By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
( Dan Brown’s best selling novel “The Da Vinci Code”published in 2003 created much controversy. Ron Howard’s block buster film based on the novel with the same name was also equally controversial. “The Da Vinci Code” starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou was banned in Sri Lanka in May 2006 by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa after the Catholic Bishops Conference appealed to him. I was then critical of the action and stated so in an article written for “The Sunday Leader” under the heading “A Christian perspective on the da Vinci Code movie ban” in which I also questioned the conduct of the Catholic church leaders on the question. I am now re-producing the article written 10 years ago without any changes to denote the tenth anniversary of the ban on “The Da Vinci Code”film – DBSJ)
President Mahinda Rajapakse has ordered the Public Performances Board to ban the screening of the movie ‘The Da Vinci Code’ in local cinemas and on local television channels. Apparently the Catholic Bishops Conference made the appeal through an epistle .”The decision to ban the film was taken on an appeal by the Catholic Bishops Conference in Sri Lanka” , President Rajapaksa reportedly told the Daily News.
The film directed by Ron Howard starring Tom Hanks is based on the novel written by Dan Brown. The book has remained on the best seller’s list for three years at a stretch since it was first published in 2003. It has been translated into 44 languages and has sold 52 million copies so far. 40 million copies were sold in North America and at least 100 million Americans are estimated to have read the book. The film released two weeks ago grossed the highest box office sales for North America the first week and shows signs of being a Hollywood block buster.
The ” Da Vinci Code” (DVC) has raked up a controversy. There is no doubt that the Controversy has contributed tremendously to its sales. Now the film too seems destined to be a hit due to the same. Banning the movie in some Countries will no doubt lead to a boom in pirated VHS or DVD’s. This is what will most probably happen in Sri Lanka. Even as I write this article there comes news that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi has ordered the movie banned in that state too.
The Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka as well as leaders of the Christian Clergy in Tamil Nadu have sought and obtained a ban on the movie. They seem grateful to the rulers for adhering to their wishes. I have seen the movie twice so far and intend seeing it again. The first time was for entertainment. The second ( possibly third ) viewing is due to a spirit of inquiry. While understanding the reasons which prompted these Christian Clergymen to request a ban I want to state after seeing the film that I am not in agreement with them on this.
The request for and decision taken to ban the film can be critiqued for at least four reasons.. Firstly it can be condemned on the basis that it infringes upon the right to free _expression and artistic freedom. Secondly it can be criticised for its abuse and misuse of power. A decision to ban a film can only be taken by the Public Performances Board. In this case the President has imposed his decision arbitrarily. Thirdly it can be seen as an unwarranted overreaction. A sledgehammer has been used to swat a fly. Fourthly it can critiqued as an affront to the Christian faith. The Catholic Bishops are supposedly acting in the interest of Christianity but the end result of this initiative would actually be insulting to Christians.
It is the fourth aspect that I wish to amplify further in this article.Let me state at the outset that I write this piece in my personal capacity as a Christian and not in my professional capacity as a Journalist.This piece is written primarily from a Christian perspective as I believe fervently that Bishops, Moderators, Presidents and Chairpersons of the Christian Religion cannot decide unilaterally on what films should be viewed or not viewed by the faithful flock.
My background as a Christian first. I am Protestant not Catholic. My father was an Anglican and mother a Methodist. I was baptised, Confirmed and attended Sunday Schools in Methodist Churches. The greater part of my secondary education was in three Christian Schools. Two of them were Anglican Schools in Colpetty and Mount Lavinia while the third in Vaddukkoddai was run by the Church of South India (Jaffna Diocese).
I have worshipped in Anglican, Methodist and CSI churches and appreciate the finer points of all three denominations.. The ritualism of the Anglicans, the importance afforded in Methodism to the Laity and the CSI promotion of indigenous cultural norms in worship are all acceptable to me. Though not a Catholic I have also spent much time within the portals of St. Lucias and St. Anthony’s when I was in Colombo. The only Christianity with which I am uncomfortable is that of the new evangelistic variety . I am old fashioned in my faith which thanks to God’s grace has been sufficient enough for me.
Now about the ban. When challenged with a tricky question Jesus Christ replied by saying “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s”. The worthy Catholic Bishops have crossed this line when they invited “Caesar” to invade the spiritual realm. They have preferred to let the state’s writ interfere with what is essentially an issue affecting the Church.
President Rajpakse lost no time in banning the film out of concern for Christian sentiment. Politically he lost nothing and had everything to gain. A large number of Christian places of worship have been attacked in the past few years . No action has been taken to protect Churches or punish the culprits responsible. But as for banning the movie demand action has been prompt.
The Catholic Bishops have set a disturbing precedent in invoking state power to restrict a fundamental right of the people for a parochial purpose. . By doing so they have forfeited the right to be in the vanguard of protests in other situations where the state tramples on fundamental rights of the people in the future. There may come a time when public _expression of Christian beliefs too could be banned on the grounds that some Religious leaders are offended. The Church will be rendered mute in such a scenario.
Once Church leaders request and obtain favours like this from the President a Quid Pro Quo could be expected. This may hamper the commendable role played by some sections of the Catholic Clergy in leading protests against Social injustice. A case in point is Norachcholai. I will not be surprised if the Church is compelled to go “silent” on the Coal power plant issue in the future.
Let me return to the film which like the novel is a mystery thriller. Some of the controversial points made like the role of Mary Magdalene in the life of Jesus Christ for instance has been stated by many other people at different times. In DVC those views are wrapped in attractive, new tinsel. Fact is mixed with fiction in the form of fact. This is its magic. I do not want to provide a synopsis of the story or review the film. What I want to do is to briefly address some of the controversial points in the film that trouble Christians in general and the Catholic Church in particular. I simply wish to place the facts I know alongside the “facts” shown in the film.
The DVC says Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. He had a daughter by her. According to the movie Jesus wanted Mary to lead the faith after him. But Church leaders like the Apostle Peter forced her to run away with the child . In later years Mary was depicted wrongfully as a prostitute. The twist that DVC provides is to use Leonard Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” painting as proof. The youngish figure with long hair on Jesus’s right is supposed to be Mary Magdalene and not John says DVC.
What are the facts? Mary Magdalene was certainly close to Jesus. She wept at Jesus’s tomb. She was the first witness to the resurrection. Jesus even asked her to go and tell the disciples about him being risen. There is no proof that Jesus was ever married to her despite this theory being bandied about for many, many years. If such a thing had happened St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians would have cited it in support of his case that Apostles could marry. He did not.
According to Church historians the confusion about Mary Magdalene was due to Gregory (the great) in the sixth Century. It was Gregory who associated the Mary Magdalene mentioned in Luke chapter eight with the unnamed sinful woman or prostitute mentioned in chapter seven of Luke’s gospel. Yet there is no historical evidence of any vilification campaign against Mary Magdalene.
As for the painting the figure on the right has from the earliest times been regarded as John the youngest and most affectionate of his disciples. When Jesus talks of someone at the last supper going to betray him the disciples query Jesus. John leans on Jesus’s shoulder. Now DVC says the figure was Mary. It does not seem correct. Artists of that era used to draw youths as having feminie features. This is what Leonard Da Vinci seems to have done.
Apart from the Mary Magdalene marriage argument the DVC also irks Christians by its assertions about the Bible and Christ Jesus. About the compilation of books into what we call the Holy Bible the DVC dismisses it flippantly observing it “was not a fax from Heaven”. With regard to Jesus the DVC says ” almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.”The DVC also refers to the historic convention in 325 AD at the ancient city of Nicea in what is today modern Turkey. It is here that the divinity of Jesus and the infallibility of the Bible was promulgated.” until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless ” says the DVC.
Again the answer to these assertions is that the DVC mixes fact with fiction in the guise of fact. According to Christian Scholars the DVC author Dan Brown seems to have relied on Arianus for most of his arguments about pre – Nicene beliefs. This man from Alexandria propounded the argument that Jesus though a great man was not the son of God or God in flesh. It was this thesis of “Arianism” that was keenly debated and rejected at Nicea in 325. This was a convention held by Constantine the First Roman emperor to declare Christianity legal. Constantine a new convert legalised Christianity in 313.
It is however wrong for DVC to allege that Jesus was not regarded as divine prior to the Nicea Convention. An overwhelming number of early Christians had been worshipping Jesus as the risen saviour and lord long before 325. Even before doctrinal regulations were formulated the early leaders had devised edicts of faith known as canons.These canons of faith affirmed this belief.
One example, according to theologians was the canon of prominent second-century bishop Irenaeus which was derived on 1 Corinthians 8:6: “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ.”The term used was “Kyrios” for Lord.
The early Christians applied the Greek term “Kyrios” meaning Lord for Jesus. In early translations before the time of Jesus the word had been used to denote “yahweh” or Jehova. The Jews used it only in divine terms. The Romans used the same term as a term of honour to denote the emperor. The Jews refused to use “Kyrios” for emperor reserving it only for God. It was this Kyrios term that was used to describe Jesus by early Christians long before 325. The earliest extra-canonical Christian book Didache was written in the late 100s. In this book, the earliest Aramaic-speaking Christians refer to Jesus as Kyrios.
Early Christians also acknowledged Jesus’s divinity by imploring God the Father in Christ’s name. According to Scholars ” the early Church leaders, including Justin Martyr, a second-century luminary , baptized in the name of the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–thereby acknowledging the equality of the one Lord’s three distinct persons”.
Contrary to what the DVC says ” the Council of Nicea did not entirely end the controversy over Arius’s teachings,” say Theologians nor did “the gathering impose a foreign doctrine of Christ’s divinity on the church. The participating bishops merely affirmed the historic and standard Christian beliefs, erecting a united front against future efforts to dilute Christ’s gift of salvation.”.
” The church leaders at Nicea rejected Arianism and affirmed that God and Jesus existed together from the beginning in the Trinity” say Scholars. This council produced the first drafts of what became the Nicene Creed, the explanation and affirmation of Christian belief that is repeated dutifully in Churches nowadays.
It is true that the Bible was not a “fax from heaven” as stated in DVC. The New Testament was formally approved in 367. What happened in Nicea in 325 was that some scriptural texts were discussed and debated. The four Gospels and St. Paul’s epistles were widely accepted by early Christians. By 190 the Christians had codified as the “Muratorian” canon most of the books found in the New Testament. The Nicene council saw two of those books being excluded (Wisdom of Solomon, Peter’s Revelations) and two others being included (Hebrews , Johns book of revelations).
Those who codified the canon gave pride of place to who the authors were. Those written by persons who walked and talked with Jesus were given importance. Letters and personal experiences were regarded as authoritative only if they were written by the Apostles or disciples of Apostles. This was proof of authentic reliability.
The selection process also gave priority to those documents with a constructive capacity to make the Church grow and flourish. Those documents going against the grain of established wisdom in the form of those books accepted in earlier times were rejected. This then was the Nicene legacy and not a conspiracy as depicted in DVC.
Among other controversial points in DVC is the way the “Opus Dei” has been portrayed in DVC. According to Scholars the “Opus Dei” is a conservative religious group within the Roman Catholic Church. ” Opus Dei urges priests and lay people to strenuously pursue sanctification through everyday discipline. The group has taken criticism for its conservative views, zeal, and secretive practices. There is no evidence that Opus Dei has resorted to murder; nor has the Vatican entrusted Opus Dei to violently guard the church’s deepest secrets, as is claimed in The Da Vinci Code.”
There is also the reference to the ” Priory of Sion ” in DVC . The movie projects it as the secret society protecting and preserving a dynasty founded by Jesus and Mary Magdalene.. Leonard Da Vinci and Isaac Newton being members. This Society does exist but not in the way suggested by the movie.
Contemporary Researchers ” suspect that members of the real “Priory of Sion” , founded in 1956, forged documents that placed major historical figures–such as Isaac Newton and Leonard da Vinci–in an ancient secret society by the same name.. There is no evidence that such a group existed before beyond these questionable documents.” Tales relating this group to a dynasty begun by Jesus and Mary Magdalene seem to be nothing other than pure fiction.
There are many other points giving offence to Christians like the “Philip Gospel” and “Mother Goddess cult” around Mary Magdalene etc. All these issues in addition to the major ones mentioned above can be easily contested and trashed if the “Gospel according to Da Vinci Code” is effectively challenged. Asking for a ban on the other hand suggests fallibility and weakness as if Christianity has something to hide.
In that context it must be noted that the movie has not been banned in any of the pre- dominantly Christian Countries so far. Many Christian leaders in the West do not want to articulate a demand seeking a ban for two or three reasons. One is that many are democratic enough to genuinely accept concepts such as creative freedom and artistic _expression. Secondly they are also smart enough to realise that making such a demand would only erode the image of the Church.
More importantly it is realised that a campaign for such a demand could be counterproductive. In 1988 Martin Scorsese came out with his controversial “Last Temptation of Jesus Christ”. There was widespread protests and demands to prohibit screening. The end result was massive box office sales for that movie.
What most North American church leaders are doing now is two – fold. One school of thought urges Christians not to see the film. It is a form of voluntary ban that they seek. Instead of seeing DVC they urge people to go to theatres and see others instead. This is one way of driving a lesson home to money – conscious Hollywood they feel.
There is a second school of thought which sees the movie as both a challenge and opportunity. These sections want to exploit the curiosity and interest evoked by the movie. Despite the controversial viewpoint the movie does not provide a substantive basis for that. Much of what is expressed in the movie is simply not true. It is possible through reasoning on facts to disprove the DVC theories.
At the same time it is recognised that the movie and novel have succeeded in creating widespread awareness of the history of Jesus Christ and the Early Church. Attempts are being made to attract those interested due to DVC into seeking further knowledge. Books are being written, classes conducted , lectures arranged etc to counter the views expressed by the movie. The idea is to utilise the furore caused by the movie to foster further knowledge of Jesus and the Church . It is a subtle form of evangelisation.
It is this second course of action that I would have wanted the Church to take in Sri Lanka. For one thing the book is interesting but the movie is rather heavy and dull. Much of the movie depends on dialogue rather than action. Though attempts have been made to simplify the issues there does exist a lacuna at times in comprehension. Unlike the “Last Temptation” there are few visual images that are detrimental in any way to Christ or Christianity.
Thus only those with some degree of proficiency in English would understand the film. It simply would not have made any impact on the mono – lingual Sinhala and Tamil person who saw the film unless it was sub – titled. In such a situation the demand for a ban was totally unnecessary. Instead of banning the Church could very well have let the film be shown and issued perhaps a booklet in all three languages shedding light on the issues raised.
It could have gone on the offensive and utilised any extra interest arising out of such viewing to provide true enlightenment instead of being on the defensive and clamouring for a ban.The movie could have been both a challenge and opportunity to review and renew our faith.
Some people may recall that movie “Jesus Christ Super Star”. There is a song in that which is of relevance in the current context –
“Day By Day,
For Three Things I Pray,
To Know Thee More Clearly
To Love Thee More Dearly
To Follow Thee More Nearly”
Movies such as “Da Vinci Code” may offend and upset some Christians. In the final analysis they will strengthen and not weaken our faith. We will know Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly.
Ultimately all religion centers around faith. It is the inter – face of rationality and irrationality. The birth and growth of religions such as Christianity have a mixture of sacrifice, cruelty, piety and ambition. Those of us who are Christians in Sri Lanka realise that some of our ancestors may have been converted due to a variety of reasons under Colonialism. This does not diminish in any way this legacy of faith that we are heirs to.. As for first generation Christians they would be zealously faithful as ,most converts are capable of being.
Against this backdrop it seems unbelievable that eminent men of the cloth such as the Catholic Bishops should seek intervention of the State to protect our faith from movies such as DVC. Did they think that our faith was so fickle that a mere movie can overwhelm our minds and crush our spirits? Did they think that Christians would get so angry that they would indulge in Violence and so required prevention?
The Bishops would do well to be reminded of that incident related in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is asleep in the boat and a storm rages. The disciples are afraid and wake him up. He calms the sea and chides them about their fear and lack of faith. The Bishops worried about the impact of a movie also need to be asked ” Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?”
Let me conclude on a personal note. Two of the schools I studied were named after St. Thomas. He was the disciple who first refused to believe that Jesus had arisen. He believed only after examining the hands and feet of Jesus. He is referred to as Doubting Thomas. Yet it was this doubting Thomas who when convinced affirmed his faith with great clarity by uttering “My Lord and My God”.
There may be many people like Doubting Thomas around us. Perhaps movies and books like “The Da Vinci Code” may increase their doubts. At the end of it all they would I am sure re- affirm their faith and like St. Thomas proclaim “My Lord and My God”.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com