In the past year, two major items of popular culture have brought the world of early Christianity to the watercoolers of the nation. We were shocked by both of these works at how wildly successful they were. I speak of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ and Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. No one quite expected that the nation would be fixated on religious figures and theological debates. Both of these works were wildly successful and sparked a fair amount of commentary. Months before anyone had seen the film the Passion, liberal reviewers vilified the movie as anti-Semitic and historically inaccurate. A few years ago, I remember hearing rumors that Gibson was thinking of making this movie, using the "original" languages. About 9 months before its release I read that the actor playing Jesus, Jim Caravezael had been struck by lightning, not once, but twice during the filming. The combination of the liberal reviews and God's disapproval made it difficult for Mel Gibson to find a distributor, a search which ultimately failed. He ended up producing and distributing the movie himself, and many theaters still wouldn't carry the film. Within days after its release, it was clear that the movie had not only broken nearly every financial record, buy that it would continue to do so. Church congregations rented out entire theaters. Adults brought their young children, despite the R rating.
When I attended the movie on opening-weekend with a group of young Bible scholars, the theater was packed. A priest sat next to us who had not been to the cinema in many years. The custom of not watching R rated films in Mormonism is actually quite tame compared to many evangelical homes, who abstain from radio, television and movies all-together. But these people went in droves to see the Passion, feeling like finally Hollywood had responded to their desire for uplifting entertainment. This massive support for the Passion quite frankly took Hollywood and the media by surprise. The attacks grew more vicious, and increasingly ridiculous. The same people who supported the distributors' decision not to carry the film now criticized Gibson for making money on the film!
Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code has received nearly as much attention as any book I can remember. It topped the NYT bestseller list for months. Every airport I've been for months, I have seen numerous people reading the book. The average time to complete the 450 pages for most readers is about 72 hours. My professor, who recently completed a book on the Gospel of Mary Magdelene, has been interviewed by CNN, NYT, Time Magazine, Newsweek, NPR, and countless other news outlets. The book's cliffhanger format and provocative thesis combine to make a truly exciting reading experience. The book reinterprets several familiar symbols, revealing their "true" meaning, unknown to the uninitiated.
Though the book is labeled, "A Novel" on the front cover, it is in the smallest font. Immediately after the title page, the reader encounters a bold statement of "FACT"- including the following: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." The ultimate secret of the book, that the Holy Grail is actually Mary Magdelene, wife of Jesus and mother to his children, who together stand at the head of a royal bloodline that survives clandestinely, has been quite attractive to readers everywhere. No doubt some of its appeal lies in the shock-value of the secret, but there is also a subtle critique of religion in the book itself, especially in the rather anti-climactic conclusion when we get a glimpse behind the wizard's curtain. Conservative evangelicals and some Catholics have objected strongly to many of the implications of the book, including its depiction of Jesus and the politics of theology and Christology attributed to Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor.
Both the Passion and the DaVinci code have elicited responses from Mormons as well. A conference was recently held at BYU to discuss the book. Many Mormons have very much liked the central theses of the DaVinci Code, namely that apostate leaders in early Christianity occluded the truth about Jesus. Additionally, the apocryphal Mormon belief that Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene found a voice in Dan Brown's book, and also an explanation for why this truth was suppressed.
Regarding the Passion, Dean of Religion at BYU Robert Millet came out in strong support for the film, encouraging all LDS to see it despite the R rating, calling it a "betrayal of the rating system."
Because I have been studying the NT and early Christianity, I often get asked about these two works by members of the church and by non-members as well. Sometimes they ask for the "Mormon response." I have thought that today, since this is our last week and most people have already left for the summer, to give my response, reserving the right to modify said response upon further reflection.
Of the many things that could be said, I wanted to emphasize two particular critiques of both of these works. The first is their depiction of history and historical reality as based in what they both call "fact", and the second is in their depiction of Jesus and the theological, or more precisely, Christological message in each of them.
Both works advertised themselves as based in "fact." Dan Brown asserts that his interpretation of art, history, and literature are factually correct. The Passion was marketed to conservative Christians by Gibson as "historically accurate" in every respect. The problem with this claim is two-fold. The first is that it is quite easy to demonstrate that many of the historical claims are verifiably false. To pick on the obvious examples, there is no historical evidence to suggest Mary and Jesus were married, or that they had children, there are no gospels in the DSS, nor do they talk about Jesus at all. They were written 150 years before he was born. Contrary to his claims, most of his descriptions of "artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals" are inaccurate.
For the Passion, the most notable historical falsehoods include the fact that Roman officials would have spoken Greek, not Latin while in the East. Additionally, many of the traditions depicted in the film were based on apocryphal literature that dates well after any of the events, including the compassion of Pilate's wife, the 12 Stations of the Cross as the plot-line, the names of the two thieves, etc. Let me be clear: I do not have anything against artistic license when it comes to writing novels or movies. In fact, I like it. I think it makes them more interesting. The problem is not that Brown and Gibson take artistic license; it is that they deny that they do so. They depict their work as "historically accurate" and "factual", thus shielding their interpretations from plain view. Every reproduction is always an interpretation- as musicians and actors will attest. Instead, Gibson and Brown portray truth as given, not made. They pretend to be subject to the historical record, rather than the other way around. They create it on every page and in every scene. They are making history, not representing it.
Their positivistic view of history is especially problematic for LDS given our belief in the revealed nature of truth, which we see as always subject to the historical conditions of those who receive the revelations. The LDS view of truth does not slide into complete relativism, but rather is eternally suspended to further "light and knowledge" which could reveal something entirely different from what we currently believe. If we follow Brown and Gibson in the belief that truth is represented outside of ourselves, we cut ourselves off from the divine, who can only reveal to us when we are open and accept our place in cooperative chain of making and revealing knowledge from on high. (emphasis added).
My second concern with these two works is in their depiction of Jesus. In many ways these two works present radically opposed teachings about Jesus, neither of which can be ultimately accepted in LDS theology. They each represent extremes in a debate about the nature of Jesus that has existed since the first decades after his death. In my view, the DaVinci Code's discussion about godhood is utterly confused. It exalts Mary Magdelene to the status of a goddess, which for LDS theology is perfectly acceptable in some sense. However, in doing so, it almost goes unnoticed that Jesus is depicted as undivine, as simply a regular old Yeshua. Part of the secret story of Dan Brown that the ancient Church has suppressed is the teaching that "thousands of pages of unaltered, pre-Constantine documents, written by early followers of Jesus, revere[d] Him as a wholly human teacher and prophet" (page 256). While Mary is a goddess, for no good reason Jesus is considered simply a human. The explanation is that Jesus was voted to be made divine in the Nicene creed, in part to suppress the fact that he had children. How Mary can be considered divine even though she had children is not explained. In any case, while exalting Mary to her status as a goddess, a perfectly acceptable theological move in Mormonism, Brown demotes Jesus.
On the opposite extreme, the Passion depicts Jesus as wholly other and unique. He avoids the heresy of docetism, which denied that Jesus suffered, but in doing so, he depicts Jesus' suffering on the cross and at the hands of the Romans as something entirely special, as if he were the first and last to suffer crucifixion and scourging at the hands of the Romans. The fact is, that Jesus died not in an extraordinary manner, but as a common criminal, in the same way that people all over the Roman empire were being killed. As LDS, we know that Jesus' sufferings were greatest in the Garden as acknowledged by Jesus himself in D&C 19. The sufferings on the cross were his solidarity with our sufferings. He suffered as humans suffer, we are taught by Alma 7, not in a way beyond humans. Gibson's film acts as if this suffering were qualitatively different from the suffering of humans, which obscures the humanity of Jesus. It makes him our god on earth, not our comrade in affliction.
Additionally, the depiction of Jesus in the Passion is only as "sufferer". It practically ignores Jesus as "teacher", or "miracle worker", and most importantly the exalted, resurrected Jesus. The Passion concludes with a 30 second resurrection scene of a militant Jesus, rising to deep drum beats. It is essentially an afterthought. Mormonism, on the other hand, focuses on the resurrected Jesus. The BoM story is about the resurrection, the Jesus who returns, as teacher and miracle worker, not as consummate sufferer. I object to Gibsons theological emphasis on the suffering of Jesus because it distorts the message into a theology of atonement as sadism and guilt, not of hope.
Mormonism instead offers a theology of Jesus that avoids these extremes of Brown and Gibson. Dan Brown makes Jesus simply another human being, and Mel Gibson makes Jesus a characature, a version of a God whose experiences are so different from our own that we cannot relate to him and he cannot relate to us. In the grand council in heaven Jesus took the lead as our brother. He is one of us. This revolutionary teaching of the Gospel of the Restoration puts into focus the true nature of Jesus, and the true nature of our relationship with him. We are like him and he is like us. He is not the metaphysical exception to humanity, but the supreme example of a human being. The ancient witness in 1 John 3:1-2 reports:
"Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: (this was told to us at King Follet's funeral) but we know when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is."