Jesus in America
Behind the wild success of a theological thriller lies a centuries-old urge to recapture the original Jesus
Credit Brown's rapid pacing for that. "All the chapters are short," says Fownes, the real-estate investor. "I read it in a day and a half." But more important even than his narrative style, Brown touches on sensitive issues at a time when new attention is being focused on early Christianity. Female scholars in particular are asking questions about the role of women such as Mary Magdalene. Although the Catholic Church acknowledged as far back as 1969 that Mary Magdalene was not a fallen woman, the word has not gotten out. "People have been told for 1,500 years that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute," says King, whose book advances the idea of Mary as the first female Apostle. "Now they're being told that's not right. The Da Vinci Code comes out and says that Jesus and Mary were married, and people think, `Gee, is this something else that's being kept from us?' "
What's more, debate within churches on how to interpret issues of sexuality is the stuff of headlines these days. As notions of sex and sexuality have evolved, says King, "we're seeing people struggling in a variety of ways what to understand theologically."
While Brown doesn't answer these questions in the book, he certainly lays them out. "Why do we need to think about a celibate Jesus when marriage is a good thing and sexuality is a good thing?" asks King. "Dan Brown has Jesus and Mary married, and for many people, that feels right." To Amanda Farahany, an Atlanta lawyer, it makes sense that "Jesus was a feminist. His whole thing is love one another and everyone should be treated equally." For the Rev. Susan McGarry, the pastor of St. Aidan's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., the message Jesus delivered is more important than the biographical details of his life. In fact, she says, he was "a man who worked hard, was badly hurt, and died young. Wouldn't it be comforting to know there was a home and a hearth somewhere where he had happiness?"
But Brown's novel elicits a far cooler response from many scholars and specialists. "He's a quick study and has read a lot of research superficially," says art historian Boucher. "He has all the paraphernalia of hard research without any of the hard grind."
According to Brown's "revelatory" interpretation of The Last Supper, the Grail that is nowhere to be found in Leonardo's Last Supper is not really missing but symbolized by the V formed by Jesus and the figure of Mary Magdalene sitting to his right. But, as Boucher explains, this interpretive stretch ignores the fact that the painting, like all previous Florentine paintings of the subject, is not focused on the Eucharist or chalice but on the betrayal and ultimate sacrifice of Christ. And, he adds, "John is always on the immediate right or left of Jesus in previous paintings." Although it is possible to find scholars who may support such a fanciful reading--Carlo Pedretti, an art historian now living in Florence, expressed that view on ABC's recent documentary--it runs contrary to all textual accounts of Christ's Passover meal with his disciples. "If people make little mistakes," says Boucher, "they are likely to make big mistakes."