article: Key to the Da Vinci Code’s Success

May 23, 2006

Key to the Da Vinci Code’s Success

Semiotics teaches that all communication is in code. Solving the code’s message is however a much more onerous and tricky task than it is generally realized, because the apparent or surface meaning of a text, such as obtained for instance by using standard dictionaries, may not reveal its larger context or latent motives and therefore fail to yield its true significance.

“The Da Vinci Code” is a thriller, it contains cloak-and-dagger mystery, violence, and sex, yet those attributes alone do not explain its popularity. The author’s denial of the divinity and resurrection of Christ raises the hackles of religious conservatives, but his book doesn’t owe its success to being scandalous either. It was not meant as a repudiation of religion per se; far from being agnostic, Dan Brown actually professes to be a Christian.

Though the Nietzschean claim that man creates God in his own image certainly does not fit all images of the divine proposed throughout history, religious beliefs are clearly modified by social transformations. It is this that the main relevance and topicality of “The Da Vinci Code” consists in. Traditional Western thought has generally regarded monotheism as an advance over polytheism, and even though the Bible taught that God was of the spirit—and in fact warned against visual representations of Him—the strongly patriarchal culture of the ancient Jews invariably spoke of God in the masculine. This was reinforced by Christian dogma affirming that Jesus was fully God and fully man. The notion of a masculine God, of God the Father in particular, seems however out of place in an ethos where woman’s status has been on the ascendance and motherhood is distinctively honored.

Christ’s marital status is a related issue. In numerous cultural traditions of both East and West, celibacy was seen as being on a higher level than married life because, for one thing, abstinence from sex emphasizes the spiritual as opposed to sensual aspect of a human being. This view has been gradually undermined, consensus turning in favor of what is considered a more balanced lifestyle, better adapted to average persons and not placing unrealistic obligations on them that they are sooner or later liable to break.

History abounds in Pantheons peopled by both gods and goddesses, and these are frequently shown as united in marriage. Whereas Greek and Roman mythology sets before us a picture of life on Olympus that in many ways mirrors the ordinary human family, Judeo-Christian theology is uniquely alien to that perspective. Today the pressure is on, at least in this country, for religious doctrine to conform to twenty-first century expectations, but contradictions and barriers in our involved social system prevent an honest explicit discussion of the matter.

Along comes Dan Brown with a work of fiction that nevertheless makes factual claims—on the basis on evidence varying from scant to nil—to, most notably, an original feminine deity in the Jewish religion and the married state of Jesus. Both are anathema to fundamentalist Protestants and Catholics, committed respectively to a literal interpretation of the Bible and Church dogma. Yet the type of religion that, according to Brown, characterized ancient Judaism, the early Church, and some secret societies, such as the Priory of Sion, i. e., the type of religion representing his ideals, is consonant with the social views of not only the majority of Americans but probably a great many of those belonging to established churches of a conservative mold. This is the hidden dynamic of the controversy, deciphering the really important code behind the one Brown’s bestseller—in all likelihood spuriously—ascribes to Leonardo da Vinci.

L. S.

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