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Saturday, May 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scholars debunk facts in a work of fiction

The Dallas Morning News

Experts agree: Dan Brown got most of his facts wrong.

Religion scholars have been whacking "The Da Vinci Code" like a low-hanging piņata. The swings have come from establishment Christianity — the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury — and from the fringes of the faith — a member of the liberal Jesus Seminar and the agnostic historian Bart Ehrman.

At least 44 books debunking "The Da Vinci Code" are for sale at Amazon.com, several written by serious academics or well-known pastors. And with the movie starring Tom Hanks scheduled to open next week, surely more are in the pipeline.

All of which leaves this question unanswered: Why do serious people take the book so seriously? "The Da Vinci Code" is fiction. A novel.

The critics have at least 46 million reasons to want to set the record straight. That's how many copies Brown has sold. And the movie may play to an even larger audience.

But popularity alone can't explain the cascade of criticism, even if you figure that many of the authors are trying to sell books by hitching their wagon to Brown. "Star Wars" was an international blockbuster, and physicists didn't fill bookshelves explaining that there's no such thing as a light saber.

Lecture: "The Da Vinci Code: What's Truth? What's Fiction?"


The Rev. Michael Raschko, a professor of theology at Seattle University, presents a talk on the historical and theological threads raised by the book and movie. 3:30 p.m. May 22, Pigott Auditorium, Seattle University, 901 12th Ave. Free.

George Lucas never claimed there was anything real in "Star Wars," though. Brown has tried to have it both ways. Charles Gibson, host of ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," pressed the author on the point in 2003.

"If you were writing it as a nonfiction book," Gibson asked, "how would it have been different?"

"I don't think it would have," replied Brown. "I began the research for 'The Da Vinci Code' as a skeptic. ... After numerous trips to Europe, about two years of research, I really became a believer. "

A believer in what? The book's plot revolves around a centuries-old conspiracy to hide the purported marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Conspirators included Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci, who cleverly hid clues to the secret in his paintings. (Hence the title.)

Errors large and small

The very first sentence in the book implies this is more than a mere tale. "Fact: The Priory of Sion — a European secret society founded in 1099 — is a real organization." This arcane society, according to Brown's telling, has been the keeper of the secret about Jesus' marriage.

But the "fact" is almost certainly wrong. Last month, "60 Minutes" piled up evidence that a Frenchman — an anti-Semite with a history of criminal fraud — "created" the priory as a hoax in the 1950s.

The book reeks of truthiness and smartiness — the appearance of being truthful and smart without necessarily being either. The protagonist is a Harvard prof (in a department that doesn't exist). The plot is propelled by a series of puzzles based on famous artworks.

But the debunking books list factual errors large and small:

The glass pyramid at the Louvre has 673 glass panes, not 666. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by Jews and say nothing about Jesus. They were discovered in 1947, not the 1950s.

If the figure to the left of Jesus in "The Last Supper" is really Mary Magdalene, as the book claims, then Leonardo left out an apostle. If it's really John, as most art historians claim, Leonardo was neither the first nor the only artist to paint him as a beardless, long-haired young man.

Brown's best "proof" of a romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene comes from the Gospel of Philip, one of the Gnostic gospels. In "The Da Vinci Code," the quote reads: "The companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth."

But Ehrman, a text scholar, says the only manuscript we have of that gospel is full of holes. And that all we have of that passage is "The companion of the (gap) Mary Magdalene (gap) more than (gap) the disciples (gap) kiss her (gap) on her (gap)."

If Brown can't get inarguable facts right, the experts say, what faith can readers place in his conclusions about the nature of Christianity?

Many believers

Some critics say they're intent on tearing down the credibility of the book because many people believe Brown's fictions.

"In our experience, readers are taking it as true," said Ehrman, a religious-studies professor at the University of North Carolina and author of "Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code." "Historians care about what happened in the past, and it's important ... to separate the fact from the fiction."

There is some evidence readers are buying the bunkum.

Last year, pollster George Barna reported that 53 percent of U.S. adults who finished the book said it had been helpful in their "personal spiritual growth and understanding."

A Canadian survey commissioned last year by National Geographic showed that 32 percent who read "The Da Vinci Code" believed its theories.

And in a Catholic Digest poll, 73 percent of American Catholics said the book "did not affect their faith or opinion of the church in any way." Which means that up to 27 percent — about 14 million — may be vulnerable to having their faith affected by Brown's tale.

The author shrugs off critics.

"It's a book about big ideas; you can love them or you can hate them," he said in a speech in Portsmouth, N.H., last month. "But we're all talking about them, and that's really the point."

That discussion is good news, even from the critics' perspective.

"As a scholar I'm very grateful to Dan Brown. People like me are in demand right now in a way we have never been before," said Gail Streete, a religious-studies professor and expert on Mary Magdalene at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. "Most of the time nobody pays any attention to what we do."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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