One would have to be living in the catacombs or a secret basement room under the Louvre not to know about the recent hoop-la about The Da Vinci Code. Most who have read it have enjoyed the book, some quite a lot, saying it is a rip-roaring read. A local acquintance—muck-raker, gonzo journalist, cynic extraordinaire, York Daily Record writer Mike Argento—wrote about his wife pushing the book on him, and his extreme dislike of its shabby writing style. It is one of the better send-ups of a dumb book I’ve seen, and it is a hoot (regardless of your opinion about the quality of Mr. Brown’s plot and prose.) Read it at the paper’s website, http://www.ydr.com/mike/ci_3730341.
The new movie, despite the jauggernaut of trailers and press junkets, interviews and previews, ads and more ads, has not fared quite so well (Those like Argento who were disappointed in the book can say, "I told you so"). As one who grew up watching Opie and is a big Tom Hanks fan, though, I wish them well. I will soon make a rare pilgrimage to the multiplex to stand in line and shell out for it. Despite the many early crummy reviews, I’m eager to see it.
To keep up with our reputation (well, a bit of a small reputation) of being a culturally engaged establishment, a center for helping our customers, discern wisely the times in which we live and the issues of the day (see I Chronicles 12:32 one of my favorite verses about this) I shall offer a few nearly random thoughts. Any could be expanded or explored in greater detail (and we have books that do so.) I don’t want to exhaust your patience, since so many are saying these sorts of things these days. Thanks be to God. And, I want you to get to the book list below.
1. Christians need a wise and balanced and thoughtful and caring response to cultural "windows of opportunity" like we are seeing now. It is foolish and too often mean to protest and condemn works of art or cultural artifacts without knowing much about them, or our neighbor’s attitudes about them. From the film of The Last Temptation of Christ to the Harry Potter novels and films to paintings like Piss Christ up to this month’s release of the Hollywood adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, some church people—very unlike Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17—go on the attack mode. Rather, we should invite conversation, engage the artfully told story or song, helping those who view it to think about it, discern the deepest matters of worldview and truth-telling. As we build bridges with others we can contribute to civil public discourse, which is usually better than yelling and demonstrating. My favorite advocates for this "in the world but not of it" approach, rooted in common grace and the need for charitable relationships, even as we discern and seek truth, are the good folks at Ransom Fellowship. Their website is loaded with suggestions, ideas, theological insights, and tons of music, film and book reviews, and small group discussion stuff. Visit them at www.ransomfellowship.org.
2. The Da Vinci Code is fiction. Yet it is undeniable that it is based upon and supports a movement of peculiar pseudo-scholarship that inaccurately posits that the New Testament documents are unreliable (or worse) and that the later Gnostic gospels are somehow more authentic and religiously valuable. (Have you ever read these things? I think Brian McLaren is right when he suggests that one reason they never were widely accepted was not just because they were so odd, but because they were so boring, with no narrative power or a Jesus one could care about.) This constellation of concerns—renewed interest in the old criticism of the "historical Jesus", the fascination with the "sacred feminine" and goddess worship, the rise in neo-paganism, and old-school Gnosticism— is a significant force in our time and should not be ignored. Those who care about Biblical truth need to be versed in the intellectual battles about early church studies, Christology, the formation of the canon and such; most broadly we should think through what we believe about the relationship between faith and reason, between religion and truth. Books like Nancy Pearcey’s magnum opus, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From It’s Cultural Captivity (Crossway; $25.00) would be helpful to remind us not to pretend that deeply spiritual questions are somehow in another mystical realm, not to be discussed in rational terms, and to bolster our conviction that God’s truth is, well, total. A presumption of our culture, and far too many church folks, is that religious faith is somehow disconnected from matters of truth and knowledge.
More specifically, books from the recent generation of top-flight, orthodox Jesus scholars can be helpful, authors such as N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Scott McKnight, Luke Timothy Johnson. We have dozens of books on what happened in the early church years, how the followers of Jesus discerned who He was and how the gospel writer’s work took hold. It is interesting, isn’t it, how this seemingly arcane stuff–Christology!—is now on the cover of the popular entertainment magazines. I hope the pastors among us are dusting off their seminary texts (if they were reliable ones, that is) and that church-going folks insist that their leaders teach well about the historicity of our real-world faith.
3. Cultural apologetics, as some of us call it, and intellectual debate, must always be pursued with grace and kindness and a healthy sense of humility, even as we have strong convictions and firm confidence. The art of public discourse–done in Christ’s name, in Christ’s way—needs to be explored by those of us who do political work as well as those who do movie reviews and book discussions. For instance, you may want to have on hand a copy of Richard Mouw’s helpful paperback, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP; $15.00) or Talking About Good and Bad Without Getting Ugly by Paul Chamberlain (IVP; $12.00.) A great new book by one of our more thoughtful writers, James Sire, is called Why Good Arguments Often Fail (IVP; $15.00) and shows how to be more effective and persuasive in our debates and dialogues. I have enjoyed all the work of William Edgar, too, and commend books like his Reasons of the Heart: Recovering the Lost Art of Persuasion (P&R; $11.99.) It isn’t every professor of apologetics who is also a jazz pianist, and I somehow think this is important. Bill gets it right–creative, gentle, yet as firm as a Reformed theologian must be—and I love his book, with a lovely painting by Mako Fujimura on the cover, called The Face of Truth: Lifting the Veil (P&R $10.99.) Call us if this topic interests you or if you’d like more resources to help you respond not so much to the issues surrounding the recent attack on Christian convictions by The Da Vinci Code but more generally how to talk to friends and neighbors about truthful things, important things, how to be informed and persuasive and effective and kind. Westminster Seminary, where Edgar teaches, has compiled a helpful website with relevant articles and video by some important authors including Tim Keller, Os Guiness, Darrell Bock, George Barna, and Peter Jones.
4. The Da Vinci Code makes many, many ludicrous statements portrayed (granted, in the context of a story) as true facts. It is not unkind to point this out. And saying that it is a work of fiction is inadequate. Dan Brown himself has regularly asserted—on national TV, in interviews and in print—that his book is based on historical fact. It doesn’t take serious scholarship to realize how laden with error and goofiness this book is. (Heavens: the Dead Sea Scrolls are not "Christian" documents, as he says–they were Jewish writings written long before Jesus was even born! The Gnostic writings, again, were written perhaps centuries later than Brown implies. Forget the weird art errors and geographic blunders; his claims about early Christian history and the formation of the canon and the role of Constantine and such are way, way off. His attack on the reliability of the gospel accounts is a matter huge importance and my sense is that few understand how preposterous his views are.
Those who are unaware of the silly claims and ridiculous assertions of Mr. Brown, in interviews, and those in the novel and film, may find the cumulative effect of this worldview to be compelling. Or it may erode any small bit of confidence people have in the Bible and the core claims of the gospel. It is a shame that some will be mislead by all kinds of anti-Christian dogma, odd stuff presented as obvious and factual. These are important matters and the book listed below will help you expose some of these errors.
However, we must keep things in perspective. Not too many people make final decisions about their ultimate convictions by arguments over the dating of the Gospel of Thomas or after considerations of the facts of first century archeology. Or, I might suggest, over the logical cohesion of systematic theology. It ought not be necessary to remind our readers, but the Bible teaches that it is God who converts the heart and it is God who illumines the mind. We are to be agents of Christ’s Kingdom, offering insight, truth, love. We should be eager to interact with the products of our shared culture with our neighbors. But it is not our job to pummel folks with data or even "love them into the Kingdom." God’s love will do that, we pray.
5. Which leads to a final point. Perhaps I will blog about this more over at our BookNotes blog. As Michael Metzger (senior fellow and founder of The Clapham Institute) has reminded us on his fabulous website that to counter a bad story we would do best to tell better stories. Stories engage the imagination and it is here where we can be most influential. Debating facts—which Metzger calls "inert objects"—gets us hardly anywhere. ("”Â¦the only people who read the "corrections" page of the newspaper are the aggrieved," he says and even if he isn’t fully right on that, he makes an extraordinary point.) Read his excellent series on this which you can download as a booklet for free by clicking here
He calls this an "East Wing" approach (rather than the "West Wing"). Drawing on the vision of the community of his organization’s namesake’s —William Wilberforce’s Clapham movement— and insights from sources as diverse as George Lakoff and C.S. Lewis, he makes a case unlike anything anyone else is saying about the Da Vinci brouhaha. Tell better stories. What a brilliant reply.
Perhaps over the next months you may take time to read some books on film studies, to read Christianly done movie reviews, to deepen your interest in the arts and writing. At the section of our website where we list "Books by Vocation" you can click on a brief, annotated list of books on the arts, and some on popular culture and film. From the day we opened, we stocked books on the creative arts and popular entertainment, knowing the significance these fields have for the culture, and for God’s desire for His people to make a difference there. Don’t like the neo-Gnostic story being told by Brown’s zillion-selling blockbuster? Find a better one. Spread the word. At least on the BookNotes blog
I will be telling of recent novel’s we’ve read and stories which we find persuasive.
By the way, know what the very, very first book we sold, the day we opened two and a half decades ago? A little novel that, at that time, had not yet become known as a musical, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. We took that, with tears in our eyes, as a sign of God’s blessing. Thanks for your interest in Hearts & Minds.
Here are some books that we have been recommending for those wanting to be informed and discuss well the issues raised by Dan Brown’s book and Ron Howard’s film
, The Da Vinci Code.
Breaking the Da Vinci Code Darrell L. Bock (Nelson) $13.99 This was one of the first evangelical books which answers the questions raised by the Da Vinci book and still may be the best, over-all. Bock has a PH.D in New Testament studies and is well equipped to reply to these questions. Highly recommended. An impressive forward is by the Dean of Theology at Catholic University, Francis Moloney, and renowned leader himself.
Cracking DaVinci’s Code James Garlow & Peter Jones (Victor) $14.99 Brief but very insightful, these authors (trained at places like Princeton) can help separate fact from fiction. Jones, especially, has studied the rise of contemporary Gnosticism and understands cultural trends. A nice discussion guide is included, too.
The Gospel Code Ben Witherington III (IVP) $15.00 Perhaps the most scholarly of the one’s I’ve listed, this may also be the best-written; just wonderful. This is a readable and good study, well informed and interesting. Witherington is highly respected in this field and has done immense reading in early church documents. Very important.
Discussing the Da Vince Code DVD Lee Strobel and Garry Poole (Zondervan) $19.99 This is a wonderfully filmed documentary-type discussion guide in four parts, perfect for small group discussion, Sunday school classes or home use. Strobel, you may know, was a serious skeptic—with a degree from Harvard Law School–who came to faith a few years back, and wrote helpful books arguing The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. He now directs a provocative PAX-TV talk show called "Faith Under Fire" (DVD curriculum pieces are available from those, too, and are wonderfully provocative and interesting.) Stobel is no stranger to colorful controversy. But always handles his conversation partners with open-minded grace and a high regard for truth. This DVD kit includes a small booklet, and a group discussion guide that itself is very useful with helpful quotes, comments and discussion questions. Highly recommended. (The study guide book can be purchased by itself for $7.99.)
Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Constantine Bart D. Ehrman (Oxford University Press) $12.95 Many know Ehrman, a former evangelical who lost his faith over discrepancies in early New Testament manuscripts, especially for his recent books, Misquoting Jesus and the cleverly titled, Peter Paul and Mary Magdalene. Although some Christian scholars are saddened by his inability to affirm the historic doctrine of Biblical authority, he is an important and honest scholar. Even though he has spent much of his recent professional life offering sober critique to evangelical views of the Bible, here he shows that much of Dan Brown’s views are unsubstantiated and misguided. When writers like this chime in, you know there are issues…very nicely done with no Christian agenda whatsoever.
The Da Vinci Deception Erwin Lutzer (Tyndale) $14.99 A smaller-sized hardback, this is a powerhouse of clear thinking and solid, Orthodox teaching. Passionate and solid.
The Da Vinci Codebreaker James Garlow (Bethany) $9.99 This is a useful compendium of facts, terms, questions & answers. Some assistance from an award winning Biblical scholar and a Ph.D. candidate with a Masters degree from Duke. These are reliable folks offering helpful definitions and data.
The Books the Church Suppressed: Fiction and Truth in The DaVinci Code Michael Green (Monarch) $13.99 Green is a distinguished Anglican scholar, author of over 40 books in a well-respected career. Here, he explores the claims–foundational to the discussion–that the early church allegedly suppressed certain documents. This is a fun, feisty and very helpful rebuttal of shallow assertions of Brown. Very informative and very useful.
Solving the Da Vinci Code Mystery Brandon Gilvin (Chalice Press) $12.99 Published by a respected mainline denominational press (Disciples of Christ) that tends to have what some might consider a liberal theological bias, this is still a useful book as it doesn’t primarily intend to refute Brown’s objectionable claims, but rather hearing him out, testing his ideas, wondering what might be good or bad, and inviting open-minded reflection. Very informative and useful discussion questions at the end of each chapter…
The Real Jesus Luke Timothy Johnson (Harper) $12.00 Although not at all about the Da Vinci Code as such, this critique of the famous "Jesus Seminar" discredits their sloppy thinking, shallow publicity seeking and unorthodox views of the New Testament gospel accounts. Johnson is a serious Roman Catholic scholar, a devout Christian, and a wonderfully passionate writer. Very important.
Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press) $16.95 Jenkins is a world-class scholar, and this critique (especially of the recent fascination with the Gospel of Thomas) is very sobering. This is little doubt that recent Da Vinci sorts of perspectives support certain fashionable ideologies. Important and insightful.
Is The New Testament Reliable? Paul Barnett (IVP) $16.00 A former Anglican Bishop, renowned scholar, Barnett brings his deep academic background and profound faith to explain why the New Testament documents are fully reliable accounts of historical facts. Brief, interesting, excellently done.
Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat (IVP) $22.00 A one-of-a-kind study—influenced by serious academic study of the first century church and the authority of the New Testament story as well as contemporary, postmodern philosophy—this would be ideal for anyone wanting serious, progressive and creative study of the Bible that is willing to push boundaries, dig deeply, and hear radical critique of the established church and culture in these subversive Bible texts. What a book! Skip the Gnostic gospels that Brown tries to dress up as important or revolutionary: take Colossians seriously and change the world!
The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything Brian McLaren (Word) $19.99 This new book is an open-minded study of the theme of the Kingdom of God as presented by Jesus, written in a seeker-friendly tone to invite those who may be interested in Da Vinci to explore the real thing: the life and teachings of Jesus. A very interesting and engaging study of Jesus, trying to explore what he was really all about. Fascinating!
The Lost Letters of Pergamum Bruce W. Longenecker (Baker) $14.99 This is a one of a kind collection of fictional letters, as if Luke were writing a series of extended letters to one Antipas, a resident of Pergamum. This device allows us in to the first century Greco-Roman world, and opens up not only everyday life in that culture, but the nature of Christian belief and the struggles of daily discipleship. Delightful fiction, informative, academic and fun, showing in reliable ways just how the first century Christians lived… a contested matter that pervades the edges of the Da Vinci debates.
The Messenger Tim Woodruff (NavPress) $14.00 What a clever idea—a narrative commentary, really a study of Philippians, focusing–through fictionalization—the story behind Paul’s letter to the believers in this Macedonian city. First conceived as a real commentary–albeit creative and imaginative—stores wouldn’t stock it with Biblical resources. But it had too much serious scholarship to be in the fiction section, so most Christian bookstores nixed it. (It was initially released in 2001 under the title A Distant Presence.) A fabulous way to enter in to the world of the first century church, understanding the solid history and reliable scholarship that undergirds the orthodox view of the formation of the canon and early Christologies, both of which are sub-texts to the Da Vinci Code discussions.
Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession Richard W. Fox (Harper SanFransico) $16.95 Just for fun, I wanted to list this sprawling, erudite, exciting and lucid account of how Jesus has fascinating Americans; The New Republic said of it, "An extraordinary blend of historical sophistication, theological discrimination, and spiritual understanding…rich and fluent in the complexities of religious life." From sixteenth-century Native Americans to twenty-first century filmmakers and evangelists, this is fascinating cultural history, written by a prestigious religious scholar and historian.