World's churches seek best ways to counter the 'Code'

In one respect they all agree: ignoring it is not an option.

Beyond that almost self-evident truth, however, church leaders worldwide are divided over just how they should respond to "The Da Vinci Code," as the blockbuster film opens around the planet this week.

Some are demanding that censors ban the film, or cut scenes that they say undermine Christian beliefs.

Others are angrily advocating boycotts to protest what they see as an attack on the Roman Catholic church.

And then again, priests from both the Protestant and Catholic traditions are seizing the occasion as a "teachable moment," using everything from scratch-cards in Britain to an animated version of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" in Australia to make their points.

"We see it as an opportunity to put God and Jesus on the agenda," explains Margaret Rodgers, a spokeswoman for the Anglican church in Australia, which has launched a cinema advertising campaign around the film. "Over the tea trolley at work, it's going to be a hot topic of conversation for a while."

"It's a match we could win or lose," says Philippe Joret, a French evangelical preacher who has been challenging The Da Vinci Code's theories at public meetings since September. "But it's a match worth playing."

The ideas explored in the fictional thriller, which has sold more than 40 million copies in more than 40 languages, are expected to find an even wider audience with the film starring Hollywood actor Tom Hanks and French actress Audrey Tautou.

The book has upset many Christians by suggesting that Jesus fathered a child by Mary Magdalene, the first in a line of Christly descendants still extant today, and that the Catholic church has covered this up for 2,000 years. Mixing fact and fiction in a way that religious leaders say might confuse readers, the book also suggests that Christ's divinity was an idea that the Emperor Constantine imposed on the Council of Nicea in 325 AD for political reasons.

Branding the novel "obstinately anti-Christian," top Vatican official Archbishop Angelo Amato - a close confidante of Pope Benedict XVI - called three weeks ago for a boycott of the film.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Nigerian who heads the Vatican's office on liturgy, went even further in a church-backed documentary released Tuesday titled "A Masterful Deception." Christians should not just "forgive and forget" insults to the founder of their religion, he said, but should react, possibly by taking legal action against the film.

Vatican officials have been "unusually outspoken and aggressive" in their attacks on "The Da Vinci Code," says John Allen, Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

They have not gone as far as church leaders in Jordan, however, where Archbishop Hanna Nour has called on the government to ban the film, or in Thailand, where a group of Protestant leaders has asked government censors to cut the last 15 minutes of the movie, which concludes that Jesus has heirs alive today.

In India, one Catholic activist has gone on what he says is a "hunger strike until death" unless the film is banned.

Indian Christians opposed to the film have won support from an umbrella or- ganization of Islamic clerics in Bombay who labeled the film "blasphemous" because it spreads "lies" about Jesus Christ. "Muslims in India will help their Christian brothers protest this attack on our common religious belief," Maulana Mansoor Ali Khan, general secretary of the All-India Sunni Jamiyat-ul-Ulema, told Reuters news agency.

A different approach

In the Philippines, however, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila has taken a different approach, even though he calls the film "blasphemous."

"Like in anything negative, let us take this occasion to convert the cinema industry's money-motive production into a pastoral challenge, an evangelization and catechistical moment of grace," Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales said in a statement to priests last week.

That is a tack that Catholic priests elsewhere have taken. Just up the coast from Cannes, the French resort where "The Da Vinci Code" premiered at the film festival there Wednesday, a priest in Nice was planning to lead a public debate after a screening of the film in a local cinema.

"The film asks ridiculous questions, mixing the historical with the nonhistorical," says the Rev. Vincent-Paul Toccoli. "But the church has left itself open to this sort of thing: People are disoriented, but the church doesn't help them much. She just repeats the same old things. She needs a kick in the behind like this."

An opening for dialogue

Mr. Joret, the evangelical pastor, also sees the film's release as a useful opportunity for Christians to examine the roots of their faith. Even more important, he says, "it offers a real chance for believers to have a dialog with nonbelievers, and to explain what the Scriptures say. We will have an opportunity to address people who wouldn't normally read books about Jesus or about the church."

The important thing, he says, is that "we should not panic" about the damage the film might do to Christianity's image. "If you start off with a bad attitude based on fear, being aggressive or defensive, you'll get it all wrong," he argues.

On the other side of the world in Australia, the Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth, has adopted a similar approach.

"We decided to be tongue-in-cheek rather than hysterical or anxious," says the bishop, who heads a media group that has set up, a website answering the questions that the film raises about early Christian history.

The church is advertising the site with a 15-second video clip airing in cinemas that plays on Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper," a painting crucial to The Da Vinci Code's plot. In the animated - and updated - painting, Jesus is reading the novel at the center of the storm, and rolls his eyes incredulously.

In Britain, Protestant churches are using equally innovative tools to get their message out. One group has distributed 270,000 scratch-cards to cinemas where the film will be shown, asking moviegoers to say whether 10 claims made in the film are true or false.

Beside the statement "the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is a matter of historical record," for example, are two boxes: scratch the one marked "Fact" and you will discover an "X." Scratch "Fiction" and you uncover a check mark.

The cards are the work of the Rev. Mark Stibbe, author of a booklet called "Cracking the Da Vinci Code," who will be visiting Paris this weekend to examine the film's claims in more detail at events organized by a local Anglican church, St. Michael's.

"Being in Paris, where so much of the film is set, we felt it was quite crucial to do something" says Dan Ritchie, a pastoral assistant at the church. "We see it as a good evangelistic tool."

Taking a tack diametrically opposed to the boycott advocated by Archbishop Amato, St. Michael's is organizing a night out at the movies for its congregation on Friday, encouraging worshippers to go to see the controversial film.

"It's a good social event, an opportunity to bring family and friends along and show people what church is," says Mr. Ritchie. "All churches have to fight misconceptions that they are cults hidden behind church doors: This is a good chance to show who we are."

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