Da Vinci Code

Angels, demons & good Catholics

Near the end of Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons," the beautiful scientist Vittoria Vetra clashes with a Vatican official who insists that the day researchers prove how God acted in creation is "the day people stop needing faith." "You mean the day they stop needing the church," she shouts, weaving together the novel's main themes. "But the church is not the only enlightened soul on the planet! We all seek God in different ways. ...

"God is not some omnipotent authority looking down from above, threatening to throw us into a pit of fire if we disobey. God is the energy that flows through the synapses of our nervous system and the chambers of our hearts! God is in all things!"

This long speech is not in the movie based on Brown's first novel about the dashing Harvard professor Robert Langdon, who uses his encyclopedic knowledge of art, religion, history, literature, architecture and archeology to crack through layers of ancient conspiracies that bedevil modern humanity.

This is, however, a speech that -- as a sermon by the author -- offers insights into the worldview behind "Angels & Demons" and the novel that followed it.

That, of course, was "The Da Vinci Code," which ignited a global firestorm because of its depiction of Jesus as a brilliant, charismatic and ultimately misunderstood mortal man who married the brilliant, charismatic and misunderstood Mary Magdalene and had a child with her before his untimely death. This power couple's goal was to create an inclusive, dogma-free, sexually enlightened faith. But, alas, the power-hungry patriarchs who created Christianity -- especially the Roman Catholic Church -- conspired to wreck and bury their work.

Director Ron Howard, who also directed "The Da Vinci Code" movie, admits that large parts of "Angels & Demons" were scrapped and rewritten while turning the prequel into a sequel. Brown gave his blessing since the book's major themes remained intact.

As with "The Da Vinci Code," Howard is convinced that he has not created an anti-Catholic film. His goal, he said, was to raise questions about the nature of faith.

"I believe in God, yes, I do. I'm not a member of a church at the moment," he told reporters, before "Angels & Demons" reached theaters. "There is no personal struggle, for me, between my beliefs and religion. Basically, in a nutshell, I believe that our intelligence, and our curiosity, and our drive to know more are a part of the plan. … But I haven't worked to directly sort of inject my personal spirituality and belief system into the story."

The goal, while spinning another conspiracy-theory thriller, was to focus on "the threat that some in the Vatican may feel about what science represents, what it proposes to say about the origins of the universe and the origins of man," he said.

The plot begins with the sudden death of a "progressive and beloved pope." Then, all hell breaks loose as someone claiming to represent a secret society of freethinkers called the "Illuminati" kidnaps what the book describes as the four "liberal," reform-minded cardinals who were the top candidates to become pope and begins murdering them in public rituals.

As the coup de grace, this mysterious killer has arranged to steal a container of antimatter produced at the CERN Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border. Langdon and Vetra have to rush around -- call it "24" meets a papal conclave -- and find this missing "God particle" stuff before it explodes and vaporizes Vatican City.

By the time it's all over, Langdon and company have solved a papal-murder mystery, saved the enlightened cardinal who ultimately becomes pope and, literally, saved the throne of St. Peter from being captured a madman who is, of course, the story's most articulate conservative Catholic.

This villain "feels that the church is going down the wrong path" as it pursues peace with science and modernity, noted actor Ewan McGregor. "He thinks that the church is becoming watered down and is becoming weaker and weaker. … He's trying to put it back on course."

The key is that "Angels & Demons" offers a Vatican that contains good Catholics and bad Catholics. By the end of the film, said Howard, Langdon has gained a "more complex view of the church."

In the end, there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and Brown and Howard get to determine who is who.

Angels, demons, Hanks & God

To hear Tom Hanks describe him, the hero who broke "The Da Vinci Code" is an academic superman whose knowledge of art, religion, history and philosophy can handle anything. But in his next movie adventure, a Vatican official catches Harvard professor Robert Langdon off guard with this eternal question: "Do you believe in God?"

As a scholar, he says that he will never be able to answer that question. The papal aide then asks what his heart says.

"It tells me that I'm not meant to," says Langdon.

Meanwhile, Hanks does believe in God and, during early press events for the upcoming movie "Angels & Demons," he stressed that he isn't a believer when it comes to conspiracy theories. This puts the superstar in an interesting position since he's playing the hero in a franchise built on the unorthodox visions of novelist Dan Brown -- who is on his way to creating a Universal Unified Field Theory of Vatican Conspiracies.

"Conspiracy theories, I think, are ... conjured up by people who can then sell their books about conspiracy theories," said Hanks, with a shrug. "Anytime someone says, 'You know how they did that? You know what that's about? You know what the conspiracy is?', I automatically tune that person out."

Of course, looming over the May 15 release of this film is the global firestorm created by Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," which opened with the infamous claim: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." The novelist then spun a tale about a charismatic and ultimately human Jesus who married, had a child and tried to create a feminist, sexually liberated faith two millennia before Woodstock.

Brown wrote "Angels & Demons" before "The Da Vinci Code," which became a movie from director Ron Howard. The new film is framed as a sequel, with a tweaked plot that opens with humbled Roman Catholic leaders turning to Langdon for help in unraveling another ancient conspiracy. This time, a shadowy network of freethinkers -- the "Illuminati" -- are seeking revenge by blowing up the Vatican.

Rome wasn't amused by "The Da Vinci Code" and didn't embrace Howard and crew this time, either. The director was denied permission to enter the Holy See or to film key scenes inside the churches of Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria. As a church spokesman told the Daily Telegraph: "Usually we read the script but in this case it wasn't necessary. Just the name Dan Brown was enough."

Howard stressed that his new film includes good Catholic believers as well as bad and that Langdon's character is forced to develop a "more complex view of the church."

"I feel that the good and bad believers have to do with the good and bad in their deeds," said Howard. "Belief is personal and to be respected. But behavior and actions taken on behalf of those beliefs, well that's something that society has to react to when it's bad and applaud when it's good."

For example, Hanks quoted key lines in which the Swiss Guard commander aims this shot at the hero: "My church feeds the hungry and takes care of the needs of the poor. What has your church done? Oh, that's right, Mr. Langdon, you don't have one."

"This is true," noted Hanks, whose complex family history included doses of Catholicism, Mormonism, the Church of the Nazarene and several years as a Bible-toting evangelical teen-ager. "The church does feed the poor. It does take care of the hungry. It heals the sick. I think that the grace of God seems to be not only in the eye of the believer, but also in the hands of the believer."

These days, he said, he still ponders the big questions, while raising a family with his Greek Orthodox wife, actress Rita Wilson. Miracles are everywhere in daily life, he said, and it's the "mystery of it all" that continues to haunt him.

"I must say that when I go to church -- and I do go to church -- I ponder the mystery," he said. "I meditate on the, 'why?' of 'Why people are as they are,' and 'Why bad things happen to good people,' and 'Why good things happen to bad people.' ... The mystery is what I think is, almost, the grand unifying theory of all mankind."

Opus Dei presses on after Da Vinci

NEW YORK -- At the height of Da Vinci Code mania there was sign at the door of the Murray Hill Conference Center asking visitors if they wanted to learn the truth about the "real Opus Dei."

Visitors received a cheery information pamphlet. Staffers also had answers ready for those asking edgier questions that usually sounded something like this: "Is this the world headquarters of Opus Dei, the place where that albino monk Silas lived who murdered all those people in Dan Brown's book?"

Actually, visitors were told, Opus Dei has no monks and its world headquarters is in Rome. The only local member named Silas is a Nigerian-born stockbroker who lives in Brooklyn -- with his wife.

The siege did include moments of humor, said spokesman Brian Finnerty. One visitor pointed at the 17-story Manhattan tower and asked, "Is it true you have a torture chamber up there?" The doorman quipped, "You don't know nothing. The torture chamber's in the basement."

Life goes on at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 34th Street. But for Opus Dei loyalists, life after "The Da Vinci Code" will never be the same and that is probably a good thing, said Monsignor Thomas Bohlin, the group's leader in America.

It's crucial, he said, that Opus Dei members were able to do dozens of media interviews during the uproar surrounding the book and the movie, he said. This gave Opus Dei a chance to open up and respond to its many critics.

"There are people who still say that we are like a fundamentalist sect," said Bohlin. "For some people we're the Masons, we're crypto-Fascists, we're who knows what. ... We know that it's going to take time for people to figure out who we are and what we are and what we can become here in America."

The story of Opus Dei ("Work of God") began in 1928, when a Spanish priest named Josemar

That Da Vinci sex code

In the beginning, Judaism was a faith built on sacred sex.

At least, that's what Dan Brown told 60 million readers in "The Da Vinci Code," speaking though a fictional Harvard University scholar named Robert Langdon. And while the characters are fiction, the novelist continues to affirm the statement that opens his book: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

One of those "secret rituals" is an eye-opener.

"Langdon's Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the Temple, no less," wrote Brown, in one of many long speeches that explain his iconoclastic plot. "Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple housed not only God but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the Temple to visit priestesses ... with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union."

For most people, the big news in "The Da Vinci Code" story was its message that Jesus was a brilliant and charismatic man -- but not the Son of God -- who was married to St. Mary Magdalene, had a child and tried to start a church built on secret truths and goddess worship. But Jesus was killed and, after a few centuries, powerful men crushed the Gnostic Christians. Meanwhile, the secret bloodline of Jesus lived on in Europe.

That's the side of the book, and now the movie, that makes headlines. But there is a message in the novel that is even more controversial and, for traditional Christians and Jews, more radical, according to philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi, who was born and educated in the diverse religious culture of India.

"The Da Vinci Code" is absolutely right when it states that the Judeo-Christian tradition, through the ages, did everything that it could to suppress sexual mysticism, fertility rites and goddess worship. The early church, he stressed, emerged in a world that was packed with pagan sanctuaries filled with scores of temple prostitutes.

The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasized the holiness of marriage, but never taught that sexual intercourse was -- in and of itself -- a sacred rite in which the spirit escapes the body and is able commune with some all-embracing deity.

"Dan Brown is right about the following: some pagan converts to Christ did bring sexual mysticism into the early church," said Mangalwadi, in a speech he delivered this week at Hollywood (Calif.) Presbyterian Church. In fact, the Book of Revelation condemns two early churches that tolerated believers who "practiced religious sex. It is possible that before becoming Christians these women and men had participated in prostitution in pagan temples. ...

"Given the fact that Christianity was an ascending religious force, they may have found it to their advantage to attract customers in the name of Christ. Some may well have re-written the life of Christ in the light of pagan spirituality to justify their preferred 'religious' practice."

In "The Da Vinci Code" itself, Brown stresses that the use of sexual rituals to create union with the gods and goddesses is older than the Christian faith and could, he claimed, be seen in Judaism. A one point, a central character witnesses a modern ritual in which a couple has sexual intercourse while surrounded by a circle of other members of the secret society that is preserving the true Christianity.

Thus, Brown's alter ego explains: "Historically, intercourse was the act through which male and female experienced God. The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. Physical union with the female remained the sole means through which man could become spiritually complete and ultimately achieve gnosis -- knowledge of the divine. ... 'By communing with woman,' Langdon said, 'man could achieve a climactic instance when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.' "

The key is that this experience is the "sole means" for transformation. This theme is explicit in the novel, even though the movie does not stress it.

"Dan Brown is promoting a mystic experience in which our mind goes 'totally blank' -- beyond words, thoughts, ideals, beliefs and values," argued Mangalwadi. "This is a non-rational experience. Mystics promote it because the consider the intellect to be the source of ignorance, not a means to gaining knowledge."

So who is Dan Brown?

There was no way to film "The Lord of the Rings" without dealing with the author and producer Peter Jackson knew it.

Who was J.R.R. Tolkien? Luckily, the Oxford don left behind letters and essays about his Catholic faith and its impact on his heart, mind and soul.

"What we tried to do was honor the things that were important to Tolkien," said Jackson, after screening "The Two Towers" for the press. "We didn't want to make it a religious film. But he was very religious and some of the messages and some of the themes are based on his beliefs."

When artists turn a novel into a movie, they need to understand the author and it helps if he has, in the past, been candid about his beliefs and values. It helps to know something about the worldview that shaped the fiction.

So who is novelist Dan Brown? How will his beliefs affect "The Da Vinci Code" movie that will roll -- tsunami style -- into thousands of theaters next weekend?

It's hard to answer these questions, because Brown rarely agrees to serious interviews. Entertainment Weekly recently resorted to running a feature entitled "10 Things We Learned About Dan Brown From His Recent Trial."

Who is Dan Brown? He grew up in the Episcopal Church and was a regular at church camps. His mother was a church musician. His father taught mathematics at Phillips Exeter Academy, so Brown lived and studied there before going to Amherst College. During his college years, as often happens, Brown veered away from faith.

We know that he tried teaching English, failed as a songwriter and, early on, struggled as a writer. His wife, Blythe, is a painter who has played a major role in his work with her research skills and anger at traditional Catholicism. We know that Brown says he outlined "The Da Vinci Code" before he -- or his wife -- read the conspiracy theory classic "Holy Blood, Holy Grail." We know that Brown beat claims of plagiarism in that recent trial in London.

Interviewing himself at DanBrown.com, he argues that his book is a godsend for those open to debating religious questions and a challenge to anyone clinging to ancient doctrines. In other words, anyone who thinks his book is an attack on his or her faith is probably the kind of person whose faith deserves to be attacked.

"This book is not anti-anything. It's a novel," said Brown. "I wrote this story in an effort to explore certain aspects of Christian history that interest me. The vast majority of devout Christians understand this fact and consider 'The Da Vinci Code' an entertaining story that promotes spiritual discussion and debate. Even so, a small but vocal group of individuals has proclaimed the story dangerous, heretical and anti-Christian."

The problem is the novel's opening statement: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." After that, Brown proceeds to argue that Jesus was a charismatic man who married, had a child and created a goddess-friendly faith. The early church, however, twisted his teachings. Thus, as a brilliant skeptic says in the novel, "almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false."

Still, it's crucial to note that Brown is not opposed to Christianity, per se. In the online interview he stresses that he considers himself a Christian, but one who is seeking his own path of enlightenment. Brown sees himself as someone who is searching for a crossroads where science, sacred sex and all the world religions meet and work out their differences in the embrace of an all-embracing goddess, god or pantheon of gods to be negotiated at some point in the future.

"If you ask three people what it means to be Christian, you will get three different answers," he said. "Some feel being baptized is sufficient. Others feel you must accept the Bible as absolute historical fact. Still others require a belief that all those who do not accept Christ as their personal savior are doomed to hell. Faith is a continuum, and we each fall on that line where we may."

Who is Dan Brown? He is an evangelist proclaiming the message that there is no orthodoxy other than his liberating orthodoxy that says traditional Christianity is heresy. His goal is to liberate Jesus from all those picky ancient creeds.