Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What's So Intesting about "The Da Vinci Code"?

In researching "The Da Vinci Code," I picked up Elaine Pagels' "Beyond Belief" today, which offers an alternative reading of Christian origins. In the good, scholarly tradition of quoting oneself, I'd like to return to what I wrote about earlier in this blog.

Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University (and let it be said, a verifiable scholar) writes in "The Gnostic Gospels" about the “light within.” "Dialogue of the Savior" 125.18-19 commands us to “Light the lamp within you." She continues, “They [the Gnostics] argued that only one’s own experience offers the ultimate criterion of truth, taking precedence over all secondhand testimony and tradition—even Gnostic tradition!”

Wow, our inner light beccomes the ultimate criterion for truth. In the final five pages her later work, "Beyond Belief," Pagels reveals why her alternative reading of early Christian history is important : she wants freedom to believe--or not to believe--a variety of things about Jesus. That she can find solace at New York City’s Church of the Heavenly Rest while refusing to confess the Apostles’ Creed is not exceptional. When she closes this book with a call to “spiritual discovery” based on Jesus’ words “seek, and you shall find,” I was left wondering if I had just read a passage from Kant’s famous 1784 exposition of the command “Know thyself!” Not that this call of the Enlightenment was entirely erroneous; it’s just that Pagels presents this freedom of belief as if it is new. And it definitely is not.

And so we come to something of the same old story. This time it's reinforced by a culture that's drunk from Immanuel Kant's draught for a couple of centuries and tells us to follow "our own heart" whatever anyone else says and whatever the cost. "The Da Vinci Code" also invites us to move away from the constrictions of Constantine and his Christian orthodoxy to find the insights of the great man, Jesus. It's fortunate, according to Dan Brown's characters, that Jesus wasn't divine because or else his words might trump our criteria of truth.

What it doesn't say is that it's not always that interesting to be bounded by the smallish circle of our own insights.

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