But Why Is it Popular?
There are two pressing questions you face right away when you consider The Da Vinci Code both as a book and as a phenomenon.
The first question to arise is obvious: Is there really any truth in the central and extraordinary claims in the book? But the second is more difficult: How are we to understand the success of the book (and probably, soon, the film)? Why are so many reading it? There are, after all, many fast-paced thrillers and books inspired by conspiracy theories on the market.
The first of these two questions is quickly answered with a resounding: No!
Dan Brown’s controversial “facts” are, according to all expertise and available evidence, not true; the book is a jumble of incorrect statements taken from other non-scholarly books.
The second question is a harder nut to crack and therefore a more interesting issue. Because it’s so easy to show that The Da Vinci Code is without any real foundation, the phenomenal success of the book clearly doesn’t depend on its cogency or truth. So where does the success come from? This is hard to say, as it involves understanding the zeitgeist of the present era without the advantage of hindsight.
A tentative answer: We have to see the success of The Da Vinci Code against a backdrop of increasing modernization and “demythologization” that have simultaneously pushed religious discourses to the realm of fiction, and increased the power of fiction through movies and the Internet. The Da Vinci Code was first a book, then a website, now a film, soon a computer game, and who knows what next.
Secondly, we have to consider the de-Christianization of the Western world, which has led to the impression that Christian ideas and institutions have little influence on society, but also that much knowledge of Christianity, its beliefs and history, is lost. Our era neither knows nor feels any loyalty toward our Christian heritage; on the contrary, we see honor in turning against it.
Thirdly, it is necessary to take the postmodern condition seriously. The borderline between fact and fiction has become fuzzy and arbitrary. There is widespread skepticism toward the power and self-sufficiency of human reason. For many, there is very little that is absolutely a fact and, respectively nothing which in an absolute sense is fiction; everything is about perspectives.
If “modernism” considered all religious narratives with supernatural claims to be examples of fiction, then postmodernism considers all narratives whatsoever to be essentially fictitious. Today, religious and magical ideas that were once confined to the sphere of fiction, the golden but unreal world of myths, can once again taken “seriously.”
Thus, religious ideas compete where beliefs and rituals are marketed and sold. Here, The Da Vinci Code represents a great sales success for a particular type of religious worldview. This is an important insight because if we want to understand the success of the book, we cannot only focus on the background, the structural conditions, but we must also look at the content.
In its content, The Da Vinci Code belongs to traditions of occultism popularized in the 19th century and New Ageism of the 20th century. The message of The Da Vinci Code: Reject traditional Christian faith, praise neo-paganism. Its credo is a mythological feminism in the form of goddess worship. Its cult is the cult of the great goddess, worshiped with sexual rituals that have a certain Satanist flair. The salvation it offers is a promise of esoteric knowledge, a gnosis that makes it possible to see the hidden connections, the spiritual meanings, of things.
Dan Brown is thus one of many New Age prophets on a global spiritual market who has clothed his message in an engaging and entertaining form in order to reach as many people as possible.
His book is, in that sense, not merely an isolated work, a unique literary blockbuster, but foremost a manifestation of something that we have seen many times before and will probably see more of in the future: a strong critique of traditional Christianity, foremost the Catholic Church and its hierarchy, combined with an esoteric occult message.
I do not mean only Da Vinci knock-offs. These have already come. I mean that we are likely to see the Da Vinci message and agenda presented and acted out in many different ways and with the help of the whole spectrum of mass media.
Clemens Cavallin teaches at
the University of
- May 14-20, 2006