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Challenging the code

Writer Dan Brown has produced a perfect turmoil in America.

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

The Da Vinci Code, a runaway bestseller, has once again put in front the dilemma that faces the Christian world in particular and all religious faiths in general. What is faith? What is sacred? Why are we here? Where did we come from?

The struggle for land and wealth has been as brutal as the struggle to influence people. Religion, in general, has been used to shepherd people not just into an imagined promised land as much as to keep them from wandering away into someone else's imagined promised land. This quest to harvest souls is as old as any human endeavour, but the tactics and strategies now used by the harvesters of souls have the stamp not only of top-rated Madison Avenue advertising firms but of the lowly but effective used cars' salesmen. Read The Da Vinci Codein this context.

The book has created such a flutter that in the Barnes and Noble bookstore in the heartland Baptist citadel of Lynchburg, Virginia, there are at least two shelves of books countering the Dan Brown thriller. While the Chicago Tribune raves that the book is a "tremendously powerful narrative engine despite transmitting several doctorates' worth of fascinating history and learned speculation", the Catholic Church, the Opus Dei and angry Christians put out their own public relations specialists to spin the political-religious spin lest unwary Christians begin suspecting the whole Christian religious enterprise.

Surf the Internet and you will see myriad sites seeking to debunk Dan Brown. For example, Christianity Today offers free weekly newsletters to those interested in Christian history and religion and takes great care to point out seemingly contradictory or false assertions made by Brown. The Internet is a great free for all, but even in that marketplace of ideas and innuendos, the well-heeled and the persistent make it to the top of the Google page and thus gain the attention and the purse-strings of the gullible, the lazy, or the worried-and-seeking-reassurance browser of the billion plus pages that Google accesses in milliseconds. Yet another popular site offers "A Catholic Response - The Da Vinci Code", a pamphlet written by Amy Welborn and available only in packages of fifty. The blurb promoting the pamphlet reads:

"Use the hype surrounding this book to reach out. Some suggestions for using this pamphlet:

  • Organise an adult Bible study using the pamphlet to discover the riches of the New Testament.
  • Offer an evening of Q&A about the book in particular and the Faith in general, using the pamphlet as a discussion-starter.
  • Plan a series of student lessons, using the questions in the pamphlet to initiate conversation.
  • Use the pamphlet as a springboard for further study of Church history.
  • Provide copies in the reading room or library, or the information table, of your parish.

The truth about Jesus is more interesting, more powerful and more fulfilling than any myths. Share the Good News with those who are questioning and combat popular culture's attempt to muddy the deep waters of our Faith."

That the book's popularity worries the Catholic Church is an understatement. Furious efforts were made to quickly publish rebuttals. The one backed by the Church is a refutation by Carl Olsen and Sandra Miesel titled The Da Vinci Hoax. Protestants were not far behind and a book by Richard Abanes titled The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code seeks to assure the worried evangelical Christian that Brown's claims about his work of fiction as solidly grounded in "facts" were false and cunning.

It is not for me, a rank outsider, to weigh in on the historical accuracy of Brown's work of fiction, or the accuracy of the Bible as a historical document, but even a rank outsider will realise that religion has always been an enterprise about spiritual quest as it is a quest for power and influence. Faith is peculiar and there is no reason to use reason to understand and accept faith, some argue. But every established religion and church knows that if reason triumphs, faith will vanish like the mirage shimmering on the road on a hot day as you drive from Kansas City, Kansas, to Wichita, Kansas. Thus, "history" and "reason" are sought to be roped in to establish the credentials of faiths. There are numerous publishing houses, various campus Christian organisations and well-paid academics who are engaged in padding faith with the vestments of reason, which in turn has led to the puny attempts by wet-behind-the-ears eighteen-year-olds who come into my office to tell me why Jesus is the only son of God and why I should accept Jesus as my personal savior, or the aggressive Bible-thumpers on college campuses who hector passing students as to why the Bible is true word for word and should be accepted as such and that if they don't they surely will go to hell. "This is all you need and it is all here, " they scream desperately as students scurry from their Biology 101 class to their Economics 101 class and thence on to their Intercultural Communication class or a World Religions class.

There is no reason for me to argue whether faith should triumph or reason should triumph since I do come from a tradition where jnana, bhakti and karma are all acceptable means in the pursuit of spiritual transcendence. Not one wedded to a religion of "The Book", I am, however, worried about the conflict my students face as they struggle to match what they learn in my class with what they have been told is "true". The "believers" in my classes confess that they will use the information from my intercultural communication classes to spread the word of God more effectively to "those hungering for Jesus" in Africa, Asia and South America. I shudder in disbelief and despair for the moral and mental health of the world when I see such desperate and dangerous tendencies in my students. I shudder to think of the churches being "planted" in rural Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka, or in the alleys and or on the outskirts of Bangalore or Chennai, or in the tribal hill tracts of Orissa and Madhya Pradesh with the millions of dollars that are pumped in every year by "believing Christians" into "missionary" work. Does the regular Sunday churchgoer in rural Texas or metropolitan Virginia who generously empties his/ her pocket know what kind of conflict they are funding in the world? Have they heard the desperate plea of Swami Vivekananda who at the first world religions conference in Chicago in 1893 told his Christian audience that Indians don't need a new faith or God but yes, there are millions of starving Indians who need money to buy food and to send their children to school?

The Da Vinci Code may be bad or suspect history or poorly grounded in facts, but I think it is a welcome addition in our quest to understand faith and be guided by reason. If reason does not triumph in our day-to-day world, we will succumb to the mad lust of our frail spirituality and end up peddling snake oil as manna from heaven.

 
     
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