Monday, May 22, 2006

The DaVinci Code is Anti-Catholic in the Same Way That Protesting the War Was Anti-American

Haven't yet seen the film and most likely wouldn't have read the book, but TheWife hates to fly. Traveling to a dear friend's wedding in New Mexico last year, she read it from Kentucky to Amarillo and demanded that I read it so that she could talk to me about it.

My first thought after finishing the book was that it was written with the intention of being easily adapted into a screen play, but my second was that it was an incredibly clever way of doing subversive religious left politics. The howls that the story is anti-Catholic or more broadly anti-Christian are incredibly predictable, and follow exactly the same inferential line that we've seen before -- if you oppose the orthodox conservative line, you hate the institution. The opponents of The DaVinci Code equivocate between their politically-infected theology and the religion as a whole just as the rhetoric from supporters of the President failed to distinguish between the administration's neo-conservative project and the country itself. To challenge one is not to declare oneself as fundamentally opposed to the other.

SPOILER WARNING: I will try to avoid giving away any of the surprises, but some of the following discussion will have to refer to aspects of the plot of the book (and presumably are included in the film adaptation). If you haven't seen or read The DaVinci Code and are planning to, you might want to hold off on the rest of the post until after.

Brown's protagonist, Robert Langdon, is a member of the "Eastern liberal elite" written in a style that will be incredibly attractive to "Eastern liberal elites." He is a Harvard professor, and a humanist at that, but he is neither suave nor arrogant. He is smart, but drinks chocolate milk. He is liberated enough to talk about sex in class, but does it in a way that is both cutely awkward and sophisticated and pro-feminist.

He is then embedded in a plot that would be very attractive to progressive minds, one that embeds the culture war inside the Church. Where we are used to seeing it played out as secular versus religious, science versus faith, here we have a plot in which the progressive versus conservative is fought out on faith versus faith grounds. It is done in such a way that the progressive faithful are the great heroes of history, indeed they are the saints of Comte's anti-religion religion, the Church of Man. Not only DaVinci, but Isaac Newton and a whole host of the greatest minds in human history are seen as both religious and liberal. Not only is the reinterpretation of the Holy Grail naturally appealing to the contemporary left, but it redefines within its fictional realm what it means to be authentically Christian. You can be smart, gay, scientific, artistic AND a real Christian like Leonardo. The contemporary pseudo-moralistic, conservative, uptight, religious right is portrayed as barbarians who protect their own power by intentionally distorting religion.

It is for this reason that the film is the most dangerous. By locating the bad guy in Opus Dei -- an ultraconservative, exclusive, secretive, right-wing religious/political faction, Brown brings out into the open, the Catholic Church's real life culture war. Catholicism has good works as a central theological notion. It also has a strong hierarchy as a central theological notion. These do not always work together in harmony. Catholic thinkers, especially those on the ground in the least privileged regions, seized on advances in sociology in the first half of the 20th century. The sociological thought of the time analyzed the ways in which class structure and other social institutions entrenched poverty. This became what we know as "liberation theology." Since part of the job of the Church was to work for the least among us, this new understanding which locates a primary the source of social injustice within the structure of the government and economy necessitated a political role for the Church. Standing up for human rights, for a fair distribution of wealth, for social services for the poor was part of one's religious duties. Corporate capitalism, on this view, is not only antithetical to what Catholics ought to stand for, but a force that needed to be opposed in order to free the suffering. And you saw in South and Central America especially, Catholic clergy standing against horribly evil regimes. This is why death squads (often trained and funded by the US) often targeted priests and nuns for torture and murder.

But this sociologically inspired Catholic left was not universally loved, especially by those from Eastern Europe who suffered under the Soviets. The USSR openly held contempt for religion and when the Cold War ended and democracy came to the region with the freedom to worship openly, it was capitalism that was associated with it. Having a Pope who was part of that struggle in Poland gave the organization a politically rightward lean and this meant that those associated with liberation theology would be squeezed out of the power structure, purged like Democratic intelligence agents from the CIA under Porter Goss. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, was John Paul II's Dick Cheney. He led the charge against the leftists in the Church hierarchy. it was in this environment that Opus Dei has been looked upon quite favorably.

And so, just as there has been a culture war in the US, there has been one in the Catholic Church as well. Indeed, they are not independent. Part of American conservative doctrine has always been anti-immigrant sentiment. When the immigrants were Italian, Irish, and Polish, this became an anti-Catholic sentiment. But now, with the right-wing of the Catholic Church in control, you see American conservatives for the first time embracing Catholics.

What Brown is doing in The DaVinci Code is calling this unholy alliance of the Holy Church and right-wing politics unchristian. To progressives who are Christian or spiritual, but not religious, this move strikes a deep chord. The DaVinci Code is for these folks what The West Wing has been for Democrats more broadly over the several years. A safe fictional space to imagine what life might have been like if we had won the election. But in religion, where power resides in controlling discourse (this is true everywhere, but especially so in faith-based organizations) to have a powerful counter-image for faith is a matter for alarm. Having won the battle inside the Vatican, they want to claim the right to write the history. But here is a loser who is acheiving great success with a counter-history demonizing the winners. that just isn't fair. The DaVinci Code threatens to be the educated left's version of the Left Behind series, a way to redefine spirituality within the confines of the religious structure from the ground up based upon appeals to politically desirable themes. It may re-energize the Christian left by giving them a positive image to rally around. That is why it is so imperative that they decry and demonize this book and film. it is why the very sweet woman who cuts TheWife's hair was scared away from the book by her religious advisor.

You don't need great literature to be subversive, and this clever piece of writing pulls all of the right strings. That being said, TheWife and I are still not sure we want to drop $20 to see it.