Christians ready to refute 'Da Vinci Code' movie

Rather than organize protests or boycotts, Evangelicals and Catholics are mobilizing 'truth squads.'

In a world accepting of docudramas and reality TV shows that aren't real, how does one counter a blockbuster movie whose theme challenges the orthodox religious history of the Western world?

That's the task facing Christians already distressed by Dan Brown's wildly popular novel, "The Da Vinci Code," and his claim that the thriller is based on historical facts.

With sales of more than 40 million, the book has become a cultural phenomenon. Unless the copyright-infringement trial in London (which now awaits the judge's decision) brings an injunction against use of the material, the May release of the film starring Tom Hanks will surely magnify its global impact.

Rather than organize protests or boycotts - steps taken in the past against controversial films - Evangelicals and Catholics instead are mobilizing "truth squads." They're producing books, websites, TV documentaries, DVDs, and study guides. Some hope to use the film as a "teachable moment" that could turn the occasion to their advantage.

"Our task is to be the missionary to the unbelievers," says the Rev. James Garlow, pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, Calif. He's developed a four-phase strategy for churches leading up to the film's release.

Yet others suggest there's more involved than a question of historical accuracy. They say part of the book's appeal is that it raises deeper issues about the nature of Christianity that many people, including devout Christians, want to talk about.

Eric Plumer, a theology professor at the University of Scranton, a Catholic institution in Pennsylvania, has been surprised by the intense interest he's encountered when giving talks about "The Da Vinci Code" in public libraries, colleges, and senior-citizen centers.

"The turnouts have been mainly standing room only," he says. "Some want to know how to refute the book; some want their belief in it strengthened.... Even if people can't wholly accept what Dan Brown has to say, they feel he has touched on something they want to discuss."

Dr. Plumer is now writing a book on why the novel has struck such a chord despite dozens and dozens of books published to debunk its claims.

Those claims include that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their bloodline still survives; that the idea of Jesus' divinity did not exist until Emperor Constantine formed the Council of Nicea to establish it; and that the Roman Catholic Church has conspired to hide this throughout history, even to the point of murder.

The novel is first and foremost a fantastical murder mystery, an intriguing page turner that grabs even those wholly opposed to its thesis. It catches people's imaginations, many say, because it involves a conspiracy.

"Americans love a conspiracy theory," says Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly. "It also tapped into people's disillusionment with the Catholic Church following the sexual abuse scandals."

Some say Mr. Brown's controversial approach to history plays on people's limited knowledge.

"One reason it works so well on readers is that he tends to begin with a kernel of something historical and then quickly spins off into fiction - or you could say falsehood, since he represents it as something researched," says Timothy Beal, professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Professor Beal used Brown's novel last fall in a course on the New Testament and early Christianity, illustrating pop culture interest in the topic. "Half of the students had already read the book and many believed it," he says.

Yet people agree, too, that the novel appeals because it offers a different way of seeing Christian tradition, particularly issues of patriarchy and women in the early church. This appeal has helped spur new subcategories in the publishing business, Ms. Garrett says, with each season bringing new books on Mary Magdalene and on what's now called "alternative Christianity."

For Catholics, the primary concern is countering the historical charges as well as the representation of the church and the lay Catholic group, Opus Dei. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is mounting a campaign tied to the film, with an extensive website launched this month and a TV documentary. "Jesus Decoded," presenting Catholic teaching on Christ, will be offered to NBC-TV affiliates for broadcast the week the movie opens. In addition, Opus Dei, which is controversial even among Catholics for its secrecy, has begun a PR campaign.

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has pressed Sony Pictures and director Ron Howard to put a disclaimer at the start of the film saying it is fiction. "We have a deceitful writer who has said it's based on historical facts, and a co-producer who has called the movie 'conservatively anti-Catholic,' " says Mr. Donohue.

The filmmakers have not responded to his request. Instead, they've encouraged Christians to discuss the issues on a Sony-sponsored website: A number of prominent Evangelicals are providing essays, while others suggest they're being co-opted.

The concern is global: The Russian Orthodox Church has complained about the film, and Evangelicals in South Korea are even trying to keep it out of theaters. One Christian leader, according to Yonghap News Agency, has compared it to the Danish cartoons denigrating Islam.

Evangelicals in the US plan to launch their own website in late April. Backed by an anonymous philanthropist and hosted by Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) in Philadelphia, the project also involves people close to Billy Graham.

"While we recognize the right to present a good yarn, we're concerned the mix of fact and fiction is sure to lead many to question the Bible's integrity, its message, and Christianity's impact on history," says William Edgar, a professor of apologetics at WTS. "We want to help the curious viewer ... set the record straight, or at least put some doubt into the doubting."

Some church leaders aim to equip their congregations to handle the claims. Wheatland Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, Pa., plans a seven-week Sunday School class beginning in April to cover key issues raised by the novel. "We also hope to have an evening event for the community ... and encourage our members to invite neighbors to home-group discussions," says the Rev. Bruce Mawhinney, senior pastor.

Others, particularly leaders who have written debunking books, are more ambitious - packaging books, DVDs, and outreach materials. Dr. Garlow, author of "The Da Vinci Codebreaker," hopes his strategy for churches will lead people to throw Da Vinci parties, or gatherings at work to discuss the film with "unbelievers."

Yet some say Evangelicals are less likely than others to have even read the novel. Moviegoers who have read it may have other interests in mind.

"In our sort of postsecular society, there is a question out there among many: 'Is this all there is?' " Case Western's Beal says. "Given the socioeconomic realities and the established institutions, there's a desire to discover something more that's been there, but that we didn't know. A longing for something spiritual that is not possessed or controlled by established institutional religion."

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