Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Matter of Faith

Several months ago, I summoned up all my psychic powers and predictred that at this point in time, America would be under seige.
The threat was not from crazed terrorists, soaring gas prices or waves of illegal immigration but something almost as insideous: the Hollywood publicity mill.
And right on schedule, the promotional orgy surrounding "The Da Vinci Code" is in full swing.
As predictions go, this hardly ranks with Nostrodamus or Karnak the Great. The release of the movie based on Dan Brown's book, a mix of skewed catholic theology, crime thriller and conspiracy theory, was sure to generate the kind of hype for which Movie Town, U.S.A. is deservedly infamous.
What I didn't predict was the level of pouting by the religous community whose members appear to be the only people taking "The Da Vinci Code" very seriously.
If you are on of the two of three people in the country unfamiliar with "The Da Vinci Code," its central theme is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that she bore him a child, and that the Catholic Church has spent two thousand years covering it up while engaging in a distaste for all things feminine.
This conspiracy is wrapped inside a murder mystery wrapped inside a quest for the Holy Grail. A theological treasure hunt, if you will.
It is, as they say in the business, a page turner. And more than 43 million readers turned those pages since the book was published.
But several things the book is not:
It is not great literature. Anthony Lane, writing in the New Yorker, said: "if a person of sound mind begins reading the book at ten o'clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer, in my case, was 10:00.03..."
Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie called it "a book so bad it makes bad books look good."
It is not true: Despite Brown's attempt to add a veneer of truth to his book by identifying actual institutions and locales, few bought into it. According to one study, only five percent of the people who read the book said they changed any of their religious beliefs because of it's content. Indeed, one could safely assume that people who believed "The Da Vinci Code" also believed "Star Wars" and the "Dukes of Hazzard."
So why all this hand wringing?
"The Da Vinci Code' gratuitously insults Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church," said Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Birmingham, England. "It deliberately presents fiction as fact." In the Philippines, which has Asia's largest Christian population, the city council of Manila, the capital, passed a resolution banning the film in local theaters.
Greek authorities banned the film for viewers under 17, saying it touched on "religious and historical questions of major importance that a minor is not able to evaluate." Monsignor Angelo Amato, the second in command in the Vatican's influential doctrinal department, said the fictional work contains slander, offenses and errors, and if "they were directed toward the Koran or the Holocaust [they] would have justifiably provoked a worldwide revolt. Yet because they were directed toward the Catholic Church, they remain unpunished."
Does he want a revolt? If so, he shows a level of intolerence unseen since Muslim clerics whipped their followers into a deadly frenzy over the publication of cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspapers last year.
The fact is this movie is entertainment, not theology. It is no more a threat to anyone's faith than Indiana Jones or almost anything Oliver Stone has produced. The Catholic church has withstood hits from Martin Luther to Henry VIII. I think they can keep director Ron Howard at arm's length.
Is it controversial? Certainly, but so was "The Passion of the Christ" which was largel considered anti-Semitic by many and condemned by some prostetants for departing from New Testament story lines.
In the meantime, despite negative reviews, people are flocking to "Da Vinci." The church's posturing has probably helped boost ticket sales.
Does the Vatican truly believe that a Tom Hanks flick will be the undoing of their religion? If so, their beliefs rest on frail foundations.

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