The Da Vinci Code, like all good thrillers, begins with a murder. The curator of the Louvre is found dead in the museum, his body disfigured and a cryptic message scrawled on the floor near him: O, Draconian devil! Oh, lame saint! It’s a code, one of a series of clues setting the reader on the path to uncovering hidden secrets about Jesus and his relationship with Mary Magdalene.
Amidst the hype surrounding the book and movie has come a re-awakening of people’s interests in puzzles and codes. TV shows have jumped on the bandwagon, advertising mysteries ‘to rival the Da Vinci Code’. The judge on a court case involving the book’s author Dan Brown published a coded message in his findings. Even churches have gotten in on the act. An Anglican website has been set up, challengingdavinci.com, that mimics the official movie website and has its own religious code to crack in order to ‘find the truth’.
These puzzles can be fun ways to spend time. But it prompts the question - is hiding the truth really the best way of serving it?
Codes aren’t about truth, they’re about power. They are about controlling information, limiting its availability to those who aren’t in the know, and keeping it hidden among those who are.
Cryptologist Ron Rivest writes that ‘cryptography is about communication in the presence of adversaries’. It began with finding ways of encrypting messages in war. In the mass media age, adversaries communicate along shared lines. It means people have had to find new ways of manipulating language and form to their own ends. People in power today are used to manipulating words and their meanings. Politicians in particular are skilled at responding to questions with answers that give nothing away that they don’t intend to. Holding power in the mass media age is about controlling the message.
That’s also the main theme of the Da Vinci Code. The story’s villains are those who seek the secret of the Grail for the power that secret brings. At issue is the true nature of Jesus, and how Catholics around the world see him. Was he the Son of God, or just a political figure? The truth lies in the Grail, it seems, and whoever controls the Grail controls the fate of the church.
Of course, unlocking a secret isn’t the same as knowing the truth. As we see in the Da Vinci Code, the truth often depends on the one telling it. Or as Dan Brown’s grail aficionado and conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Leigh Teabing proclaims in the book, ‘The greatest story ever told, is the greatest story ever sold’. The book re-interprets famous pieces of art and architecture to fit its own version of history, even creating a new organisation known as the Priory of Sion and populating it with well-know historical figures. Rather than offering readers a chance to liberate themselves by asking questions, the Da Vinci Code is really just about selling them an alternative story.
There is a great sense of power in unlocking a code and discovering a hidden secret. Each time we unlock one of the puzzles in the Da Vinci Code, we are drawn deeper into the inner circle of those who know the true nature of the Grail. We’re now keepers of the secret. However, finding the truth involves asking questions about the world we’re presented with. The Da Vinci Code gives us a puzzle, solved in a series of revelations that come together in an alternative version of the Christian story. As a thriller, it follows a predictable but entertaining formula. As a path to the truth, it leaves a lot to be desired.
The search for truth is separate from the quest for power. One seeks to enlighten and enrich the world, the other to control it. Solving a code is a good way to exercise your problem solving skills, but it’s not really about exercising the analytical part of your brain. The Da Vinci Code would be a far more liberating and empowering experience for the reader if it was about asking questions, rather than unlocking answers.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
17 May 2006
No point in unlocking a code when you already know the truth! Enjoyed reading the article.
22 May 2006
'Controlling the message' is an important theme in Da Vinci. But so too is the denial of the feminine, including the "Sacred Feminine".
The Church has sought to control THIS message by reducing the feminine to the uncontrollable impulses of the body. The anti-body message of the Catholic Church has caused untold harm in the past and the present, and will continue to do so.
Rather than beating the popular author around the head for the lack of (historical) "truth" in his thriller, Church thinkers should reflect on the greater truth that the popular storyteller has uncovered.
If the Church cares for truth, and not merely power, it will take up the Truth - and return to the original vision of its Founder who treated women as equals, and with an uncommon and remarkable dignity.
Rod Thomson fms
08 June 2006
Bravo, Michael. I enjoyed your piece, particularly your parting sentence. Our pragmatic lives can tend to shape us to value "the facts", but in so doing can divest our lives of the power of a "good story" to give direction and belonging. Too often this leads to a fractured experience of life / relationships / community, giving us no guiding ethic or shared meaning as a society. I was in a gospel sharing evening with a group of young adults recently, and the power of the story as we shared its impact and meaning for our own lives was much more of a life-giving experience than any simple hunting down of the facts on which the story might be based. Code breaking might be fun for a while, but like sand through our fingers, it cannot ultimately be grasped to help shape a sense of humanity and reality that we can build on and enjoy with others. The REAL questions about life, love, and our place in the universe can only be served by those people, books and films, that open up to us the possibilities and lead us into those deeper questions that are based on genuine facts rather than on a fabricated wild-goose-chase! There’s plenty of mystery and intrigue right there in the Gospels and Christian history that could be more profitably explored without having to invent a romp laden with conspiracy theories (and a pretty plodding romp at that). For a good start, I’d encourage anyone to take the risk to study some theology to really explore various facts and questions, and so embark on a journey that could possibly lead to building a more genuine foundation to grasping life’s mysteries. Maybe only then can we begin to glimpse and perhaps truly appreciate the greatest story ever told.