Aside from various snide remarks and my review of the film, I'm hoping this will be one of the Last DVC Posts.
Even those of us who suspected that there was no way this movie could work are breathing a small sigh of relief today. No, the critical reviews do not predict a box-office bomb, and the film definitely has a sizeable built in fan base. But if, as is apparently the case, the "historical" material comes off as risible, well that's a Good Thing.
(Pandemonium-in-vestments. Ha. Can't get that out of my mind, particularly since the first time I read it, my eyes skipped the "in" and I was picturing some kind of psychedelic, Matthew Fox experience. Next time!)
However, the film's poor quality changes nothing about the impact that the book has had. And sneer if you like, it has had an impact, especially in terms of confirming the rather widespread conviction that the events of the 1st century are essentially unknowable, and the Jesus story that "won" did so because of politics. History is written by the winners, and so on.
But what have we learned?
I hope we've learned that
1) Given the right push and inspiration, people will discover an interest in the historical core of Christianity.
2) There is widespread, abysmal ignorance about that historical core among the general public as well as among Christians.
Why the ignorance? Because no one teaches it. Heck, no one mentions it. Anywhere. (Except among the Orthodox. One Orthodox writer told me, "We have a day where we commemorate Arius' death." Obviously some Christians are still living out their faith in a context which inovles the entirety faith, present and past. Can't fool them about Nicaea.)
It is not just that the specifics of, say, the development and establishment of the Canon of Scripture, or the historicity of the Gospels or the beliefs of early Christians, are not taught. It's also the way in which Jesus and the Gospel record has been discussed and taught (let me get specific here) to Catholics for decades now.
I cannot count the number of homilies I have heard in which the emphasis is on how this evangelist or that constructed a certain gospel account. "Here, Matthew has Jesus..." or "In this passage, Luke has Jesus say..."
It is a technique that immediately puts a distance between the Gospel accounts and the events they describe.
Of course, there is distance. Of course, the Gospels are, well, Gospels, and not biographies or histories. Of course they are mediated through the eyes of faith.
But they are also about what happened, and there is no doubt that the evangelists were trying to communicate what happened.
One point that struck me a couple of weeks ago as I was mulling over these matters was that in Jewish Monotheism and Hebrew Scriptures 101, there was always this emphasis on the difference between the Jewish way of thinking about God and, say the philosophers' way. The Jews were not about God as a collectionof attributes. One knew who God was by reflecting on what God had done through and for Israel. Which indicates, then, that although these events might be seen through the eyes of faith, they were keenly intent on understanding these events. There was an historical core to religious experience in Judaism, an understanding that translated right into the Christian experience of Jesus.
One of the most popular high school Christology textbooks of the past twenty years or so was Thomas Zanzig's Jesus of History; Christ of Faith. Here, as in all high school religion textbooks, the initial and constant emphasis was on that distance - not "this is how we learn about Jesus and this is why it's pretty dependable." but rather "this is how we learn about the churches that produced these writings and what they believed about Jesus " and "the experience of the risen Christ is outside of history, and cannot be verified by it."
Now. None of this is completely untrue. The gospels are not, indeed, biographies. If they were, we'd call them that. They are testimonies of faith - but - going back to the context and the precendent set by hundreds of years of Jewish theological reflection, it was faith rooted in what had happened and all evidence, even within the Gospels themselves, point to a commitment on the evangelists' part of getting it right, to the best of their abilities.
The church did produce the Gospels, and the Gospels do tell us about those churches (but also know that the standard matchup of which gospel was produced by and for which community and its particular mix (or not) of Jew and Gentile is currently being rethought by a few NT scholars, as are many of the other assumptions we all learned in Historical-Critical Intro to NT.
But do you know what? There's not an enormous distance between the events of Jesus' ministry and the time they were finally set down. There is not any significant disagreement among these testimonies (Jesus is not preaching the Kingdom of God in one gospel and in another preaching something else.) . There are ambiguities and gaps, there are questions about what it all means (as with, for example, that whole "kingdom of God" thing), but the Gospel record is not, as some, even in churches, would have you believe, useless for knowing about and knowing Jesus and the early Christian movement.
But...for decades now, countless homilies have been preached that focus more on "the church that produced the Gospels" and "What Matthew is doing here" instead of on Jesus. And then, to add to it, any reflection that goes on about this Jesus, in the great tradition of American Protestantism, skips 2000 years and asks, "Okay, what does that mean to you, now?"
No examination or reflection on Christianity as a faith with roots in history, no further consideration of how these Gospels came to be, how the New Testament evolved, what early Christians testified to about Jesus - no rationale is offered for how we got from there - a few well-known parables and sayings of Jesus - to here - what it means to us today.
So eventually, thinking people start to wonder. Not unreasonably. How do I know this is the real deal? How do I know that this is what Jesus said anyway?
What this has produced, besides an ignorance of Christian history is a cool distance between too many Christians and Jesus as he becomes a figure that is essentially unknowable because the people that told his story weren't really concerned with what happened, but simply what it meant to them.
So, in the end, what makes them different from us, as we share what it means to us?
This DVC is a wake-up call, certainly. It's a challenge for all of us involved in catechesis to dig deeper, not for the sake of some abstract cause of "keeping the faith" or "shoring up Catholic identity," but rather for the sake of those who have been convinced that the real Jesus is unknowable. Because he's not. And they - like the rest of us - need Him.
2) Second point.
Those of us involved in this Da Vinci code teachable moment have struggled to walk that fine line. We want to use the moment to teach, but be very careful not to take the inspiration for the moment too seriously, to give it more credit than it deserves. I'm careful to separate fact from fiction, to use the moment to invite people to look to the Gospels, Paul and other early Christian writings if they want to learn about these matters, and not depend on a popular novel. I am constantly discouraging people, as politely as I can, from reading the novel, and trying to point them in other directions. I am glad to be able to stand up in front of groups and give a little intro to some basic church history and point them in directions to get more, but I am also wanting this DVC moment to end, because it is silly. I want us to learn from it, learn how deep people's hunger for truth is, and move on to try to feed them.
Others, though, have felt differently, especially as the film's release approached. In particular, Grace Hill Media, was hired by Sony to market the film to Christians, and did so, among other ways, by starting a website devoted to "dialogue" about the film. Various experts contributed essays, which were, one of the participants assures me, not edited.
In addition, Campus Crusade for Christ and Josh McDowell took a very aggressive stance, saying outright over and over again that they wanted Christians to go see the film, take friends, and then use it as an opportunity for evangelization.
It's rather embarrassing isn't it?
We Christians are constantly trying to sort out and redefine our relationship to the culture. Shape? Engage? Confront? Use? All of the above?
In particular, the American evangelical world has undergone this tremendous transformation over the past century, moving from an essentially confrontational stance (except for, of course, quite skillfully using the same media the culture uses to spread the Word, from very early on) to one in which evangelization has come to be defined by many as "reaching people where they are" using the culture - communicating in the predominant cultural language (think Christian music), shaping the church experience so that it is essentially interchangeable with any number of other experiences that involve picking, choosing, and having our needs met.
This recent episode of King of the Hill took that on, with Hank responding to his wife's plea that they try the local megachurch with, "if I wanted that, I could walk around the mall and think about Jesus!"
And to get a taste of what that looks like, go to any Christian bookstore, or the biggest Christian bookstore of them all at the Christian Bookseller's Association, where, the year I went, there was a fitness program whose cover was an exact replica of "Body for Life" and the booths were full of Christian chick-lit, complete with pink covers and spiky heeled stick women.
(And please...we've discussed this frequently on this blog, attempting to parse the line between meeting people where they are and just aping the culture, as well as wondering how this reflects back on Catholicism, what Catholicism brings to this, what it can learn - both positive and negative.)
I'm thinking that this DVC business, and the response of some Christian groups, presents an end-game of sorts in this regard. It began, in all honestly, with the Passsion of the Christ hysteria in which many ,Catholics included, greeted the release of this film as if it, single-handedly, would produce mass conversions. Didn't happen. Oh, it had an impact, but long-term? Doubtful. Is anyone even today using TPOTC as an evangelism tool? I've not heard of it, myself.
And now, look how silly this looks. Those who decided - or who were co-opted into deciding - that, of all things, the Da Vinci Code would present an opportunity to introduce people to Christ...what are you thinking now? A slick, laughable, silly movie - is that the best we can do?
Yes, yes. It's there - it does inspire people to think about Jesus. Sort of. And we have to use those moments as they come up, every time. But here, in some cases, that line was crossed - instead of using the cultural moment to evangelize, some allowed the cultural moment to use them, to define their approach.
Some fruit will be borne of it, no doubt - and as I said, and keeping saying, it's a fine line. But I'm pretty confident that when you've spent months telling people to see a really bad movie because they need to see it to talk about Jesus - you've crossed it.