The Da Vinci Code Raises Secular Questions
by James Hitchcock
May 24, 2006
The Da Vinci Code, book and film, raises obvious kinds of religious questions. But it also raises issues that are secular in nature.
Defenders of the work use bait-and-switch tactics -- putting it forward as an “interesting” hypothesis concerning Christianity, then when challenged falling back on saying, “But it’s fiction.” The last line of defense is then to insist, “It‘s supposed to make you think.”
But think about what? The author, Dan Brown, has deliberately confused things by claiming that it is a work of fiction with many factual elements in it. But he is not very specific about what those are, and the most controversial elements in the book are almost completely fictional.
This actually undermines critical thinking, for the obvious reason that neither the book nor the film gives any help in distinguishing the true from the false and in fact deliberately keeps people in the dark. To think properly about The Da Vinci Code it would be necessary to spend hours in a good library, painstakingly sorting through arcane volumes, which is not exactly what people mean when they say, “It made me think.” (Fortunately that tedious work has been already been done by a number of competent scholars.)
But without that kind of research “thinking” can only mean pointless speculation, as though in a history class students were told to think about the Civil War based only on having seen Gone with the Wind. What then passes for thinking is wishful thinking, the enjoyment of one’s personal reveries about what might have been or the thrill of entertaining unfamiliar ideas that are in fact not true. (Films like They Came from Outer Space do not help people to think productively about the possibility of life in other solar systems.)
The other secular issue with The Da Vinci Code involves the protests against the book and the film. As usual where religion is concerned, these protests have been treated as the panicky reactions of insecure people who feel their faith threatened, and there have been the usual cries of “censorship,” the implication that the protestors don’t believe in the American tradition of free expression.
The reality is quite the contrary. Where Hollywood is concerned, there is no such tradition of freedom -- the film and television industries have always practiced censorship. At one time that censorship was mainly in the hands of Catholics, and today various favored groups are allowed to review scripts before they are produced. The difference is that now religious groups are no longer part of that inner circle and can be offended with impunity.
But not quite with impunity. The American tradition of free expression includes the freedom to protest, something that in fact the country was founded on. Those groups who remain silent are ignored, and only those who make noise have any chance of influencing their fellow citizens. That is simply the American way, and those who remain silent are opting out of their responsibilities as citizens.
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.
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