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Issue Date:  May 26, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Separating fact, faith from fiction

“OK, everyone take a deep breath. Calm down. Now say slowly: ‘The DaVinci Code’ is fiction.”

I’ve found myself quietly muttering lines to that effect in recent days as the anti-“DaVinci Code” rhetoric was cranking up prior to the release of the movie.

I find it amusing that some who don’t want readers or viewers to take too seriously author Dan Brown’s elaborate conspiracy fantasy are themselves beginning to spin equally fantastic theories about an anti-Christian, anti-Catholic conspiracy born of the heathen culture from which we all must protect ourselves. This, in the United States, where megachurches flourish, where cable channels spill over with pulpit-thumping preachers and where religious tests are becoming as important for politicians as K Street connections. I think, as much as anything, that many American “values” present an extreme challenge to the Christian Gospel. But I’d also venture that the most serious challenge to the Gospel may well be the many sanctuaries where some of those same values are treated as sacred text, where ministers advance the gospel of prosperity and the beatitudes of comfort and create a Jesus who winks knowingly at our need to make war.

At least Dan Brown’s stuff is labeled a novel and sold in the fiction section.

~ ~ ~

At the same time, it is encouraging to see that much of the U.S. Catholic response -- from the Web site of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to that of Opus Dei -- is decidedly this side of a rant against the movie and takes the opportunity to teach. Film can be big and persuasive and, to the uninitiated or young in faith, confounding. So the church is right to provide resources and possibilities for discussions to set the record straight, in this case to separate fact and faith from fiction.

It would seem an excellent opportunity also for Catholic academics, particularly those well versed in the creative arts, to talk about other contemporary treatments of sacred themes; to discuss how art, literature and film raise questions. When I worked in New York some years ago, I remember having to walk through lines of very loud rosary prayers and around barricades to get to such films such as “Jesus of Montreal” and “Hail Mary.” I have nothing against the rosary. In those days, in fact, I quietly prayed it regularly during a bus commute using a “finger rosary” that someone had given me.

The people praying undoubtedly were protesting what they saw as an assault on the faith. Yet such films present the church an ideal opportunity to speak about how modern artists explore such mysteries and revisit ancient Christological queries.

~ ~ ~

An important book to me as a young man was Nikos Katzenzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. It was made into a movie in 1988. I saw only bits of it and thought it awful and so never watched the whole thing. But I was at Mass in New Jersey one Sunday when, after a visiting priest read a letter from the chancery urging a boycott of the film, members of the Knights of Columbus began moving down the aisles distributing postcards that were to be mailed to some company protesting the movie’s release.

After Mass I waited until the priest was alone and asked him if he’d read the book. He had, he said, and thought it had raised interesting questions and was, in fact, theologically intriguing. We talked, and he said he hadn’t considered teaching about it because ... well ... because of the letter from the bishop and the fact that most people hadn’t read the book, and such as that. I said I thought it a missed opportunity to teach and that he had probably provoked more people into seeing the movie, without the information he could have provided, by telling them they shouldn’t see it.

Catholic Digest magazine just released the results of a poll it did about The Da Vinci Code that found that 73 percent of Catholics who read the book said it did not affect their faith or opinion of the church. “The survey shows that we’re a long way from the old Catholic Index of forbidden books,” said Digest editor-in-chief Dan Connors. “On the whole,” he said, Catholics “see fiction for what it is -- fiction.”

That’s a good sign. Everybody breathe out.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006

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