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.


At 1/20/2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. We need more research about his issue. I have just posted an article on the "Religious Dimension of Sustainable Development" that may be of interest. The link is:

Please take a look when time permits. The article is on the left column (white background). I would be grateful for any feedback (positive/negative/in-between). Specifically, what do you think about the linguistic analysis of Genesis chapters 1, 2, and 5 in connection with the original unity of man and woman (excerpt pasted below).

With best wishes for a good 2008,

Question: What incentives would motivate religious institutions to overcome patriarchy?

The Baha'is have found the motivation via new religious insights (see the invited article). Other religious bodies may or may not be receptive to new insights. Old habits die hard, and it is not difficult to fabricate rationalizations. The Vatican's abrupt termination (via the publication of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 1994) of the process of discernment about the ordination of women is a case in point. The literalist interpretation of certain scriptural texts are indicative of dubious and antiquated (if not self-serving) biblical exegesis. To add insult to injury, the subsequent ban on further discussion of the issue (clearly, a travesty) appears to close the door to further rational discourse. The continued exclusion of women from imaging God is a tragedy, and one that is already having severe and painful ramifications; for it leads to the delusion that domination by force is in accordance with a God who dominates by force. This applies not only to gender relations, but to all human relations. Other churches have been more open to new insights in human sexuality, and have allowed the ordination of women, but they are certainly paying the price in terms of divisive internal tensions.

Question: What is it that, deep in the human psyche, rebels against women in roles of religious authority?

Answer: Only God knows, but one possibility is the story about the creation of man and woman in early chapters of the Book of Genesis. These are the key texts:

* "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27)
* "Then the LORD God made a woman from the part he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man." (Genesis 2:23)
* "This is the written account of Adam's line. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them 'man.'" (Genesis 5:1-2)

The traditional understanding of these texts is that the "man" was male-only and the "woman" was female-only. However, consider the following:

* Genesis 1:27 does not support the notion that "man" was either male or female. On the contrary, the text states that God created one "man" that was both male and female. The same linguistic analysis applies to Genesis 2:22-23 and Genesis 5:1-2.
* Genesis 2:22-23 confirms that the male "man" and the female "man" were not created independently of each other. On the contrary, "woman" was in "man," and only a literalist reading of the text would conclude that the "female man" was in "man" but the "male man" was not in "woman."
* Genesis 5:1-2 reiterates that "man" was a single body-person, a single human being, in which both male and female abide. Sexual differentiation is the necessary culmination of the mystery of creation because it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18) and, for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24).

In brief, a man is a man and a woman is a woman, but there is man in woman, and there is woman in man. Surely, man and woman are mutually complementary, but it does not follow that they are mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as a man in whom there is no woman (i.e., no anima in Jungian terminology), and there is no such thing as a woman in whom there is no man (i.e., no animus in Jungian terminology). Furthermore, how much his anima influences a man, and how much her animus influences a woman, may have something to do with the propensity to homosexuality experienced by some persons. If so, it follows that homosexuals are perfectly normal persons.

Be that as it may, it would be wrong for secular institutions to force religious institutions to embrace new insights in human sexuality that, for whatever reason, they are not ready to accept. On the other hand, it would be unfair to use tax revenues to subsidize churches that continue to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation. They are free to believe what they believe. But it is an injustice to support them with tax funds provided by citizens who know better. All such subsidies should be cancelled, and sooner rather than later. Freedom of religion does not exonerate civil authorities from adjudicating preferential treatment only to institutions that benefit society.

At 11/10/2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write very well.


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