note, I never believed that Dan Brown insulted the person of Christ. If Christ really married Mary Magdalene, who cares?  According to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, marriage and sex are not sin. The church teaching is that premarital sex is a sin and if Christ really had children with Mary Magdalene it was within marriage according to the gospel of Dan Brown. I believe that the role of the Vatican here should be to inform the Catholics of dangers inherent in watching the film or reading the novel but by going a step further to ask for boycott and legal action against the film probably under the pain of moral obligation would not only be a violation of the fundamental human right of Dan Brown to the profit of his business but could also be interpreted as a sign of a church that is not in touch with her faithful.
 
The reaction of both the Vatican and the Opus Dei following the film did not help the matter at all. They only succeeded in making themselves a marketing medium for the novel and the film. In fact I was forced to buy the novel with three other of Dan Brown’s works after reading the reactions of both the Vatican and the Opus Dei and am quite sure that many others got to know about this film and the book through this way. Precisely, what gave impetus to my desire to buy the novels was when the Vatican directed the removal of a banner advertising the film in one of the churches in Rome.
 
Truly, the film has come and gone but the dust generated by the film is yet to settle. This may not be a good time for Christians but am definitely sure it is a better time for them to express what they believe in. Christians can choose out of belief not to believe the film or the book just as I do not expect Dan Brown to be bothered weather they believe his works or not. The Christians response to the book, the film and the author matters a lot. Do they kill him? Do they excommunicate him? Do they burn him at the stake? Do they murder him? All these would obviously be going to the extreme and clearly contrary to the teachings of the Christ who is the source of their faith and hope. Am not in doubt that some Christians thought of doing things like these but the simple truth is that there is no room for these thoughts in Christianity. Christians should not take up swords but love and prayer and leave the vengeance for the Lord!