In David Mamet’s 1992 film “Things Change,” a suave underworld character pauses in the middle of a story to state, “This is public knowledge. What I am about to tell you is not public knowledge.”
Paul Rorem would tell you to be wary of such statements, especially if made by Dan Brown, author of the blockbuster novel “The Da Vinci Code.” Rorem, professor of medieval church history at the Princeton Theological Seminary (where he earned a Ph.D. in 1980), will hold a seminar entitled “The Da Vinci Code: Fiction, Christ, and the Real Mary Magdalene” on Monday, June 19. The presentation is part of the Seminary’s Center of Continuing Education Summer Spirituality Series in June and July. On June 10, photographer Paul Grand and Buddhist nun Bhiksuni Karma Time Lhamo present an introductory seminar on Buddhism (U.S.1, May 31), and on four Friday evenings in July, Rorem will teach a course on medieval mysticism.
“The Da Vinci Code” (and for anyone who hasn’t read it or seen the movie, spoiler alert!) deals with the fictitious unraveling of an alleged centuries-old conspiracy to cover up the alleged marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and the bloodline of their descendants. The book mentions suppressed texts of the gospel (known as Gnostic gospels), and clues that lie within Da Vinci’s the Last Supper. In the novel the Priory of Sion, an ancient order (according to author Brown), is dedicated to preserving the knowledge of Christ’s married life, and Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic order, is supposedly engaged in just about anything to stamp out the secret, tacitly backed by the Vatican. The game is afoot, as Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks in the movie), a Harvard symbologist (whatever that is), attempts to sniff out the truth, and various villains, including an albino monk connected with Opus Dei, try to stop him. In the telling, Brown makes claims for many historical characters’ involvement in the Priory of Sion, including Victor Hugo, Sir Isaac Newton, and Da Vinci himself.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the book’s 2003 release you know that it has sold over 40 million copies and has drawn the wrath of the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, and other organized religions, most notably the fundamentalists. Meanwhile, most historians just shake their heads in wonder, while the conspiracy theorists rejoice.
Rorem appears more bemused than bewitched, bothered, or bewildered by the book. He doesn’t feel that his main goal in life is to disparage “The Da Vinci Code.” There is no fire in his eye or thunder in his voice when he says, “I don’t want to come at it aggressively as a debunking because I like the book; it’s a fun read. I don’t want to come off too negatively but it’s all wrong historically. So I think debunking is where I’m going to end up.
“The bottom line problem is on the question of the humanity and divinity of Christ. It is fundamentally unchristian to view Christ as basically just a good human. Christians have a lot at stake on that point, and that’s what the book is arguing.”
Much of the ire of the Christian world has been aimed at the novel’s claim that Jesus took a wife. That doesn’t really bother Rorem. “He could have been married,” he says. “That in itself is not the problem with the book. One of my punchlines in this presentation is going to be that Brown has the issue of these (Gnostic) gospels exactly backwards. The problem with some of those gospels is that they denied the humanity of Jesus — they had him as only divine. Brown makes it sound like the gospels that were suppressed were the ones that had him as human, and that the church made him into a divinity, which is nonsense. When you look at those gospels that didn’t make it into the canon, there was only divinity — he was just kind of a spiritual presence and miracle worker who wasn’t really human.”
So is any of “The Da Vinci Code” accurate? Rorem laughs, “Well, there is a big museum in Paris but other than that, not very much. What threw me off is that on the first page Brown states, ‘This is fact,’ referring specifically to the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei. And he also states, ‘All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals are accurate.’ Now, I like historical fiction, and I read those kinds of novels where a real king or pope or emperor is in the plot, and there’s a mystery or a murder that’s made up around the edges, but the basic context is a genuine historical context. And this one I thought was going to be like that.
“But I went to my reference books and found out he (Brown) made it all up. The back story on the Priory of Sion is that a Frenchman, Pierre Plantard, in the mid 20th century, forged some documents and tried to make it sound as if (the organization) were a real medieval phenomenon. It has all been exposed as a 20th century forgery and fraud, and that is where Brown has seriously misled his readers. There are some things in the book that are historically accurate, but very, very few, and it bothers me that people would take things like the Priory of Sion and the story of the bloodline as a long and old tradition.”
Rorem had an interest in church life and becoming a pastor from an early age. The son of a small-town doctor and former nurse who became a stay-at-home mom in Minnesota, and grandson of a Lutheran minister, Rorem graduated from St. Olaf College as a philosophy major in 1970. His interest in theology led to a masters of divinity from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, in 1973, then he earned an additional masters from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and went on to Princeton Theological Seminary.
His main interest now is medieval church history, which will carry over into the four-part July seminar at the seminary, a continuing education course called “Introduction to Christian Mythical Tradition.” “I’m going to cover a lot of different centuries in this integral course,” he says. “There is a dimension of the transcendence of god, or the mysterious and personal side of Christian faith, which is in many different cultures. I’ll start with some Greek texts, then move toward Latin and different countries in Europe and different centuries. It ties into modern times reflecting today’s interest in spirituality and mysticism. Twenty or thirty years ago, it was thought to be exotic, of interest only to historians, but with spirituality on the rise, there is an interest in this. My material is directly out of biblical sources, and then I show some medieval examples. The unappreciated side of this subject is that many of these medieval texts were not brand new texts people just thought up and wrote out, they were meditations on biblical starting points.”
Rorem’s passion for his work is unmistakable, but he is realistic enough to know that the Dan Brown tome will be the crowd-pleaser. He says, “When our classes are scheduled in the evenings, they are meant to appeal to people who have ordinary work lives, not pastors who can come during the day. They are for lay people, the general public.”
Unlike some others, Rorem takes an almost charitable view of just what he feels Brown is up to in “The Da Vinci Code.” “In his first book, ‘Angels & Demons’ (featuring Robert Langdon),” Rorem says, “Brown was just trying to latch on to exotic and exciting, mysterious, sinister angles for the sake of selling books. He likes the conspiratorial plots. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ does turn out to be massively anti-Catholic and anti-Opus Dei. In terms of the views of Christ that he promotes, it’s fundamentally anti-Christian. But I don’t think that he had this big agenda to attack the church, and then he wrote a novel. He is just looking for quick trashy literature that’s going to grab casual readers, and he hit on some religious angles. And it sold a lot of books. I don’t think he was out to discredit the church.”
Rorem also has an interesting take on the long-range effects of the novel. “We’re seeing a mixture of gullible reception in the general readership and almost universally critical and negative reactions by informed readers. I haven’t read any mixed verdicts from historians or theologians. In fact, it’s swinging over to the totally negative and the idea that this is nonsense. The movie is getting panned. The problem is that the books, and the books about the book, are a billion dollar business, so it’s going to be influential. The only scholars who have to take this seriously are not historians of art, or the early church, or Mary Magdalene. The scholars who will have to take it seriously are scholars who analyze contemporary culture: what is it about the early 21st century that caused this massive popularity? Religious culture will spend a lot of time on this: why did a novel sell 40 or 50 million copies and spawn a million dollar industry? They will have to analyze that — why ‘The Da Vinci Code’ phenomenon happened at this time, at this place.”
“The Da Vinci Code: Fiction, Christ, and the Real Mary Magdalene,” Monday, June 19, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Princeton Theological Seminary, Erdman Gallery, presented by Paul Rorem. Visit www.ptsem.edu/ce or call 1-800-622-6767, ext. 7990.