Jesus in America
Behind the wild success of a theological thriller lies a centuries-old urge to recapture the original Jesus
Way back in February of 1804 President Thomas Jefferson, ever the enlightened rationalist, sat down in the White House with two identical copies of the New Testament, a straight-edge razor, and a sheaf of octavo-size paper. Over the course of a few nights, he made quick work of cutting and pasting his own bible, a slim volume he called "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth." After slicing away every passage that suggested Jesus's divine nature, Jefferson had a Jesus who was no more and no less than a good, ethical guide.
The third U.S. president is credited with being among the first wave of Americans to tinker with the traditional image of Jesus. But that wave was far from the last. As two new scholarly studies show, for more than two centuries Americans have been busy recasting the image of Jesus to suit contemporary sensibilities and to advance personal or political agendas. From the revivalist sermons of the 19th century's Second Great Awakening to the '70s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar to Mel Gibson's forthcoming film depicting Christ's Passion, those engaged in representing Jesus always claim to be returning to the real Galilean. And typically, as Richard Wightman Fox points out in his soon-to-be-published Jesus in America, these Americans believe they are recovering the true meaning of Christianity. Adds Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University and author of a new book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon: "One way you figure out your place in America is figuring out what you think about Jesus."
Today, of course, the most successful instance of this ongoing revisionist enterprise is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, a gripping thriller suggesting that some of the fundamental beliefs held dear by millions of Christians are not only wrong but were deviously foisted upon believers by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. A surprise blockbuster with 4.3 million copies in print, it has become the "it" book in book clubs and the talk of Internet chat rooms, with many readers convinced of its far-fetched premise--"that the greatest story ever told is, in fact, the greatest story ever sold."
The Code owes part of its popularity to impeccable timing. Published at a moment when doubts about institutional integrity were running high, the book confirms many readers' worst suspicions. Brown "is riding the wave of revulsion against corruption in the Catholic Church," says Fox. "Really, the book is in many ways about how bad the church is."
For those who haven't read it, the Code is a present-day murder mystery set in Paris and London in which a gallant Harvard professor renowned for his work in the imaginary field of "symbology" meets up with an enchanting French female cryptographer at a crime scene inside the Louvre. Soon, the duo are off on a high-stakes scavenger hunt in which they variously commandeer an armored truck, seek refuge in a French château, and hitch a ride on a private jet--all in their attempt to uncover the Holy Grail. At each turn, they are mere steps ahead of the French police as well as of an albino monk who is working for the right-wing Catholic group Opus Dei (box, Page 48) to bury forever the truth of the Grail.
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."
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."
Is it fair, though, to fault a page turner for failing to exhibit the rigor of a Ph.D. dissertation? Not really, says Margaret Mitchell, a professor of early church history at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She has written that the Code is "a quick romp, largely fun to read, if rather predictable and preachy." But she also concluded that the book should have come with its own decoding device to assist readers in determining "which `facts' are trustworthy and which patently not." For example, Mitchell says Brown cites the Gnostic gospels (found among other documents at the Nag Hammadi site in Egypt in 1945) to make the case for a human Jesus. But, she argues, those texts are famous for depicting Christ as, if anything, more divine than human. Brown also asserts that Mary Magdalene's marriage to Jesus is "a matter of historical record," basing his claim on a shaky translation of a word in one of the noncanonical gospels. That word is usually translated as friend or companion, says Mitchell.
But the very weaknesses and excesses of the novel are also what put it so squarely in the grain of American religious culture from the earliest days of the republic to the present, particularly as that culture has been shaped by Protestant understandings of Christianity and the figure of Jesus himself. What Brown's novel taps into above all is a persistent American desire to recapture the true, original Jesus. "That's what Protestantism itself has always been about," says University of Southern California historian Fox.
Of course, there is no way to return to the original Jesus, any more than there is a way to go back to the original church, however much Christians have tried to do both. The traditions that have been built on top of the life and teaching of Jesus and his early followers cannot simply be discarded or tossed aside as irrelevant, Mitchell explains. "You can't just go back to the originating moment and say that's all it is," she says.
There is another reason for the impossibility of returning to the original Jesus: Humans are not capable of seeing across time in some pure, unmediated way. Their perceptions are shaped by their own conditions and their own needs as creatures living at a certain time--hence the need for the corrective of tradition. Throughout their history, Americans have repeatedly recast their understanding and image of Jesus to suit their present needs. "What Americans have seen in him," Prothero writes in American Jesus, "has been an expression of their own hopes and fears--a reflection not simply of some `wholly other' divinity but also of themselves."
One of the big changes in how Americans regarded Jesus came with the Revolution itself and particularly during the religious explosion of the early 19th century. While in colonial times Christians focused mainly on God the stern father, after independence they began to dwell on other parts of the Trinity--particularly Jesus the son. "This is when they start yanking him out of the creedal formations and start to think about him as a person whom they can love," says Prothero.
Different strokes. Though other revisionists may not have been so bold as to cut and paste the New Testament, Jefferson was not alone in his revisionary thinking. Old-line Calvinists, anti-Calvinist liberal Protestants, deists, and evangelical revivalists all gave different hues and tints to their pictures of Jesus.
As the century wore on and women became the guardians of religious piety, Jesus was increasingly softened, even feminized. In such influential books as Horace Bushnell's Christian Nurture (1861), he became a gentle man and friend to all. Starting her own church in the latter part of the 19th century (the Church of Christ, Scientist), Mary Baker Eddy recast Jesus as a teacher of the healing power of the spirit, while denying that he was the "divine manifestation of God." She also gave a strong boost to the "female sacred" within Christianity, Fox explains, by "taking the Catholics' veneration of Mary and doing them one better: giving herself `divine attributes.' "
The revisionist enterprise did not slow in the 20th century. Contrast, for example, Bruce Barton's 1925 book, The Man Nobody Knows, depicting, in Prothero's words, "a manly Jesus who, like the modern-day relief pitcher, is both athlete and businessman," with the hippie-prototype Jesus celebrated in the rock musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, which both opened in 1971. The contrast only hints at the creativity Americans continue to show in projecting their wishes upon the image of Jesus.
Brown's Jesus, or at least his fanciful distillation of many similar interpretations of Jesus, is both something old and something new in the American romance with the Christ figure. The Da Vinci Code suggests a very human, very approachable savior. But also, Fox says, "he delivers a Jesus who had a wife and was a father." Even more, Fox continues, he validates a contemporary yearning "for a female sacred presence" that animates everything from growing numbers of women in Christian and Jewish clergy to the sprouting of spiritual movements accentuating female divinities. On his Web site, Brown says he chose the topic "for personal reasons--primarily as an exploration of my own faith and my own ideas about religion."
Clearly, many readers are finding Brown's exploration more compelling than the traditional and well-founded accounts of Jesus's life. While reading the book, says Jonathan Bryant, a hairstylist in Atlanta, he repeatedly turned to the Internet to get the real story. "I knew that many of the things in Brown's book weren't true," he says. "But I just wanted them to be."
With Katy Kelly
This story appears in the December 22, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.