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Thursday, March 17, 2005

First, Don't Think About Sheep

Everybody knows that if you tell someone not to think about sheep leaping over a fence, that’s all he will be able to think about. Day and night. His mind will obsessively ruminate on nothing but the sheep jumping over the fence.

So two years after The Da Vinci Code hit the market and became a bestseller, a Roman Catholic Cardinal is telling the faithful that they shouldn’t buy the book. Cardinal Tarcisisio Bertone, Archbishop of Genoa and former member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (AKA the Inquisition), today announced that nobody, and especially not Catholics, should read this book.

Honest to God, did author Dan Brown pay him for this kind of publicity? What? Are the book’s sales finally sagging? Or is this just an attempt to gin up some controversy for the soon to be released film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard? After all, look what controversy did for Mel Gibson and his film, The Passion.

Two years after the The Da Vinci Code hit the bestseller list and sold eighteen million copies, the Vatican decides to weigh in that people shouldn’t read it? I’d say it’s too late to slam that barn door shut now.

Okay, the Archbishop has a good point. There are people reading this book who believe the central thesis that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had offspring. Of course, no reputable historian or theologian buys that, not even the Jesus Seminar.

There’s been a cottage industry for years, fueled by nonfiction tomes like Holy Blood, Holy Grail and other conspiracy books that accuse the Vatican of covering up Jesus’ marriage and his siring of children. The problem is none of them have been as spectacularly successful as The Da Vinci Code. The Da Vinci Code is a fast paced thriller novel. But does it really need to be said that it is fiction?

Apparently so, given how many people have stated they actually believe it’s true. All I can say is that most Americans also still believe Saddam Hussein is linked to al Queda and that he was the one who attacked America on September 11, 2001. Americans are good-hearted, generous people. But frankly, they’re also misinformed, gullible, and sometimes downright dumb as dirt. This would be one of those times.

No, Jesus didn’t marry Mary Magdalene, No, they didn’t have children. Get over it.

Unfortunately, the good Archbishop is doing more to spread publicity for the book and movie. All he’s doing is guaranteeing more readers for the book he thinks nobody should read. Someday opponents of books and movies will learn that the best way they can combat them is by simply ignoring them. But probably not any time soon.

Ironically, the one person who does realize this is Bernardo Estrada, a New Testament scholar in Rome and a member of Opus Dei.

Opus Dei is a controversial, conservative Catholic organization with Vatican ties. They didn’t fare too well in Dan Brown’s book. For the three people left who still haven’t read the novel, the villain, a whacked out religious fanatic who tries to surpress the truth by attempting to murder the protagonists, is an Opus Dei member given to extreme self-flagellation.

But despite that negative portrayal of the organization of which he is a member, Estrada proves to be the only sane and non-whacked out participant in this discussion. Here’s the money quote about his reaction in today's Washington Post:

"Scandal is what such books are all about," said Bernardo Estrada, a teacher of the New Testament in Rome and a member of Opus Dei, a worldwide Catholic lay organization with strong Vatican connections. Opus Dei is one of the villains in "The Da Vinci Code." It is portrayed trying to suppress knowledge that Jesus left a lineage on Earth and meant for Mary Magdalene to be head of the church. "It's an attack on the church as obscurantist, and Opus Dei is just a vehicle for the attack," he said.

But Estrada doesn't think "The Da Vinci Code" ought to be banned. Rather, priests need to read it so they can talk about it. "Anyone with a historical and religious base can refute it. I rather liked it, it's a good thriller," he said.”

I rather liked it too. But that doesn’t mean I believed it. It’s a novel. It’s fiction. And I think the Vatican has more important things to do than chase after fictional heretics. It can, for example, clean out the pedophiles still abusing kids in the churches. That’s, unfortunately, still a fact.

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