I confess to having a love/hate relationship with Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. On one hand, I love bashi—er, critiquing it. On the other hand, I hate saying the same things over and over about one of the best-selling, boring, and banal books of all time. As many readers know, I co-authored (with Sandra Miesel) The Da Vinci Hoax back in 2004. At the time, some folks—including not a few Catholics—thought that taking a novel (a novel!) seriously as a pulpy swipe at Christian belief and Church history was simply stupid.
Sandra and I disagreed with that perspective for three basic reasons. First, Brown pointedly and aggressively promoted his book as a historically accurate work that was (he claimed) based on endless hours of research, study, and travel. Secondly, an astounding number of critics and writers took Brown and the novel seriously as a work of alternative history, even lauding it in glowing terms usually reserved for actual works of scholarship. Third, most fans of the novel were enamored, first and foremost, with the historical claims and conspiracy theories posited in the novel, and they were tossing them about as if they had discovered the Holy Grail of Suppressed Historical Knowledge.
This phenomenon was addressed, of course, in our book, and I later write an essay “The ‘It’s Just Fiction!’ Doctrine: Reading Too Little Into The Da Vinci Code“ in which I stated:
If the Code, as “just fiction,” is merely entertaining, we should ask: How and why do people find it entertaining? In what way, for example, is it entertaining to think that Jesus was married and that the Catholic Church is a violent, nasty, woman-hating institution? If it’s because you enjoy the possibility of that being the case, we are back to the question of historical and theological truth. If it’s because you enjoy asking “What if?”, we are again back to the question of historical and theological truth.
It is, then, a matter of truth. Is truth revealed or defiled in the Code? Since these questions are so important and since twenty-five million copies of the Code have been sold, is it not reasonable to examine the historical and theological claims, questions, and issues contained within the Code? Is it really so ridiculous, or unfair, or unprecedented to critique the style and substance of a novel that makes bold claims–and has so obviously influence many readers?
All of this to preface the news that Brown will soon be releasing a new edition of The Da Vinci Code that is aimed at young adults. Publisher’s Weekly reports:
The Da Vinci Code (Young Adult Adaptation) will feature a new cover design and be abridged in length from the original. It will nonetheless, the publisher said, “maintain Brown’s original plot.”
A YA edition of the novel is a project that Brown has wanted to do for sometime. Brown, whose parents were teachers and who believes he himself would have been an educator had he not become an author, said his goal with the YA edition is to inspire younger readers about the joys of history. “It is my sincere hope that this adaptation of The Da Vinci Code sparks in young adults the same thrill of discovery that I feel while exploring hidden history and the mysteries of the world we live in.” The changes planned for the new edition will be aimed at making The Da Vinci Code more appropriate for readers in their early teens.
Ah, yes, the “joys of history.” Never mind that Brown’s most famous novel—which has apparently sold over 80 millions copies so far—is about as historically sound and meaningful as a Disney movie about Peter Pan. No, it is actually based on a scrambled and incoherent mashing together of conspiracy theories yanked from Holy Blood, Holy Grail (to the degree that Brown was sued by the authors of that book), the additional wing-nut theories posited by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, authors of The Templar Revelation (who acknowledge their own debt to Holy Blood, Holy Grail), and the whacky New Age, feminist notions spun into the cosmos by a former Catholic catechist named Margaret Starbird. And, as I noted in a 2006 essay, Starbird herself was a disciple of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail nuttiness:
Starbird admits that she turned her back on orthodox Catholic teachings after reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail in the 1980s: “The more deeply involved I became with the material, the more obvious it became that there was real substance in the theories set for in reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail. And gradually I found myself won over to the central tenets of the Grail heresy, the very theory I had originally set out to discredit”…
No, this is simply about money and promoting (as PW notes) “the October 28 release of the movie adaptation of the fourth book in Brown’s series featuring Robert Langdon, Inferno.”
That said, the reaction to this news has been interesting. A number of British newspapers have been snorting in disgust at how insulting it is that Brown and his publishers would think young adults/teens wouldn’t be able to navigate the (ahem) sophisticated literary passages and complex historical details put forth in The Da Vinci Code. For example, The Guardian has a piece “Do teens really need a special YA version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code?”, apparently written by a former young adult:
But what is there in The Da Vinci Code which is inaccessible to teenager readers? Is Brown going to get rid of the sex scenes (no shortage of those in YA fiction)? The violence (I can’t remember any)? Religion? Are any other contemporary writers planning to “translate” themselves to younger readers? … I was also 12 when I read the Da Vinci Code. The book gripped me entirely. To be honest, it probably wouldn’t have hooked me in as much were I reading it later.
And here is what really caught my attention:
Brown’s novel did two crucial things for me at the age when I started thinking hard about who I was and what was important to me.
Firstly, it helped me take religion as a story rather than the story. Influenced by my religious grandmother and school, I collected icons as a child and was all into bells and smells. At 12, I developed ideas about gender. Feminism and religion, in my teen mind, contradicted each other. And Brown came just at the right time, with his theory of an anti-feminist conspiracy of the Church in having erased Magdalene’s role in Jesus’s and Christianity’s lives. The protests that ensued in the Catholic and the Christian Orthodox Churches only confirmed my new discovery that, alongside important values, religion held a lot of… myths.
Goodness. So, to be clear: a work of fiction based on works of conspiracy-theory laden pseudo-history convinced the writer that religion has something to do with myths. Of course, no Christian with any sort of learning will ever deny the place and role of myth in religion; on the contrary, many Christian authors (C.S. Lewis and Chesterton come to mind immediately) have developed a very deep and sophisticated understanding of the various sorts and meanings of myth. But, to reiterate what I stated above: the novel has never been about characters (thin and boring) or the plot (even thinner and twice as boring). It is about the historical claims.
When I was eleven, I read David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Paradise Lost, and The Count of Monte Christo. Unabridged. I also read the Hardy Boys, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising books, and Louis L’Amour novels. I read and studied the Bible. And a couple years later, I began reading Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot. Interestingly enough, none of those books were part of school assignments. (Yes, I attended a public school.) They were simply books I found in the library and decided to read. And what if I, as a 12-year-old, had read The Da Vinci Code? I think I would have said, “This sure is stupid. And Louis L’Amour is a far better writer. And the Bible is a far, far better Book.”