Film and Religion

This site contains studies and comments by professors Robert Torry and Paul Flesher about the portrayal and use of religion in film. See their new book, Film and Religion: An Introduction (Abingdon, 2007) for a textbook on this topic.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Davinci Code

Paul Flesher and Bob Torry

The movie of The DaVinci Code is jam-packed with religion, real and imagined. It belongs to the genre of mystery, perhaps even detective mystery, and since the “detective” is a specialist in religious symbolism, all the clues are linked to religion. There is a wealth of books, articles, and web-sites identifying the symbolism and debating its meaning. The film lacks some of the book’s details and simplifies the plot in several ways, but it still has more than enough images to satisfy the most ardent “symbologist.”

In our view, the multiplicity of symbols distracts from the film’s central issue. Simply stated, the film asks whether religious truth, particularly “original truth,” can be passed down through the centuries without being lost or distorted. There are many obstacles in the way of successful transmission: failure of memory, misunderstanding, poor teaching or poor learning in the transmission from one generation to another, personality differences, (re)interpretation, etc. If this were not sufficient, The Davinci Code posits the existence of a group of clerics called the Council who actively work to suppress the truth, and is murdering those who know it—namely, the leaders of the Priory of Sion.

To cut to the chase—or rather, to the end of the chase—there is an originary truth that has survived from the beginning up to now. This is the bloodline of Jesus, which began through his marriage to Mary Magdalene and his impregnation of her. The film offers this not just as an unverified fact, but supports it with the suggestion of centuries of documentation and the preservation of Mary’s body now hidden beneath the Louvre’s pyramid.

The meaning of this truth is less clear. As Langdon’s questions to his lecture’s audience makes clear, symbols can have multiple meanings. Just because a swastika or an image of a baby at a breast has one particular meaning to us now, does not mean that those symbols have always had those meanings or even that our understanding of the meaning is presently universal. The preservation of Jesus’ bloodline is a symbol, which for the film is true, but there is no meaning attached to that symbol. Indeed, Langdon tells Sophie that it means whatever she chooses.

Despite the film’s silence about the explicit meaning of this original truth, the hidden events revealed in the narrative show that the film is intimately concerned with a the truth of one particular modern anxiety, not just truth in general. That anxiety concerns the role of women in Christianity, in the church. The Women’s Movement in the USA is less than half a century old. During that time, many Protestant churches have made significant strides in bringing women into leadership roles. The Episcopal Church USA appointed its first female Presiding Bishop this year. These advances remain controversial. The English Anglican church has yet to appoint its first female bishop and many Anglican communions still reject the notion of women as priests. They are not alone. During this same half-century, the Catholic Church has explicitly hardened its stance against the ordination of women—with the Pope invoking his Infallibility in doing so.

The film’s inclusion of Mary Magdalene as one of Jesus’ disciples as well as his wife, its reference to the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, its emphasis on the sexuality of Jesus implying that he participated in the religious ecstasy of the union of male and female leads to the conclusion that the origins of Christianity were more gender inclusive than subsequent centuries supposed. Jesus intended the church, in the film’s fictive presentation, to treat men and women as equals. Perhaps women should even have the leadership role; this is certainly suggested by the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the fact that the heir Sophie is female rather than male. Thus the film aims to quiet the modern anxiety about the place of women in the church by positing that women played a large role at the time of Christianity’s origins, a role which had been forgotten by all but a few.