If “Inferno” is anything like Dan Brown’s other novels, we can count on two things: crackpot conspiracy theories from the author and breathless hype from his fans in the media.
“The Da Vinci Code,” author’s new thriller hits bookshelves May 14, 2013. “Inferno” takes place in Italy, where the protagonist, “battles a chilling adversary and grapples with an ingenious riddle that pulls him into a landscape of classic art, secret passageways, and futuristic science” while unraveling Dante’s classic poem.
Poor Dante. Brown’s most famous book and later movie, “The Da Vinci Code,” taught millions of Americans about the Catholic Church and the Bible – and it was all flat out wrong. But since Brown’s alternative theology and sketchy history undercut traditional Christianity and impose modern liberal fantasies on the Gospels, the media have celebrated his work, even in completely unrelated news stories. And nobody is more enthralled than the broadcast networks.
Since the 2003 debut of “The Da Vinci Code,” ABC, CBS and NBC have mentioned Brown and his religion-bashing books 532 times. The network anchors jumped up at the chance to trash Christianity. On the Nov. 3, 2003, “Good Morning America,” ABC’s Diane Sawyer showcased Brown’s “fact,” saying, “we’re going to give you a preview” that “really examines, very carefully, what is the evidence that he’s [Brown] using about the fact that Jesus might have been married.” ABC’s Bill Weir toyed with possibility during “Good Morning America” on May 4, 2008: “Well, here’s a question, was Jesus married with children? Was the resurrection a trick pulled off by his widow? The possibility, the world’s greatest cover-up, was the basis of the smash novel and movie, ‘The Da Vinci Code.’”
The networks didn’t just continuously publicize Brown; they pounded him into unrelated news stories at every opportunity. Nearly 40 percent of the 532 network references Brown and his books were in other stories unrelated to the author or his work. Any story with a suggestion of ancient mystery or institutional scandal might provoke a “Da Vinci Code” comparison, as when ABC’s Dan Harris called Pope Benedict’s resignation “Vatican intrigue worthy of a Dan Brown novel.”
Whether addressing his work directly or using it as lazy shorthand for mystery, Brown’s influence with the media is so blatant that groups like the Catholic League and Protestant pastors like David Stevens of Central Bible Church have seen the need to combat his theories in print. Stevens warned that Brown’s fable was “driving many away from the message of the gospel.”
But serious theology and factual history are unlikely to penetrate the enthusiasm of his broadcast network fans.
Brown’s Formula for (Media) Success
Brown struck fame by stomping on Bible, Christian teaching and more in his fourth novel, “The Da Vinci Code.” His series, “Angels & Demons” (2000), “The Da Vinci Code” (2003) and “The Lost Symbol” (2009) star Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon and overflow with codes, keys, and conspiracy theories.
“The Da Vinci Code” maintained that early Church leaders selectively chose the Bible’s content to bolster their power and, worse, buried the “real” story of Christ. In Brown’s telling, Jesus, “the original feminist,” married Mary Magdalene, “the chalice that bore the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ.” Mary bore Jesus’ child and was the intended head of the Catholic Church, much to Peter’s chagrin. Ever since, the church scrambled to conceal the secret scandal.
It’s bad theology, but good fiction. More than 200 million copies of his thrillers are in print around the world, with two produced as major motion pictures, “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons,” which raked in over $350 million nationally and $1.2 billion worldwide.
The real secret of Brown’s success is that he’s received not just media coverage, he’s gotten a media endorsement. The networks have played up Brown’s theories, citing the “possibility” of “the world’s greatest cover-up,” as ABC’s Bill Weir did on “Good Morning America,” May 4, 2008.
Diane Sawyer, during ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Oct. 30, 2008 couldn’t contain her enthusiasm about Brown’s thrillers, saying, “You know, after ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ everybody’s been excited to see the next, well, the next Dan Brown adventure.” Natalie Morales also shared some Brown love during NBC’s “Today” on May 11, 2006: “I can’t wait to see how the movie was adapted from the book.” Other avowed fans include CBS anchor Julie Chen and NBC’s Matt Lauer.
The networks have so internalized Brown’s work that it’s become the go-to comparison when reporting on all kinds of unrelated stories.
NBC’s Kerry Sanders exemplified the connecting of dots during “Today” on Nov. 7, 2005. Interviewing Bernie Kaiser, a Chicago entrepreneur treasure hunter, about hidden treasure on Robinson Crusoe Island, Sanders bubbled, “This is like ‘The Da Vinci Code.’” Kaiser responded, “It’s – this is real, beyond any doubt that it’s real.”
More recently, when a fragment of ancient papyrus that allegedly quoted Jesus speaking about a wife surfaced, ABC’s Dan Brown reference machine went into high gear. On Sep. 18, 2012, ABC’s Diane Sawyer called the papyrus an “ancient clue … right out of the ‘Da Vinci Code.’” The next morning, Sawyer’s colleague Elizabeth Vargas teased the story as “Christianity’s biggest mysteries about to be solved. The tiny scrap of paper that could prove Jesus had a wife. Why this faded fragment might solve an age old question.” It was, she said, a “Real-life ‘Da Vinci Code.’” And in a way, it was. The papyrus turned out to be a fake.
But very real events are just as likely to draw the comparison, and the sacred – especially sacred to Catholics – gets profaned. NBC’s Matt Lauer, during “Today,” on Feb. 13, 2006, connected the story of the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth of Jesus to Brown’s conspiracy, saying the saga of the Shroud “is a story every bit as intriguing as ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ a medieval whodunit to some, the burial cloth of Christ to others.”
Network reporters managed to trivialize the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI with Brown comparisons. On Feb. 12, 2013, “Good Morning America’s” Dan Harris likened the resignation to “The Da Vinci Code,” saying, “Benedict’s surprise decision has provoked Vatican intrigue worthy of a Dan Brown novel.” The next evening Harris said, “The local papers here [in Italy] read like a Dan Brown novel, teeming with unsubstantiated talk about Benedict being driven out by internal intrigue.”
On Feb. 25, Harris’ colleague David Wright didn’t bother to come up with his own comparison, saying, “Italian papers read like a Dan Brown novel.” The next evening Wright said of the Vatileaks investigation, “This is beginning to sound like a Dan Brown novel.”
Selling ‘Historical fact’
That a novelist employs conspiracy theory and takes liberties with history isn’t noteworthy. But Brown refuses to acknowledge that his distortions of theology and early Church history, and his New Age feminist hokum are fictional plot devices.
On NBC’s “Today,” on June 9, 2003, he reiterated the disclaimer in “The Da Vinci Code,” saying that [protagonist] “Robert Langdon is fictional, but all of the art, architecture, secret rituals, secret societies – all of that is historical fact.”
Five months later, Nov. 3, 2003, ABC’s Charles Gibson asked Brown about “The Da Vinci Code” during “Good Morning America,” “If you were writing it as a non-fiction book, how would it have been different?” Brown responded, “I don’t think it would have. I began the research for ‘The Da Vinci Code’ as a skeptic. I entirely expected, as I researched the book, to disprove this theory. And after numerous trips to Europe, about two years of research, I really became a believer.”
Two years after that, on the March 16, 2005 “Good Morning America,” Brown professed “The moment that, that I started to understand that, that Jesus could have been married, could have had a child, and that I personally was okay with that, that was a revelation.” Of course, just a couple billion Christians believe otherwise.
Just because Brown won’t admit his theories are farcical doesn’t mean the networks have to play along. Yet they do, lending them a dignity they don’t deserve.
On the April 24, 2006, “Today,” NBC’s Ron Allen said of “The Da Vinci Code,” “the controversy keeps selling books – 40 million worldwide – making it, some say, one of the most influential religious books since the Bible.”
ABC’s Charles Gibson was certainly influenced by it when he said on “Good Morning America” April 7, 2006, that “We were talking earlier this morning about this new Judas gospel, and then there is ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ that book. Everybody these days is talking about religious news.” More after the video.
ABC’s Bill Weir said on April 20, 2006, “if Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus, and did give birth and this secret has been guarded, what better way to get it out into mainstream thought than through fiction. You write a book as nonfiction, right, no one reads it. You write ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ millions read it.”
The core of the network journalists’ fascination with Brown is that they want his theories to be true. A married Jesus having children would nicely confirm and reinforce 21st century liberals’ obsessions with sex and feminism, and further harm traditional Christianity.
Brown sees Mary Magdalene as the chalice of Christ’s blood, but she’s a vessel of feminist dreams to network reporters. On Nov. 3, 2003, ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas interviewed author Margaret Starbird, whose books provided inspiration for “The Da Vinci Code.” Vargas asked Starbird about Mary Magdalene’s embrace with Jesus when he appeared after the resurrection. Starbird asserted that, according to a Greek interpretation, when Jesus told Mary not to “cling” to Him, He used intimate words. Vargas prompted, “And that kind of embrace would have been unusual if it were not between a man and a women, husband and wife?” Starbird replied yes.
ABC hosted the most extravagant display of Brown Frenzy and Magdalene Madness. On May 23, 2005, Bill Weir, introduced “Good Morning America,” saying : “Today we examine the theory, was Mary Magdalene really the wife of Jesus? And we’ve come to Europe to follow Dan Brown’s clues.”
Robin Roberts traveled to San Sulpice, a Roman Catholic Church in Paris, where she mused of a nearby chapel, “There is a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, but is it really Mary, and is it really Jesus?”
Roberts crowed about “The Last Supper,” saying “Now one of the key clues in author Dan Brown’s book ‘The Da Vinci Code’ as to the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, is right there for all the world to see, in one of the most famous paintings the world has known.”
During the same segment, Karen King, author of “The Gospel of Mary” surmised that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute – the unnamed prostitute in the Bible – as Pope Gregory the Great taught, and that, “the effects were clearly to undermine women’s authority in the church.” Roberts later prodded, “But does any of that mean the novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is right? That she was Jesus’ wife, the mother of his children?”
Apologists and Critics
If, as the networks clearly believe, Brown’s theology is just as valid as anyone else’s (only more-so because of its liberalism), it’s only right that it should have Defenders of the Faith. Enter Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.
On March 20, 2006, Couric (then of NBC) said on “Today,” “Let’s first talk about the – the assault on this [‘Da Vinci Code’] movie. Christians – some Christians – view the book as an assault on their faith.” She later explained, “They’ve been raising a stink about this, too, asking that some of the misrepresentations of their faith be taken out of the film.” It would be interesting to see what kind of “stink” Muslims raise should a “Mohammed Code” film come out.
But nobody’s tougher on infidels than “Today’s” Matt Lauer. On March 8, 2006, he asked Catholic League’s Bill Donahue, “Isn’t this all about faith though, Bill? I mean, you know, when it comes right down to it, if your faith in your religion is so weak that one movie or one book is going to shake or shatter it, then that’s the problem, isn’t it?”
Lauer made clear his distaste for Donahue: “People are skeptical about you, Bill, because as part of the ad you plug a book that the – that the Catholic League has put out, ‘The Da Vinci Deception.’ Later he asked Donahue, “So is this just a way to make money for the Catholic League?”
Of course, the reason Donahue produced “The Da Vinci Deception” and championed placing a disclaimer before “The Da Vinci Code” movie was because relentless network hype was misinforming Americans about the Catholic Church and Christianity in general.
Donahue cited studies showing the effect Brown had on his readers. “According to Reuters, those in England who read the Dan Brown novel are twice as likely to believe the tale that Jesus had children with Mary Magdalene. Perhaps the most astounding figure is the 30 percent who believe this and haven’t read the book, not the 60 percent who read it and believe it to be true,” he commented. He went on to say, for the United States, “24 percent of those who read the book said it was helpful in relation to their ‘personal growth or understanding.’ And only 5 percent said they changed any of their religious beliefs because of “The Da Vinci Code.”
Donahue wasn’t the only Christian combating Brown’s theories. David Stevens, senior pastor at Central Bible Church, began a “series of messages” to clarify Brown’s teaching. He acknowledged that Brown had opened a door of curiosity, saying, “‘The Da Vinci Code” has given us a tremendous opportunity, not only to clarify some of the basic tenets of our faith, but also to share that faith with others.” But he warned, “While it is motivating Christians to re-examine what they believe, it is also driving many away from the message of the gospel.”
Just a hunch, but that probably doesn’t worry the gang at ABC, CBS or NBC.