NEW YORK — What do you do when beloved entertainers like Ron Howard and Tom Hanks team up to attack the things you love the most?
For some Catholics, the answer is: Take the opportunity to tell the world what your faith is really about.
When the movie version of The Da Vinci Code comes to theaters May 19, there will be no shortage of resources available to help Catholics counter the story’s misinformation. Both lay and bishop-led initiatives are aimed at providing accurate information on the life of Christ and the origins of Christianity.
The Dan Brown novel questions, among other things, Christ’s divinity; claims that the Son of God was married to Mary Magdalene and had children with her; and portrays the Church as an oppressive organization that has tried to prevent this secret from being revealed. One of the central characters in the story is a murderous monk who belongs to the personal prelature Opus Dei.
There are a deluge of books debunking the claims of The Da Vinci Code. They include books by Amy Welborn, Steven Kellmeyer, Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel, as well as a forthcoming book by Mark Shea and Ted Sri, and a booklet from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Shea and Sri’s book, The Da Vinci Deception: 100 Questions About the Facts and Fiction of The Da Vinci Code, is being published by Ascension Press as part of its effort to reach out to people who accept Brown’s novel as fact.
Ascension has made a name for itself producing resources that explain and respond to current motion pictures. Ascension was behind similar books that accompanied the films The Passion of the Christ, Kinsey and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In addition to the book, Ascension has unveiled its own website (www.davinciantidote.com) and study guides.
Many pastors and parishes are using the occasion of the film for Bible studies, youth groups and small-group discussions that tackle the major faulty premises found in the story itself.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also jumped into the discussion prompted by the film. It recently unveiled a website (JesusDecoded.com), produced a television documentary that will air on NBC stations and is publishing a 16-page booklet to dispel the myths.
“The DaVinci Code goes out of its way to say that readers are getting a lot of great facts about history, art, Christianity and the Bible,” said Sri, professor of theology at Benedictine College. “In reality, most of the points made in the book are not grounded in historical fact whatsoever. People think they’re learning a lot, when in fact they are coming out much more confused on these topics.”
Sri said that he and Mark Shea’s book differs from the others in that it is presented in a question-and-answer format, much like Ascension’s other movie-related books.
“It’s easy to read and offers practical tools to inform readers about the story,” said Sri. “You can pick it up and read it in a night.”
“The most insidious part of the story is the theology that it gets right,” said Steve Kellmeyer, author of Fact and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code. “Sex is holy. Marriage is holy and women should be treated in the image and likeness of God. The book gets everything else wrong.”
Still, Kellmeyer expects the film to be less of a problem than the book.
“The movie can’t capture the theology,” said Kellmeyer. “The movie trailer asks, ‘What if all the masterpieces of history had hidden codes within them?’ Of course they have codes; they visually represent Catholic doctrine.”
See Another Movie
Some in Hollywood have called for an entirely different response to the film.
Hollywood screenwriter Janet Batchler and Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, a nonprofit organization that trains people of faith for careers in mainstream film and TV, have encouraged Christians to attend the theater on opening weekend, but to see a different movie, such as Over the Hedge, which Batchler notes is by Christian director Karey Kirkpatrick.
Doing so, she explains, could prevent The Da Vinci Code from garnering the top spot, and would also draw down its market share.
She argues against efforts to pass out pamphlets at the theater.
“People aren’t going to the movies for a lecture, or to be told they’re wrong — they’re going for entertainment and tend to resent anyone who pulls them away from that,” wrote Batchler recently on a Catholic weblog.
“That’s why the strategy of going to another movie is so great,” wrote Batchler. “No protests, no boycotts, no standing outside theaters to let the audience know that we’re smarter than they are … but potentially a way to rock the box office in a way the studios would never expect.”
In an effort to defuse some of the criticism, Sony sought approximately 45 Christian writers, scholars and evangelical leaders to offer commentary on a website (TheDaVinciChallenge.com) created in conjunction with the Christian motion picture marketing and promotions firm Grace Hill Media. Noticeably absent among the experts are Catholics.
Some Catholic commentators have refused to participate in a Sony-funded public relations’ project that essentially promotes a viciously anti-Catholic film.
“I agree we shouldn’t participate in this website for the same reason that Jewish scholars don’t debate Holocaust deniers,” wrote Miesel in an online forum.
Meanwhile, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has asked director Ron Howard to place a disclaimer clearly stating that the film is a work of fiction.
“As the director, you have a moral obligation not to mislead the public the way the book’s author Dan Brown has,” wrote Catholic League president William Donohue in an open letter that ran in The New York Times. “Putting a disclaimer at the beginning of the film noting that this is a fictional account would resolve the issue.”
Kellmeyer wonders if all the attention being paid to debunk the film won’t backfire by encouraging more people to see the movie.
“For Dan Brown, there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” said Kellmeyer. “That is how the book has been so successful.”
“The Da Vinci Code offers a deformed image of the Catholic Church,” said Opus Dei in a Feb. 14 press statement. “The publicity surrounding the book and the film provide a good opportunity to offer a picture of the Church as it truly is.”
Opus Dei recommended that rather than boycott the film, filmgoers spread awareness of educational and charitable projects being carried out by the Church, particularly in Africa, and make charitable contributions to support such efforts.
Opus Dei also called upon Sony Pictures to release a film that doesn’t contain references that could hurt Catholics.
“Sony Pictures can demonstrate that freedom of expression is compatible with respect for religious beliefs, and it can show that respect is a free choice resulting from sensitivity, not a consequence of censure or threats,” said the Opus Dei press statement.
“Sony sent us a letter with polite but vague assurances,” said Brian Finnerty, U.S. media relations director for Opus Dei. “We never received any specific information on the movie. It’s only through the media that we learned that they were going to go ahead with their completely distorted portrayal of Opus Dei in the movie.
“The worst part about the movie is not the portrayal of Opus Dei, but the portrayal of Christianity as a fraud,” said Finnerty. “Sony has said they want to be faithful to the book. I would hope that they would be fair to history and to the Catholic Church. Sony’s position is that it’s just a work of fiction, but even a work of fiction can be hurtful and confusing. We’ve certainly seen that in the e-mails we’ve received, that some people are confused about where the boundaries between fiction and reality lie.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.