Debunking Da Vinci, Over a Pint

ROME — The atmosphere of the “Scholar’s Lounge” is like many other Irish pubs in Rome: a large group of people making themselves heard over loud music while quaffing ice-cold pints of Guinness.

An unlikely place, you might think, in which to discuss spiritual matters. But when it comes to debunking the mega-bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, the venue could be ideal. Surveys show that in some countries, up to 70% of people have read the fictional thriller by Dan Brown and, of those, a third believe the story is fact.

So when Amy Welborn, author of the book Debunking Da Vinci, spoke on the subject March 2 to a packed bar of 80 or so attentive listeners, around 20 of them may well have believed Brown’s book to be true beforehand, and have had that deception corrected.

That, at least, was the hope. Certainly, Welborn did her best to set the record straight during her “Theology on Tap” lecture. For the mother of five, the problem with the novel, whose lurid storyline is based on the claim that the Church has covered up the “true” story of Jesus (that he married Mary Magdalene and had a line of descendents called the Holy Grail), is not just that it’s untrue, but that the “Dan Brown School of Religion” distracts us from the Truth.

“I go to parishes, I get mail, go on talk radio, and I hear from people who are so convinced that the person they are reading about in The Da Vinci Code is the real Jesus,” she said. “Why? Because Dan Brown says so.”

Part of the problem, she said, is that for decades modern culture has recommended the Gospels be read skeptically, and that the Gnostic writings discarded long ago as false by the Church be considered as legitimate Gospels. “Everything is taken as false, and the “real” Jesus is one who is somehow miraculously found in this amalgamation of certain readings of the Gnostic writings and all the pseudo-history of the 1980s,” Welborn said.

Ironically, at the time of her talk, the authors of one of those “pseudo-history” books, Holy Blood and Holy Grail, were suing Dan Brown and his publisher for plagiarism.

The Real Jesus

One reaction to Brown’s book that Welborn often hears is that the Jesus of The Da Vinci Code is “more human” than the one portrayed in the New Testament. But this, she warned her Rome listeners, is the greatest tragedy of the book.

“We’re in a world that doesn’t need the fake Jesus of Dan Brown; we’re in a world that needs the real Jesus,” Welborn said. “[He was] a human being, born of a woman, who was hungry, angry, and had friends and relatives who didn’t understand him, neighbors who rejected him, who was afraid, arrested and executed. Don’t tell me that’s not a human being, that he is someone I cannot relate to.”

But, she added, if the Jesus of Dan Brown is taken as true by gullible Da Vinci Code readers, “then it’s our opportunity to introduce the real Jesus, who is not just on paper and in the imagination, but who is real and who saves.”

Another problem, Welborn said, is not just that the book is offensive when it portrays Jesus’ fictitious marriage to Mary Magdalene, but that it contradicts an important theological truth: that Jesus is married, but married to the Church.

Said Welborn, “There’s a huge problem with Jesus and Mary Magdalene being married because it distracts us from the fact that we are all Holy Grails, that we all have the blood line of Jesus flowing through us because we are all baptized, and we all consummate that relationship in the Eucharist.”

Particularly vulnerable to the book’s assertions are the uneducated who, Welborn said, become understandably disturbed and upset by what they read in Brown’s religious potboiler. She gave as an example some readers who are amazed to “learn” there are 80 gospels, four of which were withheld by Emperor Constantine to “consolidate his power,” and that the Church burned 10 million witches (“I’m not sure there were even 10 million people in the Middle Ages,” an art historian jokingly remarked as Welborn made this point).

Welborn said she had seen a script from the forthcoming movie based on the book. Opus Dei, she said, is “incredibly maligned,” and the storyline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is “intensified.”

A good majority of the audience were Catholics who had no intention of seeing the film, nor had they even read the book. “I wouldn’t want to waste my time,” said event organizer Paul Encinias.

Teaching Moment

Welborn said she would rather be writing her own novels “than talking about this silly, silly book,” and that people’s “unending ignorance” has made her an “unwilling and depressed speaker” on the subject.

But gauging from the audience’s response at the Scholar’s Lounge, the evening was anything but depressing. And at other larger venues, Welborn has attracted up to 800 people for her Da Vinci debunking talks.

If those numbers indicate that the book has prompted a large number of people to search for the real truth about Christ, then the Da Vinci Code controversy really represents, in Welborn’s estimation, “an incredible teachable moment.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.