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Pastor and writer (and Sojourners board member) Brian McLaren talks about why he thinks there's truth in The Da Vinci Code's fiction...

SOJO:What do you think the popularity of The Da Vinci Code reveals about pop culture attitudes toward Christianity and the church?

Brian McLaren: I think a lot of people have read the book, not just as a popular page-turner but also as an experience in shared frustration with status-quo, male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up-prone organized Christian religion. We need to ask ourselves why the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown's book is more interesting, attractive, and intriguing to these people than the standard vision of Jesus they hear about in church. Why would so many people be disappointed to find that Brown's version of Jesus has been largely discredited as fanciful and inaccurate, leaving only the church's conventional version? Is it possible that, even though Brown's fictional version misleads in many ways, it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church's conventional version of Jesus may not do him justice?

SOJO: So you think The Da Vinci Code taps into dissatisfaction with Jesus as we know him?

McLaren: For all the flaws of Brown's book, I think what he's doing is suggesting that the dominant religious institutions have created their own caricature of Jesus. And I think people have a sense that that's true. It's my honest feeling that anyone trying to share their faith in America today has to realize that the Religious Right has polluted the air. The name "Jesus" and the word "Christianity" are associated with something judgmental, hostile, hypocritical, angry, negative, defensive, anti-homosexual, etc. Many of our churches, even though they feel they represent the truth, actually are upholding something that's distorted and false. I also think that the whole issue of male domination is huge and that Brown's suggestion that the real Jesus was not as misogynist or anti-woman as the Christian religion often has been is very attractive. Brown's book is about exposing hypocrisy and cover-up in organized religion, and it is exposing organized religion's grasping for power. Again, there's something in that that people resonate with in the age of pedophilia scandals, televangelists, and religious political alliances. As a follower of Jesus I resonate with their concerns as well.

SOJO: Do you think the book contains any significantly detrimental distortions of the Christian faith?

McLaren: The book is fiction and it's filled with a lot of fiction about a lot of things that a lot of people have already debunked. But frankly, I don't think it has more harmful ideas in it than the Left Behind novels. And in a certain way, what the Left Behind novels do, the way they twist scripture toward a certain theological and political end, I think Brown is twisting scripture, just to other political ends. But at the end of the day, the difference is I don't think Brown really cares that much about theology. He just wanted to write a page-turner and he was very successful at that. Many Christians are also reading this book and it's rocking their preconceived notions - or lack of preconceived notions - about Christ's life and the early years of the church. So many people don't know how we got the canon, for example.

SOJO: Should this book be a clarion call to the church to say, "Hey, we need to have a body of believers who are much more literate in church history." Is that something the church needs to be thinking about more strategically?

McLaren: Yes! You're exactly right. One of the problems is that the average Christian in the average church who listens to the average Christian broadcasting has such an oversimplified understanding of both the Bible and of church history - it would be deeply disturbing for them to really learn about church history. I think the disturbing would do them good. But a lot of times education is disturbing for people. And so if The Da Vinci Code causes people to ask questions and Christians have to dig deeper, that's a great thing, a great opportunity for growth. And it does show a weakness in the church giving either no understanding of church history or a very stilted, one-sided, sugarcoated version. On the other hand, it's important for me to say I don't think anyone can learn good church history from Brown. There's been a lot of debunking of what he calls facts. But again, the guy's writing fiction so nobody should be surprised about that. The sad thing is there's an awful lot of us who claim to be telling objective truth and we actually have our own propaganda and our own versions of history as well. Let me mention one other thing about Brown's book that I think is appealing to people. The church goes through a pendulum swing at times from overemphasizing the deity of Christ to overemphasizing the humanity of Christ. So a book like Brown's that overemphasizes the humanity of Christ can be a mirror to us saying that we might be underemphasizing the humanity of Christ.

SOJO: In light of The Da Vinci Code movie that is soon to be released, how do you hope churches will engage this story?

McLaren: I would like to see churches teach their people how to have intelligent dialogue that doesn't degenerate into argument. We have to teach people that the Holy Spirit works in the middle of conversation. We see it time and time again - Jesus enters into dialogue with people; Paul and Peter and the apostles enter into dialogue with people. We tend to think that the Holy Spirit can only work in the middle of a monologue where we are doing the speaking. So if our churches can encourage people to, if you see someone reading the book or you know someone who's gone to the movie, say, "What do you think about Jesus and what do you think about this or that," and to ask questions instead of getting into arguments, that would be wonderful. The more we can keep conversations open and going the more chances we give the Holy Spirit to work. But too often people want to get into an argument right away. And, you know, Jesus has handled 2,000 years of questions, skepticism, and attacks, and he's gonna come through just fine. So we don't have to be worried. Ultimately, The Da Vinci Code is telling us important things about the image of Jesus that is being portrayed by the dominant Christian voices. [Readers] don't find that satisfactory, genuine, or authentic, so they're looking for something that seems more real and authentic.

This interview was conducted for Sojo.net by Lisa Ann Cockrel, associate editor at Today's Christian Woman. To sign up for Sojourners' e-mail newsletter and receive more "news" like this, go here.


Blogger Shaun Groves said...

Note: No one reading SHLOG.COM should ever assume I agree with all or even some of any article I post here, make reference to or link to. I post to provoke conversation. If I have an opinion or stance on anything, unfortunately, I'll tell you...again and again.

That said, I found this interview interesting simply because it seems like an even-handed appraisal of the book and it's fiction/truth. I'm finding that rare. Responses by clergy I know or have read seem to fall into two camps these days: 1) The book/film is evil, completely false, dangerous and should be avoided by most lay people and attacked and debunked by professionals and a few really really smart lay people - If you're one of these lay people or professionals here are ten books you can buy to arm yourself with the truth. Your total comes to... 2)This book is just fiction and doesn't matter. I'm not taking it seriously. Who cares? Only morons care what fiction books say about God.

McLaren seems to be saying, Hey, there's something to be learned from this work of fiction. It's right in places, wrong in most, a great read, a piece of product but a serious opportunity to learn and dialogue about the Jesus we believe in. He seems to be empowering all Christians to seize the moment, learn their faith's history, bolster their faith, and do so without fear but with confidence in the long undaunted but often assailed legacy that is Christianity.


This is something new from an actual pastor on this topic.


What do you think?

Blogger Amy said...

I think he has a point about the sexist thing. I thought the same thing when I read it and thought of churh history. I could see how people would find it appealing.
Also, I was recently at the local christian book store and noticed a bunch of books out about the radical nature of Christianity with women. so there's some more evidence right there.

Blogger bdg.theTRu said...

that's an interesting interview.

I've often thought that we can learn a lot about God by studying or at least experiencing the world and culture around us. In that sense, nothing - including books like DVC, is necessarily good or evil, but a trigger to stimulate thought and learning... what's good or evil is what we choose to learn from it... and whether we let it bring us closer to or further from God...

of course that puts the blame and responsibility on ourselves as to how we are shaped and that's not the trendy thing to accept...

well, i need to run...

peace... love... bdg...

Blogger The Cachinnator said...

I think what McLaren said is beautiful. I fear I may have given the impression that I was in the 'blow it off' camp earlier. That was probably in response to reading something leaning too hard the other way. There's a lot to learn from those who go before us and have gained some wisdom and experience.

I have always seen controversy-provoking events as wonderful opportunities to have conversation and communication about Christ. Recently that includes Left Behind, Harry Potter, the Passion, McNally's Corpus Christi, Kingdom of Heaven, and now the Da Vinci Code. Might it cause people some turmoil to have their convictions and beliefs challenged? Absolutely. Does that risk mean the pot should never be stirred? I don't think so.

I've known people to have crises of faith arising from the most innocuous seeming event or movie or play or whatever. That a film like DVC should be the catalyst can't be any more surprising than, say, the death of a loved one. If the God we serve is true, then each challenge must always contain an opportunity to grow closer to him. Whether or not we take that opportunity or help those around us take it is in our hands. (Unless you're a Calvanist, I suppose.)

Blogger GrovesFan said...

I haven't read the book and don't intend to just because it doesn't really interest me. I do however fall into that camp of not knowing much at all about church history and why the Bible was put together the way it was (order, etc.), etc. I'm hoping our church will soon offer some serious and indepth classes on these very topics soon. I for one am ready to really know more. I've been a Christian for 35 years and don't know basic church history. That's sad and I want to change that fact.


Blogger Kathryn said...

enjoyed reading that. loved the book, can't wait to see the movie!

I really liked the little phrase in the middle of all those words: ". . . the Holy Spirit works in the middle of conversation." that really jumped out at me.

Blogger Seth Ward said...

Quite a few Christians have a VBS knowledge of their faith. Some of that is not their fault. It is what they have been taught. That kind of knowledge of our faith may work for kids and some adults, but not for most. If you are a thinking person then when life comes along and smacks you around, combine that with an entertaining book that claims to be true and SOUNDS true debunking all that you thought was true about your faith, these things can translate in to anger and shatter your faith. Studying Church History can be challenging and downright rough. But there is are good reasons that Christianity has hung around for this long and why we trust through faith AND reason in the Man who Claimed to be God. God did not leave us totally blind and sometimes we are taught that He did.

I also think the reason that Church History is not taught so much in the Protestant Church is because we act as thought REAL Christianity didn't start until about 500 years ago at that Church in Wittenberg. The Reformation de-emphasised the importance of Church Tradition, and Church History.

Blogger Brody Harper said...

i'm in the #2 camp. but i'm not calling anyone a moron... at least not to their face.

Anonymous Stephen said...

I agree with McLaren. This book has helped expose the serious lack of any real understanding of church history and how the Bible we have was compiled.

If people don't know the history of their faith, it's easy to believe distortians of the truth. If people don't know things like the history of dispensationalism, it's easy to believe the Left Behind books portray truth.

I hope DVC is a wakeup call for many to take their faith seriously and spend time looking at its roots.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sojourners tends to take a "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" approach to cultural critique. And the enemy, at least in a sense, is the Christian right. And the Christian right doesn't like Dan Brown? Well, Dan Brown's got some good stuff to say then.

Problem: McLaren's giving Brown WAY too much credit. It's pained.

I have read the book, and enjoyed it, as entertainment. It's a good read-on-a-plane book.

McLaren: "We need to ask ourselves why the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown's book is more interesting, attractive, and intriguing to these people..."

First, this book is not an artistic masterpiece as literature. It's also beyond slipshod in research regarding areas in which it does, in fact, assert expertise.

Thirdly, this attractive Jesus it offers happens to make no claim whatsoever on our lives.

Why is that attractive, Brian? Same reason reductionist versions of Jesus have always been attractive: the religion we're left with has my desires at the center. His religion is actually the caricature -- of the church culture you constantly critique, Mr. McLaren.

More importantly, we should be able to acknowledge these things without being dismissed as reactionary. Brown does not offer us an attractive "Jesus" at all. He gives us a contrived paganism that denies the King, and he's intellectually dishonest in doing it.

I join McLaren in critiquing the power plays in the church, but the "Oh, the Christian right zigged? Then let's zag!" thing is way lame.

And, oh yeah, FWIW: The stuff presented as truth, say, for example, that the deity of Jesus was invented centuries following earthly life? No one believes that, save some high school sophomores.

It's what in pre-McLaren days we'd call a "lie". Lies are actually terribly harmful, and result in actual pain.

Suppose we can say that?


Blogger introriff said...

I'm in camp #2. However there are some of us, not all of us, that need to listen and consider some of what camp #1 is saying (without rolling our eyes).


Blogger Shaun Groves said...

"Sojourners tends to take a "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" approach to cultural critique"

Amen and amen. I totally see that.

I don't think though that any of us know that McLaren is zigging BECAUSE of any zagging taking place. We just don't know that - he never says it...or I missed that part.

I totally agree with what Brant said about why Brown's Jesus is attractive - but is it a stretch, an assumption, to say that readers bought this book and liked because the Jesus in it was "attractive" in the first place? I haven't read it. Becky has. And she loved it because it was an easy entertaining read. Jesus had nothing to do with it.

But that's her.


Blogger The Cachinnator said...

I doubt very seriously that anyone bought the book looking for an alternative Jesus or theological education. But the book's purpose and its effect may be two seperate things. We don't have to give Brown any credit as a theologian to say that the effect of his writing is a theological discussion. Therefore a work of thriller fiction like DVC can become what it has.

As for the "attractive Jesus" thing, the fake diety of this 'contrived paganism' doesn't need to have any real power in and of himself to be harmful. That is to say that he doesn't have to be a viable alternative view of Jesus to be popular and thus dangerous. I absolutely agree with Brant that Brown is not offering a real interpretation of Christ, but that interpretation has popular following nonetheless. And that, I think, gets back to his point about needing to educate ourselves and our congregations about Christian history.

Sojo is quite frequently a one-trick pony, but I see more depth and nuance to McLaren's work. I think this is a good example. I don't see McLaren dealing with the DVC book as much as the DVC effect. Am I off?

Blogger GrovesFan said...

I'm with you on this one Cach. Or at least I got the same thing you did from the article. Since I haven't read the book, I can't say what kind of "Jesus" is portrayed there if any at all, but the definite lack of knowledge the many Christians today have concerning our history, makes any alternative dangerous and potentially life-threatening, not just harmful. I think we should spend more time learning our own history rather than trying to dispell another's myths and fiction.


Blogger Whiteboy said...

Seth - on your comment about Church history, I think Neumann said it best when he said "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant." Fundamentally, that's the best way to fight DVC...to promote greater understanding of how the Church really came into being and the truth about it's existence, and what the Church really is.

Sean - I think your two camps is a little oversimplifying things, but going with it for a second...I think camp 2 is best answered by asking something along the lines of "If someone wrote a thrilling page turner that was built upon the premise that your mother was a (insert insulting phrase here), would you still read it, or approve people that found it entertaining?" That's the biggest problem with the "it's just fiction" line of thinking...is it good to support something that is so seriously insulting to everything that exists? More importantly though, Dan Brown hates the "it's just fiction" as much as others do...over and over again he's said that he's carefully researched everything in his book and it's true. Which, honestly, is a joke...I could link to any number of websites to go after that, but above most I'd recommend Amy Welborn for an easily digestible approach to the theological problems with DVC.

The biggest problem is, as was pointed out, is that people actually BELIEVE Dan Brown when he says his theology is correct. There's a big third camp you're leaving out, and that's the "well...it COULD be true" camp. That's where the "fight" needs to happen. Because to put this simply...if anything that the Church teaches is true, then the theology in DVC CANNOT be true. There's no two ways about it.

Fundamentally, the biggest problem overall is the approval/revisionist approach to the gnostics. I think THAT'S the draw...sadly enough, a 1800 year old heresy is starting to creep it's way into modern thought more and more. I think THAT'S what the DVC plays to the most.

Blogger operamama said...

Wow, I truly had a major hate-fest going on for that book, and the comment about "Jesus coming out just fine," made me feel kind-of silly for worrying so much. Thanx. Anything that can lower a mother's worry load is appreciated.

Blogger operamama said...

I have to admit, I am afraid to see the movie, because I don't want anything tainting my view of Jesus. I have my own personal Jesus, and I don't want anything to infiltrate that. I have never pictured Jesus as married with kids, as the book implies, so I have heard-I haven't read it, and it sounds a lot like blasphemy. Do you think that it is? What would be the implications behind such a claim?

Blogger Seth Ward said...

Shaun btw, about your first comment you should make one of those little videos "the following program does not necessarily reflect the views of shlog.com so BACK IT UP!!!"

Blogger Kat Coble said...

I appreciate Mr. McLaren's take on this issue. While I agree that Sojourners do take a reactionary stance more often than not, I think it's plain that in this case there are some unmet needs that beg to be addressed.

Why are so many so attracted to the book?

Well, if I had to put it in short form, I'd say the true main attraction is the concept of a feminine divine. So many women feel disenfranchised by the Church--and the Church fails to address that. This book fills that gap astonishingly well, and does what Satan does best. It finds the right buttons to push that will manipulate people away from Christ.

Blogger Kat said...

Another Kat. Hi Kat!

So, Shaun, Seth, Cach and all you other church historians, could you recommend any good church history primers for us newbies?

Blogger The Cachinnator said...

If you've had a good night's sleep, and you aren't afraid of a little soporific reading, Bruce Shelley's "Church History in Plain Language" is a very accessible resource. It's also as short as a good book covering the subject can be, given the depth and breadth one book on the subject would have to cover.

Another good one is Roger Olson's "The Story of Christian Theology." It is affectionately referred to as 'the Green Monster' due to its voluminous size, so beware. It does focus more on theology than history, but it follows Christian theological thought in chronological order like a story. It covers all the major developments, controversies, heresies, etc. So in that way, it does tell Christian history. It's not one that is very easy to just sit down and read, though. It is best used as a reference for getting the story behind the different people, thoughts, and movements.

Those are my initial nerdy offerings. Anyone got anything a bit spicier?

Blogger Seth Ward said...

Whew. Cach could answer this on better than all of us being the resident Seminary Compadre, but in my humble opinion, I guess finding the right book depends on the purpose of your reading. If you are trying to read material that refutes the claims stated in this book then there is plenty of online reading that is availiable. And if you want more then I would suggest a book by N.T. Write "The ressurection of the Son of God" because if we REALLY want to understand and defend the claims being made against our faith today then I think we should start with understanding the First Century and Why we can trust the Gospels and their Validity. All their arguements revolve around this.

If you are looking for an overview or survey without takign a friggin course or two, then I would say for a short and fun read, Barnes and Noble always has those nice but informative books that give you a healthy understanding of origins and important events. They are usually written by more than one scholar so you are more likely to get a less biased version of the History. I saw on the other day called "The Story of Christianity" and it looked pretty informative and fun with out being oversimplified. The problem or actually, the reality of reading Church History is always knowing: 1. who is the author? Protetstant, Catholic, Non-believer 2. what is the intention of the book? Then take into account their assumptions of certain events i.e. the Reformation. Anyway that may be an un-needed paranoia but that's just my hang-up.

I have read survey books on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic/Non-believer fence and they differ some in their interpretations of certain events. Most of the time from the Protestant stand point the Catholic Church is made out to be a great evil force in the world that happened to have a few good Saints and Theologians fall out of the bag. From the Catholic view, you get Luther painted as a great but smart Devil and then justifying certain actions that should have never taken place in my opinion. An author that I have found who was able to do a good job not being biased is Hans Kung in his book "The Church" (i know, not the greatest and most juicy title, but hey, he's german). I also love the Edersheim book "The Life and times of Jesus the Messiah." some people say it is the most exhaustive and descriptive book on how life really was like in the 1st and 2cond Century. It wasn't the stone age as all the movies we have seen depict.

Anywho, before i get too wound up here,


Blogger Shaun Groves said...

Whiteboy, about the "two camps" thing...

I said I'd put the responses I've heard from clergy (in media and face to face) about DVC into those two camps. Therefore, simply because McLaren's response was different, it was interesting and refreshing.

You are absolutely right that breaking ALL responses to DVC from ALL people world wide into these two camps would be overly simplistic. I'll raise you overly simplistic, in fact, to flat out wrong.

Kat Coble, welcome. I wonder if the feminine divine is just a sub-reasons (is that a word?) of the bigger reason people have read this book: controversy. I, personally, confession here, love controversy. I love hearing new ideas that are not "normal" and when a fight breaks out I'm drawn to the crowd gathered around it to see the punches thrown and discover why it broke out in the first place. That makes me a sick person I guess but I'm being honest. I don't enjoy conflict per se but I'm curious about a subject when it seems to be ruffling feathers. So the feminine divine, Jesus married with kids, Jesus not being God, Da Vinci's art making symbolic statements against the Church, Catholics killing people who disagree with them - all that's controversial and gets a buzz going. A crowd gathers to see what all the fuss is about and - BAM! - 42 millions copies sold. Even here at SHLOG.COM I know that if I say something at all controversial (I'm a pacifist, I'm doubting my faith, I wear women's underwear and lip sync to the Village People) I'll get more hits. You'll go tell your friends and a crowd will gather. I try not to let that influence my writing but how can't it?

About the feminine divine thing in particular though... This is one of the many components of this book that contains an element of truth, I think. it's one of the moments in the story that has some of us saying to ourselves (of course not out loud), "Hey, that's always bugged me too." It bugs me that in the denomination I've been in most of my life a woman is a "speaker" and a man is a "preacher," for instance. I sometimes wonder, "What are we afraid of?" And along comes Dan Brown with a theory about it all - paints a picture tat has modern Western Christians limiting the role of women standing not so much on scripture but on a tradition stemming back to the supposed early Church's limiting of God: HHis/Her gender.

There are certain classes in some seminaries you can't take unless you have a penis! There are churches in which a woman can't speak, can't go to a business meeting. She can watch kids in the nursery but be in charge of the education program but she can't do much else. And this pisses a lot of women off. Surely some of them are holding DVC and thinking at the very least, "Well, that would sure explain things."

Among these are some very smart women who know that the holy Spirit of God is a feminine noun in scripture - a woman - and that this isn't taught to us. Why? Add to this the FACT that certain feminine names for God have been mistranslated into our English bibles as gender neutral names (God With Breasts becomes Mighty Lord?). Why? Add Paul's seemingly sexist comments about women and the Western Church's lack of support for women's rights, suffrage etc. Why? And Dan Brown has a far fetched but more needed than ever answer.

I think is part of what McLarnen is getting at and the part I like most about his interview: This book could reveal some of the parts of faith that we need to explain better, and reveal some mistakes and weakness in Western Christianity we should account for and repair if possible.

The Church has nothing to fear - nothing to hide. God loves women. A woman willing to study all this I think will find that mistakes have been made by Christians in the treatment of women but that there's no overarching conspiracy to cover up some Divine feminine. I think she'll discover that Christ honored women, God used female preachers deaconesses and mentors, and that without womankind there would be no gospel story at all. Christianity at it's purest is a faith that holds woman up as a key creation, vital to the revelation of God's character to humankind, half of the living metaphor of God's union with His Church: marriage.

And they're just stinkin' beautiful and fascinating creatures.

Blogger Shaun Groves said...

Mark Noll's Turning Points.

Pertaining to DVC...Campus Crusade for Christ has created a big picture primer on the areas the book focusses on: art history, church history, the Catholic Church etc. It's in a magazine form. Very short, very well written, not dumbed down but not overly wordy and snooty sounding like so many church history books tend to read...to me.

I think you can get it at their web site.

Anonymous keith said...

"Among these are some very smart women who know that ... Why? Add to this the FACT ... Why? Add Paul's seemingly sexist comments ... Why? And Dan Brown has a far fetched but more needed than ever answer."

I would love to hear your answer to these questions some time, Pastor Shaun. :) Maybe a new post topic?

Blogger Kat Coble said...

Kat Coble, welcome.

Thanks for the welcome, although I do lurk here a great deal. You almost tempted me out of hiding with the Calvinism posts, but then not.

The Church has nothing to fear - nothing to hide. God loves women. A woman willing to study all this I think will find that mistakes have been made by Christians in the treatment of women but that there's no overarching conspiracy to cover up some Divine feminine.

I would agree entirely. Yet in my ministry the women who come to me are very swayed by the Brown Version Of Events and eager to hear an alternate version. I'm thankful to DVC for giving me the opportunity to put that alternate version out there.

Ten years ago I was perpetually ticked off at the fact that my ministry had to be covert. I can't preach and I can't teach a Sunday School class, etc.

Yet I've been perfectly positioned where God needs me. Much like Balaam's ass.

Blogger Jeffrey J. Stables said...

As one of my good friends, guiroo, said (sarcastically) of McLaren's statement that "I don't think it has more harmful ideas in it than the Left Behind novels":

I agree. We should make sure we have our eschatology correct before we acknowledge the deity of Christ. ;)

McLaren makes a couple of good points:

(1) There is something in the falsehoods about Christ that Brown promotes that is more attractive to unbelievers than the truth. Allowing for the natural man's tendency toward exchanging the truth for a lie, we do need to be about the business of "advertising" God's truth and making sure the world knows it's more attractive than lies.

(2) Twisting of Scripture happens inside and outside the American church.

But I think he's wrong on most everything else.


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