Lincoln Cathedral took an awful beating for agreeing to let the Da Vinci Code be filmed here. I saw some of the e-mails sent to the previous Dean from so-called Christian brothers and sisters and I must confess that many of them made me ashamed to be a member of the same faith.
Everybody assumed that we had sold out our principles for the sake of a rather large fee and I was one of those members of staff given the job of pointing out that this was not the case.
My first real introduction to the modern media circus was standing in front of the Cathedral at 8.30am in the morning looking into a camera lens with a headpiece stuck in my ear talking ‘live’ to Natasha Kaplinsky’ on breakfast TV.
I can remember trying not to catch the eye of a couple of interested tourists sitting on a bench immediately opposite or a council worker rather noisily picking up last night’s rubbish. Twenty interviews and a BBC 4 documentary later I have mercifully been thrown back into that level of obscurity which is my natural habitation.
But the point we were trying to make was that the church needs to engage with books and films like the Da Vinci Code if it is to communicate its message to a generation that might otherwise pass us by.
Why? Because the Da Vinci Code is a popular page turner. It may have been carefully constructed to blur distinctions between historical truth and creative story telling, but it raises issues in people’s minds about the integrity of the church, its openness, the way that it understands its scriptures and the way that it treats women.
Of course, the lack of authority and respect given to traditional institutions today feeds into the current popularity for conspiracy theories.
In case you are the one person who hasn’t read the Da Vinci Code, its premise is that the Church knew that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a child and that the Holy Grail was really Jesus’ blood line. It has systematically suppressed this knowledge for nearly two thousand years. There is of course no credible evidence for this. However, through its tangled web of fantasy and historicity, the book does touch the odd nerve along the way.
It suggests for example that a church that is obsessed with maintaining the integrity of its truth and tradition at all costs is likely to be less successful than a church that risks dialogue with people and enjoys meeting people where they are.
It also suggests that the church should be more open about its past. cholars have known for many years that the early Christian churches owned and used many different accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus. They also knew that many of the more fanciful versions were written by ‘gnostic’ groups that the church had outlawed for their heretical teaching.
The Church gradually brought together the writings that now make up the New Testament because of their quality and orthodoxy and declared them to be Holy Scripture. In turn the Church neglected those texts of dubious value and finally outlawed those that were heretical and, because copies were not made of them, they eventually ceased to exist.
However, each time one of these ‘lost’ gospels is rediscovered somewhere in a cave or hole in ancient Palestine, its assumed that the whole credibility of the Christian story is compromised. It is not.
Although fascinating and important for researchers, these texts provide evidence of a process that is already understood by scholars and that more Christians need to be aware of.
It is true that many scholars have also recognised that the role played by Mary Magdalene in the life of the early church may well have been underplayed in the gospel accounts.
She may well have had a status equal to, or even higher than, Peter in the very early church, but may well have suffered because women were eventually excluded from leadership roles by the time the gospels were written. The rediscovery of the role of women in many parts of the modern church has fuelled interest about her role, but as an Apostle and leader in the church, not as the Da Vinci Code suggests as Jesus’ wife.
Sometimes it needs a book like the Da Vinci Code for ordinary Christian folk to find out more about the faith they hold and for others to discover something of its rich diversity. My only regret is that I didn’t get to talk to Natasha Kaplinsky face to face.