CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Instead of fearing or trashing "The Da Vinci Code," people of faith should view it as a much-needed vaccine against ignorance, according to Thomas Ryan, chairman of the religious studies department at St. Thomas University in Miami.
"It is a novel that holds a mirror up to us – to silly academics and people who misuse facts," Ryan told a group of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders gathered March 22 for the monthly clergy dialogue sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice.
He said talking about the popular book – and upcoming movie – should "strengthen our congregations to be able to deal with what's out there" in terms of religious ignorance and misconceptions.
"This is a vaccine," said Ryan, whose area of specialization is medieval church history. "This articulates the silliness that's out there. We could use it as a way of inoculating ourselves."
Ryan, who only recently read the novel, said his personal reaction to it was: "Thank you, Dan Brown.... I am grateful to (the novel) for driving me to learn more about my faith. It raises questions that I need to go and see. I'm a smarter person as a result of it."
He described the novel as "a brilliant moneymaker" with all the right ingredients: a murder, a mystery and a conspiracy. As one character in the book acknowledges, "Everyone loves a conspiracy." Even more so, Ryan said, when "it incenses the faithful."
Brown "wants us to think that this is nonfiction. And a lot of people have fallen for the bait," Ryan said. But "it's not nonfiction."
He said that "on practically every page there is falsehood" and "outrageous claims that are completely unfactual."
"I think the author puts in all those mistakes to alert us" to the fact that it is a work of fiction, Ryan said. "It's a story of people who use false evidence to support their claims. And don't we meet those people every day? I think it's a story of humanity. I think Dan Brown is kind of laughing at us. It mocks our gullibility."
Participants at the clergy meeting noted that the novel might not have been as popular, or raised such a polemic, in a less secular age. Many people today are seeking spiritual answers outside mainstream religions, and the Catholic Church is not the only one dealing with misconceptions and revisionist theories about the foundations of the faith.
Some in Judaism, for example, are questioning whether Abraham really existed or the Exodus actually took place, said Rabbi Herbert Baumgard, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest.
"It is out there and it's all over the place. The whole thing is being questioned and has to be considered," said Rabbi Baumgard, who has read the novel.
The Rev. Priscilla Felisky Whitehead, associate minister at the Church by the Sea in Bal Harbour, also read it, and described it as "fiction robed in age-old rumors." Her church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.
Members of her congregation have asked her questions about what is true and what is false in "The Da Vinci Code," she said. The problem is they do not want to take the time to do the research. "They want me (to dig it out) for them."
Like Ryan, however, she is grateful to Brown for one thing: "It's no longer inappropriate to talk about Jesus at a cocktail party."
"When there's something in the popular culture going on, it's a great opportunity to agree with it, disagree with it or talk about it," said Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, who hosted the clergy meeting at Temple Judea in Coral Gables. "One thousand years from now, God willing, there will be people talking about the Bible. No one will be talking about Dan Brown."
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops