Monday, May 22, 2006

To watch or not to watch

What better reason to post once again than to join the chorus of opinion on The DaVinci Code. I saw the film last night, and I think I tend to agree with Roger Ebert that Ron Howard is a far better director than Dan Brown is a novelist. Although not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, I found it entertaining though I found myself laughing outloud several times at how preposterous some of the film's claims are. Ultimately, however, I am not a film critic; I'll leave the verdict of the film's quality to someone else. But I would like to say a bit about the theological and historical implications of the film.

First, let's be clear that Dan Brown is not a very good historian. His construal of the Council of Nicaea as the historical point at which Christ's divinity was concocted and when the canon was closed is simply inaccurate. From the very first, some Christians confessed that Christ was divine. Notice that I say some. There were certainly others who would claim to be true Christians who were confounded as to how Jesus could be divine and not break the bounds of strict monotheism. Even more, there were Christians who argued that Christ was only divine, that Jesus could not have possibly been even the slightest bit human. Early Christianity was a diverse mix. To argue then that Constantine's call of the council concocted Christ's divinity is less than half right. Certainly, before Constantine, there was not a single individual or institution which could enforce orthodoxy with the necessary political might; in fact, it took several decades and other Christian emperors to establish a veritably unquestioned orthodoxy in the Christian West. In other words, what Nicaea did is to seal a particular strand of Christianity as authoritative and orthodox.

Even more preposterous is Brown's fictive claim that the four gospels were selected and other dismissed because the four canonical works buttressed Christ's divinity. The fourfold gospel was one of the earliest parts of the NT canon to come together; other gospels found in the last century mostly in the sands of Egypt were likely to be 3rd to 4th century documents. Although they introduce us to how other early followers of Christ construed their faith, they are not as close to the events of Jesus' life as the four we have in the bible today. Yes, the decision to limit the orthodox canons to four was a human decision, but it was not the product of a conspiracy to buttress Christ's divinity.

Finally, we should consider Brown's implicit claim that pre-Nicaean Christianity was far more feminist in its orbit. The Gnostic Gospels prove otherwise, and we can turn to numerous examples in the gospels of Luke and John where we find women in active roles in the ministry of Christ. Nevertheless, it is clear that the church has historically been an agent of female oppression and the marginalization of female sexuality; this is a significant scar on the church's history.

Ultimately, does this all mean that the Christian faith is a sham, an accident of history? If the faith was based solely on what could be proven historically, then yes, but our faith rests on far more than history. Brown implicitly suggests that there are only two alternatives. Either the bible and Jesus himself plopped down from heaven among us, or the Christian faith itself is solely the product of a malicious conspiracy to hold power over the world. Either the church is solely a divine gift or a historically produced and flawed artifice. I would suggest that either extreme falls in the camp of insipid fundamentalism.

The Christian faith is far more dynamic than this binary picture. In our faith, the perfection of divinity deigns to find flesh in human frailty. It is this paradox that continues today. The church has failed in its mission more times than we can count, and it has been embarrassingly the arm of violence and oppression. Yet the church has also inspired and engendered the heights of human achievement. Christians have struggled for justice and peace, have left us with objects of art which inspire us still, have lived seemingly ordinary lives but touched their neighbors with the grace of Christ. It is this living paradox in which we as Christians live.

Today, it has become the fashion to live on either side of this facile binary. Conservative fundamentalists deny the sins of Christianity or attribute them to individuals who were not true believers; liberal fundamentalists deny the beauty and graceful posture of the faith. I pray that the vast majority of believers who find themselves between these two extremes will live out their faith and confess our crimes and thus demonstrate the fallaciousness of both fundamentalisms.