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Book Reviews







Nestled within its dense plot-structure, The Da Vinci Code presents a story that carries beliefs about the central character of world history, Jesus Christ, quite different from those carried in the conventional version. But what difference would it make if the alternative story came to be widely known and accepted? The very option to consider a different story about the Saviour presents an example of unmaking history.

Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code is a thriller wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mystery hidden in a cover-up disguised in a conspiracy and sealed with a paradox. The book brings to mainstream readership a set of rumors that have been circulating in the misty land of conspiracy theory for some years now. In orientation reading for Metahistory Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are cited for The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, but they are better known for another controversial book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. In Brown’s novel Baigent and Leigh are transformed, with considerable novelistic freedom, into a mischievous character, Sir Leigh Teabing. (The name-play typifies a plot-device exploited throughout the novel.)

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The Golden Legend

An instant bestseller when it appeared in 1982, Holy Blood, Holy Grail has remained in print ever since. It heads a long and continually growing list of books that purport to expose a secret society, the Priory of Sion, said to have been founded by the crusader Godfroi de Bouillion in the 12th Century. The scandalous secret known to members of the Priory of Sion concerns a bloodline descended from Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. The plot of The Da Vinci Code assumes that the mission of the Priory of Sion is to safeguard the evidence for this alternative scenario of history until the moment comes to disclose it to the world at large. The operative term here is evidence.

According to the Scion scenario, evidence for a bloodline descending from Jesus was discovered in 1885 by a French priest, Abbe Sauniere, whose parish was located at Rennes-le-Chateau in southeastern France. It may consist of encrypted documents referring to, if not dating from, the Merovingian dynasty of the 7th Century. As for Mary Magdalene, there is ample legend in medievel Latin and early French literature concerning her flight from Palestine and her arrival on the shore of Provence, near Marseilles. The "Golden Legend" attributed to Saint Voragaine records her life as if she were a Christian saint. A grotto near Sainte Baume in Provence, where she is said to have lived and died, was the site for the consecration of French kings and is still a place of pilgrimage, although lately appropriated by Catholicism. The variants of medieval literature concerning Mary Magdalene do not refer to a conjugal life with Jesus, but there is a longstanding oral tradition that does. Every year on May 25th gypsies from all around Europe gather at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer to celebrate the anniversary of Magdalene’s arrival there. The crypt of the local chapel houses a "Black Madonna" known as Sara, a small statue representing a Hindu-type girl of olive complexion with gentle, consoling brown eyes. Sara is traditionally the name of the daughter of Jesus and Mary Magdelene.

The charming folk tales regarding Magdalene place the life of Jesus within the scope of human sentiments. By association with that notorious strawberry blonde Jesus becomes approachable as a man who lived normally and loved a mortal woman, even a "fallen woman." In twenty years the furor ignited by Holy Blood, Holy Grail has produced a fullblown cult centered on Mary Magdalene. Rennes-le-Chateau, an otherwise obscure hilltop village on a back road accessed from the unremarkable town of Couiza, receives a constant stream of visitors from around the world, all fascinated by the Sion scenario and its endless, sinuous permutations.

Divine or Human

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown introduces the Priory of Sion through one of its present-day members, Jacques Sauniere (named after the Abbe Sauniere, of course), curator of the Louvre, who is murdered in the opening scene. The secret message he leaves behind involves a series of coded devices that are gradually decyphered by the book’s protagonist, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor interested in esoteric symbolism. Langdon pairs up with Sophie Neveu, a cryptologist for the French police who also happens to be the granddaughter of the murdered man. As the plot thickens, Langdon comes to suspect that members of the Opus Dei, an ultra-conservative Catholic sect, may be following the same trail of riddles in order to sieze and repress the secret of Sion. He and Sophie turn to Sir Leigh Teabing, an expert on Scion and the Holy Grail, so that they can decode the clues left by Sauniere and retrieve the secret message guarded by the Priory of Sion.

There are no hidden bombs, rampant viruses or hijacked submarines in The Da Vinci Code. In Brown’s treatment of the thriller formula, the action acquires a higher dimension of meaning because the protagonists are tracking a spiritual message that might change the world, not a sinister device that might destroy it. According to conventional Christian beliefs, Jesus Christ is the supreme model for humanity, the example of the best a human being can be. But for Christ to fulfill this role, the belief-system must assert that He is more than human. We are asked to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is a divine being who appeared in human guise on the stage of history to save the world. The Sion scenario throws Jesus’s divinity, and hence his entire mission, into question.

The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ derives from the teachings of Saint Paul who was a contemporary of Jesus yet never met the man (or God-man, if you prefer). Paul ignored the human Jesus and elevated "the Christ" to a divine level, but the status of divinity was later conferred on Jesus by vote at a theological council in the 4th Century. First-hand accounts of the time describe how the vote was forced for political reasons: the Byzantine Emperor Constantine needed to confer the divine afflatus claimed by Roman emperors upon the spiritual figure of Jesus so that Christianity, once it was enforced as state religion, would be underwritten by a superhuman authority. In this view, which is irrefutable as far as the historical facts are concerned, Christianity is not a true religion, it is a political ideology disguised in religious terms.

Revealing the Grail

In the novel the historian Robert Langdon is something of a feminist whose sympathies for Goddess-oriented pagan spirituality align him to the figure of Mary Magdalene. Through his words the reader learns about the repression of the Goddess cults of antiquity and the hidden traditions in art, science and literature through which devotees of Her have kept their faith alive. Scholars have been debating these matters for decades, and there are dozens of esoteric groups obsessed with the Goddess Revival, although the Prior of Sion is not usually grouped among them. Both the stated and supposed aim of the Priory is to reestablish sacred kingship in Europe, based on the bloodline of Jesus. The monarchist orientation is patriarchal rather than feminist. The author of The Da Vinci Code takes artistic liberty in making the Priory of Sion a champion of the "sacred feminine," but the twist works well because the Priory is pitted against Opus Dei, an ultra-conservative Catholic sect that does really exist and is known for its harsh views on womanhood.

In Rule by Secrecy (2000), Jim Marrs presented a detailed summary of the controversy surrounding the Priory of Sion. His book was marketed as an "underground bestseller." With The Da Vinci Code, Magdalene, Goddess cults, secret codes and anti-Christian conspiracies finally emerge from the undergound into the mainstream. Dan Brown’s stroke of genius was to turn an obscure historical conspiracy theory into a novelistic plot.

One way to unmake history is to present a parallel story that undermines the accepted (i.e., imposed) version of past events. Whether or not the Priory of Sion actually exists, there is dramatic power in the mere rumor of its existence. It tempts us to wonder, Did an underground movement of Goddess-centered spirituality exist for centuries, parallel with orthodox Christianity yet denied and suppressed by the enforcers of party-line religion? Dan Brown is well aware that the subversive power of this scenario does not reside in the influence of secret societies, about which we may only speculate, but in the figure of Mary Magdalene who focusses the Goddess on the human plane. To develop the multiple symbolic meanings of the Holy Grail throughout the book, Brown cites the famous word-play that carries the entire secret of the Sion scenario: Holy Grail in Old French is San Graal, a pun on Sang Real, "true blood." In the literal sense, the Grail is the true bloodline of Jesus and Magdalene, but Brown plots his novel so that the reader is taken well beyond fixation on this single geneological clue.

I noted above that the operative word in the Sion scenario is evidence, but evidence is not the ultimate goal of the Grail Quest as Brown represents it. Whether or not there is proof of a "messianic bloodline," the story of Jesus and Magdalene is a special romance that might inspire humanity toward a different kind of spirituality, or then again it might not. Textual or artifactual evidence for the Sion scenario is not essential, because the real proof of unmaking history must be moral and imaginative catharsis, a spiritual shift for humanity. The Da Vinci Code works fine as a thriller but its superior success may be in the way it turns the trail of secrets -- "the sacred feminine… the chalice… the Rose… the banished Mary Magdalene… the decline of the Goddess… the Holy Grail" -- back toward the heart of the reader.

The mystery in all this is how we each effect the fate of the Mystery.

[JLL, Lausanne, 19 June 2003]


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.