By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
The Da Vinci Code is one of the greatest phenomena in the history of fiction publishing and the juggernaut rolls on with the arrival of the movie version. But why are we so profoundly obsessed with a thriller about the Church?
It has sold more than 40 million copies across the world, transforming author Dan Brown into a spectacularly wealthy man.
For the few who don't know, it is a thriller telling the story of a race to uncover a massive conspiracy engineered by the Catholic Church to obscure the feminine nature of early Christianity and a shocking secret about Jesus and the Holy Grail.
The Da Vinci Code has been assaulted in equal measures by both historians and theologians, while the critics have sought to emphasise the role of the book's clever marketing to explain the mind-boggling success of a seemingly humdrum thriller.
But as cunning as its marketing has been, Brown's real success has been to effortlessly generate a wave of press coverage and internet discussion.
As Giles Elliott, charts editor of industry magazine the Bookseller, notes, the book has benefited from the Holy Grail of publishing, word-of-mouth.
"It has got that key ingredient - people don't want to be seen not to have read it."
The vehemence of some of the criticism of the book has prompted some to wonder whether there might be some factual elements to this work of fiction.
Mr Elliott continues: "It is a page-turning thriller and apart from anything else, for an agnostic like myself, I find the theories quite interesting and at least as plausible as the official church line first fed to me as a child."
There is no doubt it has tapped into a Zeitgeist that publishers have flirted with for some time.
Mystical topics like the Holy Grail, Dead Sea Scrolls, Knights Templar and the Freemasons have a history of popularity in both fiction and fact. The book makes a direct appeal to women readers, regarded as the big market in fiction, while appealing also to men, with the book feeling as much like non-fiction as a novel.
And most of all, the novel taps into the love of conspiracy theories, never stronger than in the age of 9/11, Diana and JFK.
Bishop of Winchester Michael Scott-Joynt, whose cathedral allowed scenes from the movie to be filmed there, believes there is both a modern disrespect for authority and also experts.
"There is a huge attraction in strange stories and cover-ups - it didn't happen like the authorities said it happened, who's been pulling the wool over whose eyes?
"There is a substantial cynicism of the motives of those in authority."
The film is as near-certain a blockbuster as can be possible
The money from the filming was partly used to produce an exhibition, which runs until 21 July on the scriptural and historical contradictions of the code, and a series of lectures.
Michael Wheeler, who gave one of the lectures, is a visiting professor of literature at a number of universities and a lay canon at the cathedral.
"It is a symptom of our generation. We live in an age of anxiety, of a post-modern sense that we have lost our moorings, a crisis of choice where anything goes. If you choose it, it must be true. Conspiracy theories are very attractive to people. We live in an age of suspicion and anxiety.
"As Tony Robinson [who made a documentary deconstructing the book] said, whatever people believe, they do respect the Gospel. To turn it upside down or deconstruct it is sexy."
And there is perhaps an argument to be made that the book, particularly in Britain where regular churchgoing is a minority activity, is filling a spiritual void.
Professor Mike West, chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, where filming also took place, believes the book has given a chance for both the Church of England and Catholic Church to engage with people who were previously indifferent.
"It has made people a little bit more interested in the Jesus story. I don't know how much it would matter if Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene but there is no sensible evidence that that is the case.
"But we think [Brown] touches a few nerves we need to address about the role of women in the Church, about the nature of the Church and how open it is."
Both the Anglicans and Catholics now know better than to expect to harm a Hollywood product with boycotts and protests. Instead, the UK Catholics' Da Vinci Code Response Group's description of the book as "fun and harmless in so far as it is treated as fiction" speaks volumes.
Critics know that many fans regard parts of the book as fact, and Brown has done his part to encourage this.
The opening page is labelled "fact" and is followed by the statement: "The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organization."
But as Bishop Scott-Joynt insists: "All this stuff about the Priory of Sion is a 20th Century fantasy." And sadly for Brown, historians seem to side with the bishop, dismissing as a hoax the very documents the author cites as proof.
The "fact" page goes on to assert: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." Art historians have gleefully jumped on Brown's interpretations, and in other details many readers will spot errors.
But above even the disdain of the churches, and the mockery of historians, perhaps the greatest ire comes from literary figures, possibly angry at a book they see as utterly lacking in literary merit dominating water cooler conversation from here to Timbuktu.
Novelist John Mortimer dismisses the Da Vinci Code in one word: "Unreadable".
"The first page is terrible. It is so badly written, it couldn't be read by anyone who respects the English language."
Former minister, and now broadcaster and author Edwina Currie also said she had found it impossible to get past the first page.
"It is extremely badly written - full of cliches. It was actually painful to read. My husband, who does a bit of buying and selling on ebay, said he would sell it to the first bidder."
Along with Harry Potter, it is the typical favourite novel of people who do not read novels. And there are many who believe this makes it a godsend.
The Bookseller's Mr Elliott says there is a standard elitist view of the book.
"It's as if the health of the nation is at risk from this evil author - they should all be reading Ian McEwan. We think slightly differently. It is making lots of non-traditional readers read books. They will move on to other books, reading will be seen as something not elitist."
Dr Jennifer Wallace, who teaches literature at Cambridge University, admits she has not read the book but is wary of snobbery.
"The Gothic novels of the 18th Century were the pulp of their day and we regard them as literature now. As far as I can make out it is a great detective novel, a secret is hushed up by institutions. The appeal of detective fiction goes right back to Oedipus finding out the truth about his past. It is arguably the first detective story."
For those who do want the same elements but with a more literary bent, she suggests 18th Century anarchist William Godwin's Things as They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams.
"Conspiracy theories have always appealed to the public because they feel it exposes institutions of power and helps them in their own feeling of powerlessness."
Church leaders understood the benefits of allowing filming
And before the Da Vinci Code was a twinkle in its author's eye there was a compelling tale of Church conspiracy, littered with erudition - Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. It even got the Hollywood treatment courtesy of Sean Connery.
As Bishop Scott-Joynt notes: "Umberto Eco is a philosopher of real distinction. [It is] a beautifully crafted, and extraordinarily clever [book] and it doesn't have a page at the beginning that says fact."
Prof Wheeler is happy to give the Da Vinci Code its due, albeit while damning with faint praise.
"As a literary work it's good for nothing. He is not a good writer, it's not been properly edited, but he has a wonderful gift.
"It is in a way an airport novel. The literati like myself wouldn't normally read it. But I find it a page turner and an exciting thriller. It was full of ideas of interest even though I didn't agree with them. At the heart of it there's no historical basis for that view but it is extremely interesting and provocative."
And whatever people's views on the Da Vinci Code, they had better get used to seeing a slew of mystical conspiracy books on their shelves.
The Bookseller has coined a term for it: "Brownsploitation".
Titles such as the Magdalene Cipher, the Lucifer Code and the Last Templar, even when conceived before the blockbuster, are benefiting from the Brown effect.
And when the Archbishop of Canterbury is forced to address the issue in his Easter sermon, you know people's need for mystical conspiracy theories is here to stay.
As he notes: "It's almost that we'd prefer to believe something like this instead of the prosaic reality."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
We should have an elitist club for all those who haven't read the book. I being one of those rather proud members.
Hemant, Addiscombe, Surrey
Believe it or not people, the painting of the last supper by Leonardo Da Vinci has absolutely nothing to do with the doctrine of the Christian Church. For one thing, it is unlikely that the disciples sat at a table as depicted in the picture. Once you realise that you realise that the premise of the book is built on sand.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK
Jolly good book. Unfortunately I notice most of the commentators have forsaken their reasoning capabilities and have decided to stick to their Taliban like blind faiths. I wonder why did God give them their brains.The aim of the book was to provoke thought, not whiplash Dan Browns style with religious insecurities. I wish people would come up with proofs that the book is a fabrication rather than outright denounce it.
Keyser, Hamilton, Canada
For me, I believe some parts of the book yet I still believe in God, this is true faith.
Rostand, Makati, Philippines
Great airport novel: entertaining and not much thinking to be done. Why do people have to take it so seriously? What disturbs me is the money being made from "Da Vinci Code" tours in Europe. We'll soon have people worshipping at the Louvre pyramid...
Marlise, Geneva, Switzerland
I was disappointed with The Da Vinci Code, as well as his previous book which was better in many respects. I was also disappointed with the last 1000+ page "literati" book I finished, as well as the last book of Mr. Mortimer's I have read. And yet I must also say I enjoyed and found value in all of them.
Joe, Buffalo Grove, Illinois, USA
It was boring plain and simple. As an average working class male (which makes up about 78% of the world I would just like to tell Dan Brown that I don't understand art, his main character was a wimp and who elected DaVinchi god? and if you are making it all up, next book should have gangsters in it
I'm surprised that a reader could turn comments on a book into an attack on what he calls "dislikeable class snobs" (the English) and "huge snobbery inherent to British society". Criticism of the book is global. For my part, I can't see why the churches simply cannot ignore the book.
Noel Cox, New Zealand
A work of fiction is it? Tell me is it possible to write fiction about someone who actually existed and continues to exist? I will tell you that the church is Jesus Christ's bloodline and there is nothing secret about that!
I don't understand why it's a surprise to anyone that that there's a market for what amounts to Christian meta-fiction. The bible, although certainly a much more poetic collection of works, is so hopelessly riddled with contradictory statements and obscure allegory that it's no wonder modern adherents feel a need for something a bit more coherent (even if it's philosophically empty and baldly fictional). Like it or not, Dan Brown is the official Michael Crichton of Christendom.
E V, Albuquerque, US
Confused me now - don't know whether to read it or not, see it or not, believe it or not, go to church or not......going for a smoke
Grannie, Truro, Cornwall
It annoyed me right from the title. No art historian calls the guy who painted the Mona Lisa 'da Vinci'. His name was Leonardo. And if Brown can't get that right, I'm not going to trust anything else.
Tim Footman, Bangkok, Thailand
The novel, for me, was slighlty less readable than a braille phone book. Dan Brown would be more suited to writing the assembly instructions for MFI furniture, although he would obviously have to brush up on some writing basics first.
As for the "conspiracy theory" aspect of the book, anyone who thinks that an institution that as recently as 75 years ago still maintained that the Earth was flat and announces the election of its leader via smoke signals could organize a monumental cover-up, is sadly mistaken.
Brown is undoubtably a very brave writer and I look forward to his novel about how Islam has conspired against women for the last century or so which will be published with a cartoon of Mohammed on the jacket cover...fatwa anyone?
Jon, London, UK
This entire thing highlights a huge snobbery inherent to British society. How can you possibly not have finished the first page? Are the sentences so offensive to your little eyes that you had to stop? It's like the princess and the pea. The reason Hollywood baddies are always English is because everyone sees you as dislikeable class snobs which, rather delightfully, this discussion goes to prove.
Paul , Edinburgh
"Badly written" One word to all who say this. Sheep. I have read a great many books in my 38 years and I even have a English Lit. Diploma, so the sometimes torturous writings of the "best" have been read, discussed, praised and slated. The last novel I heaped praise upon was "Johnathon Strange and Mr Norrel". Possibly one of the best works of literature I have read in a long time. I like to think this shows me as someone that doesn't read "pulp" however according to the experts I do, because I love Dan Brown's writing. May I suggest to those who slate Mr Brown that they first attempt to write a novel, and then attempt to write one with the adrenalin Dan manages to inject into his fiction.
Vaughan Jackson, Vartdal, Norway
People: It's only a story! I've read all of Dan Brown's novels. And Tom Clancy and Alistair McLean and Ian Fleming and even seen the movies. Get a grip.
Robert Francis, Leixlip Ireland
I find it hard to believe the level of snobbery about what is essentially a good, if simple, romp. In my view any book that gets people reading and talking about big issues rather than whose in the gossip mags cannot be a bad thing and you cannot deny people are talking about it! If people are stupid enough to take it as fact - then it's a pretty sad state of affairs, but give the average man some credit! I have a good classical education, know my Gospels and thought the theories were interesting food for thought.
Like many other contributors I found the writing style incredibly irritating, immature, cliched and grating. Brown tried to put a climax in on virtually every page - rather like a schoolboy writing an essay for his homework. Foolishly, I perservered 'til the end and when I got there I thought a resounding "so what?"
Tim, Leamington Spa
I agree with Owen in Stevenage. It's a fictional work. So what if the text isn't written to Oxbridge grammatical standards. Novels like this (and many other crime/thrillers) are encouraging previous non-readers to enjoy literature. That's got to be better than tuning into the latest run of Big Brother. There's another benefit in that it is promoting debate - an endangered species in this celebrity-obsessed age.
I'm glad Umberto Eco has been mentioned. Both The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum (also by Eco) are well researched, well-written novels that are just as thrilling as The Da Vinci Code but far more intelligent. While discussing many of the themes as The Da Vinci Code, their points are more subtle and argued more convincingly, provoking a real debate beyond "This man is making up history" "Well you would say that you're a Christian."
I picked this up not long after it came out and after the first chapter or two I was really not enjoying it. Which was strange for me as a hardline atheist who would ordinarily lap up anything that has a go at the church. I never finished reading it and the hype won't make me go back to it.
Keith, Londo, UK
I'm sorry, but I have to agree with John Mortimer; it is simply unreadable. The prose is leaden, the 'ideas' dull, and even th conspiracy at the heart of it lacks conviction. I couldn't read beyond the first couple of pages without nodding, whereas The Name of The Rose had me gripped from the start. If people want fabulous theologically based novels about secret history they should read Phil Dick's later works, especially Valis
John Knight, Beverley Uk
For heaven's sake, it's a novel! I hope that, when I write the one novel that is in everyone, I receive the same free publicity given to Dan Brown by the world's media and religious leaders.
Geoff Davidson, Thornton-Cleveleys, U.K.
I found the book very enjoyable. It was an enthralling thriller which, as with all good stories, mixes fact with fiction. The thought I have been left with is this: Why have the Christian faiths, who always preach "turn the other cheek", reacted so adversely and so publicly against this book? It can only mean there is something hidden that the Church would prefer to remain hidden. I for one would prefer to know the truth. Anyone who persists in claiming that there is not a female figure in the Last Supper painting is deluded. Let's accept that women have been suppressed by the Church and demand the Vatican tells us the truth.
Gel Silvestri, colchester
I find the pomposity of some of the book's critics to be quite annoying. By inference, those who have read and enjoyed the book (myself included) are either not 'literati' or... (say it in hushed tones)... 'conspiratorial fantasists'. These very same tenets are exactly what Brown was suggesting has occurred throughout history, giving him more credence to his story. He should be applauded for opening the subject up to debate. I know between his book and the New Testament, which I find to be the more enjoyable, literati or not.
Simon Fowles, Oldham, UK
The way people have become entranced by 'The Da Vinci Code' reminds me of the way that 'Jesus Christ Superstar' was received when that musical came out in the early 1970s. Both show how the general public, while mostly disinterested in the church-going ritual, find these mystical popularisations of the 'Jesus story' a romantic and spiritual turn-on.
David , Wandsworth
I haven't gotten around to reading this since what I saw when browsing it at the aiport was enough to put me off. Anyone wanting an engaging conspiracy thriller would do much better to look to Umberto Eco's "Focault's Pendulum" which has all the Templar Knights and secret societies you could wish for - and is a work of literary genius to boot.
David Rigby, UK
The Archbishop is right! - "It's almost that we'd prefer to believe something like this instead of the prosaic reality."... oh, sorry I thought he was talking about religion.
Looking at some of the comments written so far, I note that a number of people ask the question, "Why believe the 'original' or 'approved' Bible instead of this novel? To me, this questions seems absurd! The Bible we have today (many translations, but all based on the same earliest, validated texts) is not written as a work of popular fiction. Instead, it presents us with a picture of how God interacts with the lives of people, loving them and enjoying a relationship of the fullest kind. How very bizarre that a lot of folk seem to seriously believe that the Bible was created and edited by a select group of powerful people, with the simple aim of enforcing their views onto others. Have any of those making such suggestions ever read the Bible, or researched the history of how it came into being?
Jon Wheeler, Slough, England
It's a mediocre little book, but if people want to read it, why should anyone get snotty about it? What does astound me is that people are reacting to all these old, recycled ideas as if they're the most profound thing they've ever been exposed to - have they never read anything interesting before? But if it gets them reading up on history, religion, mythology, and Arthuriana, I say more power to them.
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK
All very well, but I read a couple of pages, and the writing is terrible, and painful to read. This breed of book happens every decade - in the 60s and 70s we had Erich Von Daniken, and we have had many Holy Grail books before, way back. All very boring really!
Jeremy Poynton, Frome, England
The Da Vinci Code is the first book of fiction I picked up and read from cover to cover in over 25 years. (I am 38) I simply couldn't put it down. Whatever anybody else has to say about it, it has certainly got me more interested in reading. I have started to think about what other classic novels would interest me. Looking forward to watching the film on Saturday.
Antony, Leeds UK
It's a work of fiction! People who live in glass houses should not throw stones! The church should spend more time in sorting them selves out in what their 'staff' do in their own time rather than what books we the people decide to do in our own time.
Duncan, Brighton UK
Having finished the book, I felt it was a terrific waste of my time, made no sense, and did not alter in any way my understanding of the basic sketchy knowledge we have about Jesus Christ from the Church-sanctioned New Testament. And the painting?! All I see is Jesus and what still looks like St. John to me, according to the tradition of how he was depicted. Who else was at the Last Supper? Well, Leonardo wasn't, so why would anyone think he would presume to have some definitive opinion, much less "encode" it?
Maria Amadei Ashot, Berkeley, California, USA
By 'prosaic reality' I presume the good archbishop means virgin birth and resurrection.
Alan, Slough, UK
"There is a huge attraction in strange stories and cover-ups" says the Bishop of Winchester... hmm must be why so may people are religious fanatics.
matt key, uk
Personally I have always wondered when a translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls will be released. I can remember, as a schoolboy back in the 60s, various announcements that there was feverish activity in this task. Cynic that I have become, I realise now that this was the first proper manifestation of spin and manipulation of what might be revealed so that it fits the desired dogma. Our politicians have much to learn.
PJM, Beckenham, Kent
Personally Iżm rather proud of the fact that I havenżt read the Da Vinci Code.
You ask: "why are we so profoundly obsessed with a thriller about the Church?" We're not, if you are using "we" in the Royal sense. We're not amused, stirred or remotely interested. I've not read the book, have no wish to watch the film and have consigned the whole Da Vinci Code bandwagon to the cobweb encrusted, cellar-room closet marked "Don't Believe The Hype".
Derek Belm, Lichfield
I totally agree with John Mortimer. I bought the book for my wife and picked it up to read on a long train journey. I couldn't even finish the first page it was terrible. Hopefully the film version will be watchable so I can understand all the fuss.
Phill Callaway, Sheffield, UK
Dreadfully written nonsense. But thoroughly enjoyable nonsense - provided you don't mind books that read as if written by a fourteen year old.
SP, Londoner in Belgium
The book is a brilliant introduction into the Illuminati, but is really just the tip of the iceburg into what is really going in the world we live in. To dig a little deeper I would suggest a Google search for David Icke to find out what he has to say on the subject. Watch his free videos with an open mind and you will learn just how far down the rabbit hole all this goes. Your eyes might just start opening to what is really going on around us. The Da Vinci Code is a good start, but there's so much more to be discovered for those brave enough to take the next step.
Come on BBC! You've been following this story since 1974, including discovering the french con-man who forged the documents on which most of this is based. Show those programmes again.
If one of the criticisms of the book is the lack of historical proof, then can somebody please show me the historical proof that Jesus was the son of God, that his mother was a virgin and that he rose from the dead, bearing in mind, of course, that history is always written by the victors, in this case, the church.
Alan, Basingstoke, UK
Yes, it's a harmless, disposable, page-turner - but one thing really does annoy me: that American pulp-fiction tic of cliched 'Briddish' typecasting. The baddie, is sexually repressed, upper-class, evil, two-faced, decrepit - and, inevitably, English!
Rob Ainsley, London, UK
That the Da Vinci Code is living proof that mediocrity triumphs over excellence is not at issue. Literature died with Harry Potter, now Dan Brown has buried it.
John Olsson, Welshpool
I loved this book, its just a story, no-one dissects Indiana Jones for its factual inaccuracies about the Ark. The "facts" at the start are a blatant literary device, and the story is fantastic. Gutted to people like John Mortimer for not thinking of it first
Andy Wells, Romford, UK
OK, its a great story and can be enjoyed 'tongue in cheek' as it were. But the questions I ended up asking were. Why is the current bible the one that we believe, who actually decided what was in and what was out and more importantly why? I sometimes feel that whoever made those decisions did so with a clear political intent rather than a theological one...
Alan T, Northampton
The Da Vinci Code is a blasphemous work. The Church of England has been spineless in its defence of the Gospel and Christ Jesus.
Like many others, I enjoyed the book and found it hard to put down. What spoilt it for me was the claim to a factual basis. I found it hard to believe that this book was referring to the same Mary Magdalene that was declared by the church to be a saint (feast day July 22). The complaint about too little place for the feminine in worship hardly seems fair of the Roman Catholic Church, with such a high place for the Blessed Virgin Mary. And the Church Fathers, whose views about the divinity of Christ were agreed at the Council of Nicaea, made their case principally from the Bible, not as some subsequent innovation.
If the film gives issues like these a greater airing, I for one will be glad. So I would say read the book, see the film, but balance that by reading one of the many scholarly responses that take more seriously the historical basis of these claims.
Justyn Terry, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, Pittsburgh, USA
Plain and simple, it is a made up story. I have little knowledge of either the Catholic church or classic art but I was still able to pick up factual errors in the text. Anyway, if Jesus did have kids there'd be many thousands (millions?) of his descendants around by now.
Caroline Brown, Rochester, UK
Why can't everyone accept it for what it is? The book 'The da Vinci Code' is a fictional work and a jolly jape to boot. Enjoy it for its suspense and intrigue, and don't read into it that which is not there.
Owen, Stevenage, Herts
The da vinci code is one of the most badly and written books i have ever read, and was at times painful to read, but it is a good story. i suppose getting people reading can never be a bad thing, it's just a shame they can't read something a bit more worthwhile, or that the good story couldn't have been written in better language.
While it's true the book is very poorly written in terms of the English language, it's very much a compulsive page turner though perhaps one that people ought not to take quite as seriously as they do. However, once you've read one Dan Brown book, you've read them all. The plots of his novels are remarkably similar to Da Vinci with only the names, places and minor details changing.
Bill, London, UK
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