'Code' controversy benefits Christians


By James P. Pinkerton

The critics hated The Da Vinci Code, and many churches boycotted it -- but audiences flocked to see it.

Maybe that tells us that the Lord works in mysterious ways. For sure it tells us a lot about who we are, and where we came from.

As of Monday, the Web site rottentomatoes.com had tabulated 160 reviews of Code; 78 percent of the critics rated the film rotten. And yet the film took in a reported $224 million worldwide over the weekend, the second-biggest weekend of all time.

So what gives?

To put it bluntly, for all its flaws, Code has one saving grace. Its About Something. Its not car chases in Los Angeles, or guys chasing after girls in Manhattan. Its about Christianity, which has dominated the last 2,000 years of western civilization. Theres a lesson there: If you want a mighty story, start with a mighty subject.

Since its first publication as a novel three years ago, Code has tapped into the wellsprings of our collective cultural memory, in which words such as crusade, knight in shining armor -- and yes, holy grail -- are sprinkled across common conversation. Surveys show that most people cant answer basic questions about U.S. history and civic life, but just about everyone has an active opinion about religion.

And while those opinions run the gamut, from atheism to Zoroastrianism, most people seem to agree that sacred tradition offers a kind of comfort; theres a reason people so often turn to faith in times of crisis. Such tradition and faith are rocks for people, far more secure than the shifting sands of popular culture.

Its no accident that many of the biggest films of our time have drawn from this fund of common culture, which is largely a Christian culture. Most obviously, theres The Passion of the Christ. But in addition, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia were all huge hits -- and now Code. But wait a second, one might say, all those films were controversial. And Potter, in particular, played games with traditional faith, relying heavily on the occult. And, of course, Code offers a subversive take on Christianity, attacking as it does a central premise of that faith -- that Jesus was celibate, as well as divine.

So how can one say that Code benefits from the reservoir of good will toward the Christian tradition, if its an attack on the Christian faith? The answer is that even attacks are, in a strange way, compliments; you have to regard something first, before you can disregard it. Christian lore, indeed all religious lore, includes many tales of evil attacking good, and evil triumphing, at least for awhile. Thats how instruction is provided: We hear the tale, or read the book -- or see the movie -- and we ask ourselves, What do I believe? What would I do? Thats the essence of moral instruction.

So could Code be part of some plan?

Well, lets put it this way: More than 40 books have been published in response to Code, most of them denouncing its Mrs. Jesus premise. In addition, there have been innumerable sermons, conferences and Web sites; its hard to remember a time when Christianity has enjoyed more discussion.

One cliche of our age is that Americans have narrowcasted themselves into obliviousness, even ignorance, about larger events. But for Christians of all kinds, the Code-troversy is a teachable moment; the book and the movie have grabbed everyones attention.

Lots of people will get the idea, from Code, of writing a best-seller about religion and religious history. But if they are serious about doing so, first they will have to learn about Important Things -- history, theology.

They might even have to travel to Europe -- even, gasp! France. And if they do, they will most likely understand and revere western civilization all the more. Thats part of a good plan, too.

Special to Newsday

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