Sermon for Matins

7 November 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for Matins, 31 October 2004
by the Reverend Dr. Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian
The Da Vinci Code 1

Readings: Is 2: 1-5; James 3:13-18

Those who have read The Da Vinci Code– the current number one best-seller - will not be surprised to hear that at the Abbey we are now getting regular enquiries from visitors who have come here to see the tomb of Isaac Newton. This is because a key episode in the book takes place at Newton’s tomb. This is followed by a dramatic fight in the Chapter House. I haven’t yet heard tour guides pointing out where the bullet hit the floor (cf. p.554), but I guess it’s only a matter of time!

A book like this is first and foremost a good romp. Most readers will romp through it because it’s skilfully written as a page-turner, with the pace getting faster and faster as one reads on. It is both a murder-mystery and an up-to-the-minute story about the quest for the Holy Grail, which is usually taken to be the quest for the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. In The Da Vinci Code, however, the term ‘Grail’ is used in a wider, symbolic sense to mean both Mary Magdalene and even the feminine within the Christian religion. Perhaps the key quotation is one from the late second century text, the Gospel of Philip: ‘And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?”’(p.331). The book suggests that Jesus’s love for Mary Magdalene was a dark secret which the Christian Church wished to suppress, especially since he had a child by her and the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene lived on, under the protection of a secret society, until the present day.

The book further suggests that the Church behaved (and continues to behave) like the disciples in the Gospel of Philip. They were offended by Jesus’s relationship with Mary Magdalene and sought to suppress this dark secret; but an even greater act of deception came from the Roman Emperor Constantine. As the book puts it, ‘The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan emperor Constantine the Great’ (p. 313). It is suggested that Constantine deliberately invented the Christianity we know today, which has suppressed the place of the feminine, including the place of Mary Magdalene, in the Christian religion. The passage goes on to assert that Constantine himself was responsible for the Council of Nicea at which, ‘many aspects of Christianity were debated’ including ‘the divinityof Jesus. … Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a mannevertheless … By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world’ (pp. 315-6).

As the book is becoming so popular, it is important to say that this is complete and utter rubbish. It would not be worth refuting if there were not the danger, now there is so much less knowledge of Christian history than in the past, that some people may be seduced into believing or half-believing it. Even a superficial knowledge of the New Testament will tell you that in a variety of ways the documents there brought together, essentially by the end of the second century, bear witness to the belief, first, that Jesus was not viewed merely as a ‘mortal prophet’ because he rose from the dead, and, second, that he was regarded as in some sense divine, the Word made flesh, the ‘Son of Man’ and the ‘Son of God’. It is generally agreed amongst scholars that the earliest of the New Testament texts was written about twenty-five years after the crucifixion and that most of the material in the New Testament was written down, often from earlier sources, in the first century. We actually have papyrus documents of parts of the New Testament dating from the end of the first century. By the time of Constantine Jesus had been worshipped as divine for more than two hundred years. The question that was settled at Nicea (325 AD) was in what sensehe was divine. It was settled by referring to the way Christians had been worshipping Christ for generations 2 .

In speculating about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, The Da Vinci Codemakes use of texts from the late second or third century, some of them recently discovered. These texts came from the Gnostic tradition, the tradition which said there was secret knowledge about God which had been handed down from generation to generation. One of the major challenges for the early Church was to disentangle authentic witness to Jesus from such fanciful speculation. This is why, for example, the first letter of John is so keen to stress that what is being handed on is not secret knowledge, but authentic witness to Jesus Christ who has come in the flesh: ‘We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it, and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.’ (1 Jn 1:1-3). The writer is not passing on secret knowledge, nor is he passing on speculation, but an authentic record of real historical encounter with one whom he confidently calls the ‘Son’ of God. The Da Vinci Code, by presenting the teaching of Gnostic gospels within a contemporary murder-mystery, is, amazingly, getting people to take seriously some of the very things against which certain New Testament authors, and second century patristic authors like Irenaeus, were writing. It really wouldn’t matter if it didn’t mean that such people are hindered from hearing the good news that we are invited to share ‘fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ ‘. That’s what Christianity is about, not about secret knowledge we can gain through cracking mystical codes.

Lying underneath The Da Vinci Codeis a deep cynicism about history. In discussing the secret genealogy of Christ’s descendants, one character, later revealed as ‘The Teacher’, comments, ‘Historians could not possibly confirm its authenticity’, to which the reply comes, ‘No more so than they can confirm the authenticity of the Bible’ (p. 343). The discussion goes on, with the ‘The Teacher’ claiming, not unreasonably, that ‘history is always written by the winners’ and then quoting Napoleon who said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’. In the debate over historical interpretation, he says, ‘which side of the story you believe becomes a matter of faith and personal exploration’. This is a thoroughly post-modern view of history which takes the valid polemical insight that ‘history is always written by the winners’ a step too far, arguing that when you are supposedly given the history of the losers (however fanciful), what you then believe is up to you. For a Christian, this is an unacceptable view of history – since the Christian faith is based upon certain historical claims which are open to historical falsification. Whether Jesus of Nazareth lived and died in Palestine, whether he was rightly seen to be both Son of Man and Son of God, whether he was crucified under Pontius Pilate and whether he rose again on the third day are matters open to historical falsification. ‘Which side of the story you believe’ is not simply a matter of ‘faith and personal exploration’; it is a matter of sober, historical truth. This is why we say – or we may choose not to say – the Nicene Creed, and this is why the Nicene Creed is such an important weapon against Gnosticism in its ancient and in its modern forms, such as The Da Vinci Code.

At one level, of course, The Da Vinci Codeis harmless fun, and if it brings more people to Westminster Abbey that can only be good, especially if here, please God, they catch something of the flavour of authentic Christianity. At another level, it is will thoroughly mislead people who think it has something serious to say about Christianity, which it does not. In our second lesson, we heard about the wisdom (the ‘knowledge’) which is earthly and the wisdom which comes from above. We heard that ‘the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy’ (James 3:17). How badly the world needs this God-given wisdom! Of this wisdom ‘from above’ The Da Vinci Codewill teach you nothing.

Footnotes

1Brown, Dan, The Da Vinci Code(London: Corgi edition, 2004).

2For a magisterial survey, see Pannenberg, W., Jesus God and Man(London: SCM, 1968).

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