Why I am running a lecture series on decoding The Da Vinci Code

September 23, 2005

I first became aware of the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown two years ago.

My wife bought the audio tape and we used to listen to it travelling to and from Leeds, where I was then teaching, and our cottage in Northumberland.

It was fun, but I found myself appalled at its random mixture of fact with the fantastic.

I remember thinking to myself "I hope to God no one takes this seriously!"

or believes, for example, that the Church conspired to suppress the truth about Jesus' marital affairs and that he fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, whose bloodline is traced in records hidden in Rosslyn Chapel, in Scotland.

Nevertheless, the amount of interest provoked by the book - which has sold more than 18 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 44 languages - is astounding.

In addition to the conspiracy theorists and crazies, I've also had well-educated, intelligent people who have read it ask me "Well, how true is this?"

That's why I and my colleagues in the theology department are running a series of eight evening lectures on "Decoding Da Vinci'' - to draw on the latest scholarship and expose the real history behind the bestselling fiction.

The book itself isn't worthy of much attention, nor is it very well written, but the level of interest that it has provoked should be taken seriously.

As a professional theologian, I can only welcome the fact so many millions of people have discovered in themselves such a curiosity about the origins of Christian religion.

Brown's book gives us a pretext for doing something serious. The course is not a gimmick: religion is a serious matter.

Guest lecturers have been invited to speak on certain topics that Dan Brown raises, to comment on his assertions and sources, but we have also asked them to range more broadly. Speakers include New Testament scholars such as Sean Freyne, professor of theology at Trinity College, Dublin University, on the "real" Jesus, Karen King, Winn professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard University, on Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus, and Adolfo Roitman, the curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem.

Others will speak on goddess religions in the early Church and medieval dissident movements such as the Cathars and Templars. However, the course won't subject The Da Vinci Code to a close exegesis, as I'm not sure it could withstand it.

Brown begins his novel with a rather coy disclaimer stating: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." Strictly speaking, there are bits of fact in the book, but these are used to construct a fantasy and this raises a serious moral question. A writer has a duty to respect what we know about the past and to use it in a way that is responsible.

It could be said that Brown is spinning conspiracy theories about what is a rather important matter to a lot of people, namely the founding of Christianity. Therefore, I am hoping to speak on the ethics and values of writing historical fiction.

I doubt that The Da Vinci Code will ever end up on the reading list of a degree course. It might be mentioned in passing as a significant cultural phenomenon, but we'll certainly not be treating it as Gospel.

The 2006 Public Lectures on Religion and Ethics Decoding Da Vinci start on Thursday, January 19, 2006 at Trinity College, University of Dublin, 00 353 608 1297 www.tcd.ie  

The full cost of the series is €50.

Interview by Helen Davies

Nigel Biggar, Professor of theology at Trinity College, Dublin University

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