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So what is the big deal?
Riding the subway pondering the impact of "The Da Vinci Code"


May 23, 2006

Train rides in New York yield many social insights to a casual observer. Trains are like high speed, mobile living rooms-- 5 minute windows into a person's life while they travel from one destination to another, and passengers willingly act out some of their more private tasks in very public spaces. People shave, eat, sleep, and even shit on trains. Strangers strike up conversations with one another, lovers quarrel, and beggars beg. As a young actress, Meryl Streep used to walk through the subway cars making animal sounds to get over her fear of performing in public. 

Despite all the distractions and more than anything else, people in New York read on trains. Advertising panels in the cars, magazines, newspapers, the Bible, little leather bound Talmudic volumes in Hebrew and of course, all sorts of novels. Even the people who travel without reading material read over your shoulder so long as you don't catch them and the bold ones among them will read on, undeterred even if you do spot them peering over your shoulder.

I remember riding the train last summer in New York -- the iPod and its unmistakable white headphones, while a common sight, were not yet completely ubiquitous. The headlines of the trashy tabloid newspapers screamed about Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton's latest fight, rising gasoline prices, and of Larry Brown's impending departure from Detroit to take over as coach of the hapless Knicks. Riding the train everyday also gives one a good sense of what is trendy, or is soon destined to become so. In 2005, bootleg brown Louis Vuitton bags were toted by women of all ages, races, and incomes from 168th Street all the way down to Brooklyn. Last summer, it seemed everyone was reading the book The Kite Runner, a fact that at times inexplicably made me want to share with the rider/reader next to me that I would be heading to Afghanistan later that summer.  

This year, Larry Brown's departure from the New York Knicks to coaching purgatory seems imminent, cherry print Louis Vuitton bags are favored, everyone has an iPod, and the book of choice without a question is The Da Vinci Code. It's kind of impossible to resist reading it, with all the hype that it has received and the movie being released a few days ago. I myself read it a few months ago, and though not brilliantly written, I enjoyed the book very much.

I liked it because it persuasively suggests that the Christianity of today is a carefully engineered and very distant relative of what it was in its early days. Dan Brown, for all his limitations as a writer, had an amazing story in his head when he wrote The Da Vinci Code, one that is generating an increasing amount of controversy. True or false, creatively controversial or cheaply low-brow, The Da Vinci Code is a big deal -- I realized it on the subway today as I looked at the riders on each side of me reading the book while I read an article about the novel in the New Yorker, while all of us sat under a ceiling panel advertising the movie on the subway. 

So what is the big deal? Why is everyone reading this book or lining up to see the movie? Is it THAT good? Is it the fact that Brown attacks the notion that Christ was a divine being and suggests that he was a mortal, one who married and had children? Or is it that Brown portrays the Catholic Church as a ruthless corporate entity bent on preserving its image and power by burying the truth? Maybe it's his depiction of Opus Dei, a shadowy religious order made famous in his book for resorting to murder to protect its deeply conservative views and sanctioning corporal mortification. 

In all honesty, Dan Brown has not delivered a convincing scholarly blow to the Church and its version of Christ's life. Critics have gone to great lengths to debunk Brown's assertions in The Da Vinci Code, and Sony Pictures is making the discussion profitable by advertising dissenting views in order to encourage people to see the movie and make up their minds for themselves.

Personally, I don't care about how much of Brown's information is true, e.g. whether the Council of Nicea ever took place (where Bishops allegedly decided Jesus was to be known as a god rather than a man), or to what extent he got the other nuances correct. I am sure his numerous critics, many who are trained experts in the fields of theology, art history, and specialized fields of early Christian and medieval Church history can easily take him to task for his empirical errors and many already have.

What is truly interesting is that despite the fact that many of Brown's claims may be wrong, his story has struck a deep chord in the minds of millions -- Christians and non-Christians alike. Several polls show that a surprising number people think that Brown's book is an accurate depiction of Church history, despite mounting and well-researched evidence to the contrary. The Catholic Church and Opus Dei have both condemned the movie as anti-Christian and defamatory, one that threatens their positions in the eye of public opinion and the very foundations of the Christian faith.

Brown's book has sparked a cottage industry of books supporting or attacking his contentions, several hours of interviews with experts and theologians on television, and a tourist mini-revolution in Paris, catering to people who wish to trace the path of The Da Vinci Code through the winding streets and arrondissements of the city. People want to believe this story, whether it's true or not.

Riding the subway in New York today, I had a few guesses as to why this phenomenon maybe occuring. In today's social climate where governments and media are increasingly resourceful in thwarting and even distorting public opinion, maybe it doesn't matter that Dan Brown didn't get the facts right-- because it seems that no one else bothers to get them right either and the citizen/reader is increasingly left at the mercy of his own wits to discern fact from fiction. Maybe it's because the powers that be don't tell us the truth -- they tell us the version that keeps them in power and makes them appear righteous to the public. 

Maybe this book strikes a nerve and states in highly readable language the fact that history belongs to the victorious -- maybe its popularity implies that people are all aware too aware of the dirty secrets that ruling institutions strive so desparately to hide, even if they cannot prove where they lie.

And maybe Americans, after enduring lie after lie from the Bush administraiton on the Iraq War, the War on Terror, Hurricane Katrina, global warming, Enron, etc. are eager to see any node of power in our world pointed to and irritated, taken to task, and forced to rebuff its charges. They want it bad enough that they are willing to buy millions of copies of a supermarket caliber novel and line up to see the watered-down movie version that perhaps will be best remembered for Tom Hanks' alarming hair style.

Who knows, maybe it will exceed expectations. I plan seeing the movie this weekend and talking to people on the train afterwards to find out.

For letters section
To Roozbeh Shirazi

Roozbeh Shirazi



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