Jesus in America
Behind the wild success of a theological thriller lies a centuries-old urge to recapture the original Jesus
Into these multiple plots and hidden twists, Brown enfolds historical events, treasured works of art, and fanciful interpretations. Holding up Leonardo da Vinci's famous mural The Last Supper as Exhibit A, he suggests that the figure on Christ's right is not the disciple John (as generally interpreted) but Mary Magdalene, whom he portrays as Jesus's wife and chosen successor. The Holy Grail, in Brown's interpretation, was Mary Magdalene herself, who carried Jesus's royal blood in her womb and bore him a child who went on to found France's Merovingian dynasty. These "truths," the novel suggests, were suppressed by the church but passed down by the members of a secret society founded in 1099, of which Leonardo was later a member.
Fact and fiction. All fine as fiction. But in a prefatory note announced in boldface type as "FACT," Brown declares that all "descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." And many readers are taking the author at his word--or at least giving him the benefit of the doubt. "I did think I was developing some knowledge of a long-held conflict in the church," says Rick Fownes, a real-estate investor from Duxbury, Mass. Laurie Davis Van Wert, a policy consultant in Minneapolis who read the novel for her book group in September, says, "I just learned so much. The book completely changed my perception of what [the Holy Grail] meant. Before, most of my knowledge of the Holy Grail came from pop culture like Indiana Jones. "
And why shouldn't they buy it? "On the basis of what we know of human experience," says Richard Leigh, coauthor of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a 1982 nonfiction bestseller on which Brown drew heavily, "it is more plausible that a man having claim to a kingdom is married than it is that he should be born of a virgin, walk on water, and rise from the dead." But what Brown implies is fact, Leigh sees only as a reasonable theory. "Brown sticks his neck out," he says. "On the other hand," Leigh adds, "from time immemorial, [storytellers have] taken history, interpreted it, added their own spin, and incorporated material, and subsequent generations have no way of knowing which is real. We know Richard III primarily through Shakespeare, even though the history is quite different." Less approvingly, art historian Bruce Boucher, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, observes: "It is a little like the way most Americans now say they got their understanding of the Kennedy assassination from Oliver Stone's JFK. "
To be sure, Brown doesn't make his story up out of whole cloth. He uses not only Holy Blood, Holy Grail but also Margaret Starbird's 1993 The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, in which Starbird "proves" that Mary Magdalene was the lost bride of Christ, and bits and pieces from scores of scholarly works. In fact, the myths and legends on which Brown relies have been circulating for centuries--in the way of urban legends. "We know the legends about [Mary Magdalene's] being married to Jesus, and we can sort out what is more or less probable," says Karen King, a professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard and the author of The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. "These notions about the conspiracy theory, Mary Magdalene being the Holy Grail, The Last Supper [are] all very marginal ideas that have no historical basis." But, she concedes of herself and her scholarly peers, "we're not a particularly interesting lot--and Dan Brown is."