After a couple days in which the only people offered the opportunity to comment on the controversy surrounding the Da Vinci Code were the movie's director and cast members, this morning's Today show finally gave an outside expert and Catholic officials their shot. The result was an oddly ambivalent reaction in which the movie was simultaneously praised as offering an opportunity to teach about the Church - and condemned as filled with lies.
A quick recap on the state of play at Today. Matt Lauer has been "On the Road with the Code" this week. On Tuesday, as reported here, NBC reporter Melissa Stark timidly raised the matter of the controversy with Code director Ron Howard. Stark didn't bother informing viewers just what all the fuss is about - which is none other than the movie's premise that Christ wasn't really divine, that he was married to Mary Magdalene and had children with her, that the true religion is the "feminine divine" and that the Roman Catholic Church has perpetrated a murderous patriarchal plot to suppress the truth. That's all!
Howard sloughed off the controversy with some feel-good talk about it being a healthy thing for people to get in touch with their beliefs.
The following day, as noted in this story that has made its rounds on the web, cast member Ian McKellen added tons of fuel to the fire by suggesting that rather than the Da Vinci Code, it's the Bible that should come with a disclaimer at its front saying this is "fiction."
Finally, this morning, outside critics were given their shot. First up was Georgetown Professor Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, who Matt Lauer said "has been described as the real-life Robert Langdon", the symbologist who is the movie's central figure. Apostolos-Cappadona emphatically stated that, contrary to the Code's central assertion, the figure portrayed in Da Vinci's Last Supper is indeed the Apostle John and not Mary Magdalene: "She is not there at the Last Supper. Sorry."
Next was a clip of author Dan Brown himself, that Lauer - seeming to slough off the controversy himself - introduced by musing "does there need to be such a fuss over a book?"
Brown was seen oh-so-modestly asserting that "Christian theology has survived the writings of Galileo and the writings of Darwin. Surely it will survive the writings of some novelist from New Hampshire." Then again, during Galileo and Darwin's days, broadband internet access and simultaneous world-wide film distribution were significantly more limited.
Next, a brief clip of an editor of Catholic Digest: "Virtually no one that we polled knew anyone who has left the Church because of the book."
Lauer: "News that should be comforting to religous leaders everywhere. Now, if they can just get past the movie."
Finally, Lauer interviewed, live in St. Peter's Square, Father Gregory Apparcel, Rector of the American Catholic Church in Rome. Here's where the Church's ambivalence was evident.
Lauer: "Is the movie version a bigger threat than the book was?"
Apparcel: "I don't know if I would call either one a threat. I would say that for me the movie, it's an opportunity to teach people the truth about what their faith is. It's been a tool for me to use to help people understand what their history is."
Lauer: "Maybe this is an enlightened approach. But if it's not a threat, then why the calls by some for boycotts, why the calls by some for lawsuits, why the calls by others for a disclaimer to be put up at the beginning of the movie? Why are people in the Church worried about this?"
Fair question. Along similar lines, I don't ever recall a rabbi praising the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as offering a great opportunity to teach about Judaism!
Answering Lauer's question, Father Greg seemed to backtrack somewhat: "They don't like all this misinformation and untruths being told about the origins of the Church. All the things that haven't been said about [Jesus'] relationship with Mary Magdalene and various other things - that there's been a suppression of the truth. It's very upsetting to hear, misinformation or lies, basically, about what your faith is."
But then the good father zagged again: "This is an opportunity for people to come and talk about who we are and what we believe and why it's important."
When Lauer suggested that "the nuclear button" in the book was the suggestion that Jesus had a physical relationship with Mary Magdalene [prefacing his question by observing that he felt "almost awkward" making it in St. Peter's Square], Father Greg responded:
"For me the bigger one is that Jesus wasn't God. Him saying that in the book is really upsetting to a lot of people." I would think so!
Yet once again, Apparcel then took a different tack: "But the people I talk to, the Catholics who come to church, see it as a novel, a movie. It's information that's used in the service of a thriller story. And it's wrong information and to present it as fact is wrong as well."
When Lauer asked what he would ask author Dan Brown if he met him, Apparcel displayed a good sense of humor: "for a donation!" More seriously, he added "I would ask him in his next novel if he could get the facts straight. It's important because people believe what they read."
Asked if he would go see the movie, Apparcel responded "Eventually."
Lauer: "No hurry?"
Flashing a final bit of mordant wit, Father Greg responded: "No, I'm not in a hurry - especially after the reviews."
Finkelstein, who has made recent appearances on the Lars Larson Show, lives in the liberal haven of Ithaca, NY, where he hosts the award-winning public-access TV show 'Right Angle'. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org