The Dan Brown phenomenon 

 

The Da Vinci Code: Upset & mayhem

For a novel, The Da Vinci Code has been able to create enormous controversy. Not only has it become a publishing success in a genre that few felt would sell much, to a sign of our times.

Philip Coppens


In February 2004, I had to go to Paris and having some spare time, I decided I would revisit St Sulpice, a site I had not seen since 1998. At the time (February 2004), I had not read The Da Vinci Code. Inside the church, I noticed that for once, the “Rose line” and gnomon was not barricaded by chairs that had been so often placed in front of it; but my main interest was actually to verify how the meridian line (the “Rose line”) and the main altar interacted. To accomplish this, I hung around the gnomon for a few minutes, looking in the direction of the altar – which is roughly the same direction where an elder woman and man operate the “shop”. After some minutes, the elder man walked out, looking at me; he broke me from my thought pattern, and I began walking to other places of the church. When buying the new guide from their “shop” some twenty minutes later, the man told me they had to monitor the location of the gnomon as they had some recent trouble because of a book. It took me some more months to realise that “some book” was The Da Vinci Code and it was some months after that before the media started to report how St Sulpice had been putting up notices, denying nuns had been murdered upstairs, and that nothing was hidden underneath the gnomon.
Dan Brown decided to use Rosslyn as the apotheosis of quest – even though he apparently only visited it after he had written the book. In 2002, I was one of the first to publish a book solely about Rosslyn Chapel. In 2004, American publishers were asking for reprints and in late 2004, some television crews wanted interviews, and some foreign translations were requested too. It coincided with a dramatic rise in visitors to the chapel: from a modest 35,000 in 2002, to 120,000 visitors per year in 2005. The still quite new car park suddenly wasn’t by any means large enough… and the newspaper The Scotsman seemed to permanently dedicate half a page to any news regarding the chapel in every edition. In a survey of the most popular aspects of Scotland in early 2006, the chapel finished “on par” with golf – though still far behind whiskey!
Suddenly, there were “Angels and Demons” tours of Rome, “Da Vinci Code” tours of Paris, and London, or all the above places, Americans flown over on “Da Vinci packages”, cramming in all the sites, including some more, such as the Cathar sites in the South of France, because of the potential link with “Mary Magdalene”, etc. The small village of Rennes-le-Château, not even mentioned in the book, also saw an increase in visitors and the local restaurateur stated that specifically American tourists had asked him “where the house of Mary Magdalene” was! Even places with no connection at all to the book began to promote themselves as featuring in “a” story of the Grail, including the Welsh town of Llangollen, which laid claim to having been fascinated by Joseph of Arimathea, and highlighting that there were Knights Templar buried in the royal enclosure of Dinas Bran Castle. The local tourist officer said: “These local legends can have a very far reaching effect on the future tourism marketing of the town, of this there is no doubt, and the release of the Da Vinci Code movie can only be a positive thing.”

The Da Vinci Code has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and has been made into a film starring Tom Hanks. It is a work of fiction. It was sold as fiction; it was never placed on the religious or historical book shelf. But somehow, it was mistaken for such. How did that happen?

The book relied on three main strands:

1. Someone who knows a secret: Leonardo da Vinci
2. The main seeker searches for the secret and finds what it is: Mary Magdalene and Jesus and their descendents
3. Who protects the secret – this bloodline? The Priory of Sion, which included Leonardo.

Item one was not going to upset anyone. Item two would obviously upset the Christians. Item three could upset the Priory, provided it existed. And as Brown cast Opus Dei as the bad guys, that would surely upset them.

From 2004 onwards, the controversy surrounding the book went to a crescendo with the release of the movie on May 19, 2006, three years post the initial publication of the book. It coincided with the publicity surrounding the translation of the Gospel of Judas, a papyrus from the 3rd or 4th century AD, part of the “Gnostic gospels” that were given an airing by Dan Brown. Brown had indicated that it was one of his hopes that such Gnostic gospels would finally be studied – and they were.
This specific gospel casts the fallen disciple as a benevolent figure, helping Jesus to save Mankind, thus putting a different perspective on the standard “point of view” of the Church regarding what supposedly happened during the Passion. Church favouring “critics” labelled the document as “a demonstrably late text which simply parallels a large number of quite well-known works from the more eccentric fringes of the early century Church”, which is of course vastly different from the fact that the Virgin Mary was “democratically elected” to be a Virgin in the middle of the 19th century by the Church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury told his Christian community on Easter not to be led astray by either The Da Vinci Code or the Gospel of Judas, stating that “anything that looks like the official version is automatically suspect”, thus somehow granting the Vatican the sole privilege of knowing the truth about what happened to Jesus. In the same vein, Christians argued that the Christian dogma had survived for 2000 years, despite such “occasional” attacks as The Da Vinci Code. That the Church “occasionally” destroys any opposition to its dogma, such as the Cathars, by burning an entire town… is somehow bypassed. It is not the power of the word, but the power of an additional letter s at the beginning of the word “word” (sword for those who don’t get that) that has often made the Church survive. No-one has ever fallen dead from hearing “the Word”.
We may think that the Archbishop of Canterbury is merely influenced by similar preachings in America – both the UK and America are becoming more and more religious. But we would be unfortunately mistaken if we were to merely call it an emerging trend of the English-speaking Western world. The Vatican too rallied against The Da Vinci Code, branding the book and its film version as just more examples of the undermining of Christ by a wave of “pseudo-historic” art. That is, indeed, true. But at the same time, the Church continues to stubbornly hold to its dogma, dogmatically sticking to versions of a Jesus that does not match the historical Jesus. As such, they too are “pseudo-historic”, but what’s worse: they do not pretend it is art, but instead essential for our soul’s survival!

There is some divine irony here, underlining that age-old saying that if God exists, he must be a stand-up comedian. Several years ago, during a research trip for Angels and Demons, Dan Brown visited the Vatican. Suddenly, his group found themselves surrounded by the Swiss Guards, the Papal “Secret Service”, who led them into an audience with then Pope John Paul II. “An audience” reads far grander than it is: it is largely a PR campaign of the Vatican, to show the pontiff’s close contact with “his flock”. As the small group of people are personally blessed by the Pope, I would assume this somehow means that they are “blessed” from there onwards. How ironic that Brown was writing Angels and Demons, slanting the Vatican at the time, and would soon commence on The Da Vinci Code… If Brown were to have divine blessing, God is obviously unhappy about his Church… and if we believe in apparitions of the Virgin Mary and her message during the 19th and 20th century, it’s not the first time that He is!
How ironic therefore that in 2006, father Raniero Cantalamessa, whose official title is Preacher of the Papal Household, referred to The Da Vinci Code in a sermon during a Passion of the Lord service in St Peter’s Basilica – though he did not mention the book by name. He said that people today were fascinated by “every new theory according to which he (Christ) was not crucified and did not die ... but ran off with Mary Magdalene”. The Da Vinci Code had suddenly been placed in the same category as gay marriage, abortion and genetic manipulation, three other main “aberrations” the Vatican becomes irate about.

The run-up to the release of the movie was largely taken up by what I would like to call a clear display of one of the seven sins: greed – though when you analyse the Baigent & Leigh v. RandomHouse court case, it becomes obvious that some of the other deadly sins were on display there too, arrogance being another one.
Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh sued Dan Brown’s and their own publishers Random House, but in the end were found to have no case and were ordered to pay 85% of the company’s legal bill, estimated at £1.3m. Their first instalment of £350,000 at the beginning of May was missed, apparently claiming they did not have the money, but somehow, a month later, Michael Baigent went on record as stating that they had paid all the money they owed RandomHouse. Thus, I would suggest, the mysterious apparition of 1.3 million pounds is the first miracle of “The Da Vinci Code”. I do, remain, however completely open to see this miracle scientifically explained.
The hype surrounding The Da Vinci Code was also illustrated by the presiding judge’s composure. When his judgment was published, there were some anomalous letters that floated about the document, which were bold and italic – which he then soon confirmed was a code. The italicized letters in the first seven paragraphs spelled out “Smithy code,” playing on the judge’s name. One lawyer noted: “I think he [the judge] was getting into the spirit of the thing. It doesn’t take away from the validity of the judgment. He was just having a bit of fun.” Soon enough, the code was revealed to read “Jackie Fisher. Who are you? Dreadnought.” Judge Smith then stated that he hoped that the empty plinth on Trafalgar Square, for which various people are being put forward, would be filled with a statue of his hero.

I repeat: The Da Vinci Code is a phenomenon. For one, it is the biggest bestseller of all times. That should say something in itself. Some have remarked that for once, the publisher’s publicity campaign, including some favourable reviews in American newspapers, actually coincided with the release of the book, and not some six months later, as is usually the case, at a time when the book has already been removed from prominent positions in all but the laziest of bookshops.
It was long known that “New Age” was major business, but this specific sub-section of the industry had always been neglected or under-appreciated. Only Andrews and Schellenberger’s Tomb of God ever got a more than normal advance: around 350,000 pounds. Authors such as Picknett and Prince had to financially struggle for more than a decade, but were now made into headline news, whereas others suddenly saw their sales go up, saw their books republished; people like Dan Burstein seemed to appear out of nowhere. But as soon as the market opened, it closed itself, as each publisher immediately flooded it. The big question now is whether the market will continue to exist – or whether in a drive to make money, it has been completely saturated and hence destroyed. At present, there is nothing to suggest that the publishing world, apart from Dan Brown’s publisher, have any firm commitment for the future and will both stabilise and transform this new area. Mary Magdalene was for centuries seen as a whore, but it is possible that in the future, we see “The Dan Brown Phenomenon” within the publishing world as “a quick shag”, for money. Infatuation or lust… the jury’s out and that plinth remains empty for another few years.

Some have thus seen the success as a pure publishing or marketing phenomenon. In truth, it occurred because it is all about who we in the Western world are becoming. Initially, publishers failed to see that there was a demand by the readers for such material. Only in 2004 did publishers begin to offer guides and follow-up books about the book and largely, they were “quick wins”. But by 2005, it resulted in a small number of books that even speculated what Dan Brown’s next book would be about – without the book not even having a scheduled launch date! To my knowledge, not even Star Warriors or Trekkies have ever been able to rise to that occasion.
A second component to its success seems to be Dan Brown’s “karma” – or rather: his destiny. Some years ago, Dan Brown was short-listed to make it as a singer. But then, it was learned he did not like all the publicity or performing in front of crowds. That killed that ambition and as he did not like the American West coast, he moved back East, to start a career as a writer. That hardly took off and the sales of his three books before The Da Vinci Code can at best be described as “modest”. In fact, his very survival as a writer was in doubt, as he was not making enough money – or simply wasn’t going anywhere. Angels and Demons, a publishing phenomenon on the back of The Da Vinci Code, is largely identical and speaks to the same audience, but didn’t succeed then; both the market and Brown did not yet seem ready.
Enters “karmic law one”. Digital Fortress, his first book, was about internet security and was written at a time when the internet was young. When some controversy about the new virtual world reigned, Brown was sometimes invited to give an opinion (even though the book is clearly a novel), either on radio or television. He did. But at the same time, the world of computers is littered with geeks, who will dismember any such book down to “the facts” – and they pointed out that even though Brown had gotten a lot right, there were also some basic mistakes; in geek world, that caused controversy. And so Brown was taken to task for it, just as he has been taken to task for certain section of that other novel he wrote, The Da Vinci Code.
As to “karmic law two”: he was obviously set up for some fame and however much he tried to run away from it… it is obvious he will have to learn and deal with it. At present, it seems he is still uncomfortable with all the publicity, having pleaded with his friends not to spill the beans on his private life; his shyness was apparently still in evidence in London during the RandomHouse court case, where he made an apparently quite impressive jump so as to not confront the cameras… who then splashed the photograph of Dan Brown jumping all over their papers.

It is clear that The Da Vinci Code could have happened in the past, but it didn’t. It happened because it is a book for our times, of our times. That times had changed only seemed to be realised by few. Baigent & Leigh didn’t get it; large sections of the Christian community didn’t get it either. Intriguingly, it was apparently realised by Opus Dei, who responded in a calm and tranquil manner. As to the rest of the Christian community…
In India, a Catholic group called on Christians to starve themselves to death in protest at the release of the movie. The Catholic Secular Forum also hoped that thousand of people would attend a protest in Mumbai to burn effigies of Dan Brown. In Thailand, a police-run censorship board overturned an earlier decision to cut the last 10 minutes of the film, but insisted the distributor added disclaimers stating it was fiction. The Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze said that Christians should react, whereas others, such as Cardinal Angelo Amata, number two in the Congregation of the Doctrine (that’s newspeak for Inquisition) invited to boycott the movie – or hold protests in front of the cinemas. During the filming of the movie in Lincoln Cathedral, a single nun made headline news, going up to the stairs of the church, saying she would go on a pilgrimage, in what was apparently an attempt to absolve the sins of the makers. The Church of England marked the release of the film by adding a new section to its website called “The Da Vinci Code - Making Your Mind Up”. The material even included advice on how to organise events to discuss the issues raised by the film. But despite such calls to burst out into organised protest and rage, in the end, there were few if any rallies. Though the old and tested methods of the past were being set up… they seemed to no longer work… not even in court.

So what happened? Did Satan take yet another stab at us, as some sections of the American Christian community believed was happening? In the final analysis, the controversy is not about Dan Brown or The Da Vinci Code, nor about Mary Magdalene. We bought the book – one in five adults of all ages in Britain bought and read The Da Vinci Code. That’s massive. Hence, it is about us and our changing society. As a society, we massively watch “reality shows”, which in truth have been scripted and are as real as the blonde hair of the women appearing on it.
We have become more gullible, and at the same time more Christian – and it’s perhaps fair to say that the former led to the other. People are now twice as likely to believe that Jesus Christ fathered children after reading the Dan Brown blockbuster and four times as likely to think of the Catholic organisation Opus Dei as a murderous sect, according to one poll. This shows that people are indeed more gullible – there is no evidence that Opus Dei is a murderous sect.
British Fortean researcher Colin Bennett stated in 2002 that we were more and more moving towards a virtual world, in which “truth” would become impossible to verify and substituted with any number of possible scenarios, all potentially true. The Da Vinci Code phenomenon has illustrated this on several levels. We can only hope that this move towards “various potential realities” will lead us to a growing sense of quantum physical awareness, and not just to a return to Creationist preaching in schools.