The symbols of our Church lead us to divine truths
“Symbols are a language that helps us understand our past.” – Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code.
Tell us a bedtime story Dad,” my children would say as I put them to bed, so many years ago.
“Okay,” I would answer, quickly formulating a plot, some interesting characters and a decent conflict. Sometimes I could weave in elements from The Hobbit, Star Wars, or even from my own childhood. Corky, the black Irish setter of my youth, was a favorite character.
The bedtime stories that made the biggest impact were the ones that involved familiar characters in unexpected situations. The more outrageous the tale, the better, as it fired up my children’s imaginations. They would smile and close their eyes while I spoke, drifting off to sleep while enjoying the “wild ride” of the unlikely tale.
I wish “grown ups” would treat The Da Vinci Code the same way.
If you haven’t read the book, Dan Brown’s 2003 best-selling novel describes a murder investigation that turns into a quest to uncover a secret that could “change the course of mankind forever.”
A series of clues supposedly evident in famous Da Vinci paintings “The Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper,” plus other clues found in architectural elements of historical buildings like Westminster Abbey and The Louvre, combine to point to the final resting place of The Holy Grail.
But unlike other depictions of the Holy Grail (most notably Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail), this grail is allegorical. In Brown’s novel, the “cup of Christ” is actually Mary Magdalene, whose fictional relationship with Jesus produced a line of descendants that still exists to this day.
Now if you start from the point of view that Brown wrote an engaging novel that blends fictional ideas with historical characters, artifacts and contemporary institutions, you’ll probably like the movie. The trailers for the film show an exciting hunt for mysterious clues that will surely have me on the edge of my seat and my mind racing through the fantastic possibilities.
But if you start from the point of view that Brown has a deep hatred for the Catholic Church and a hidden agenda to destroy the Christian faith and corrupt the uneducated with half-truths and fanciful lies, then you’ll also like the film and probably find what you are looking for.
What’s the correct point of view? According to the author, a self-proclaimed Christian, the controversy surrounding the book and film is beneficial and should inspire “discussion and debate” that will ultimately lead to a more solidly defended faith.
I agree. Instead of calling for boycotts, we should use the film as an opportunity to learn more and teach others about the true meanings behind the symbols of our Church.
When I moved here after spending 14 of 16 years in Catholic schools in predominantly Catholic communities, I felt some pressure among Nashville coworkers and friends to explain my faith.
Religious statues, devotions to Mary and the Saints, and the teaching authority of the Pope and his bishops were all discussed with my Protestant brethren. Did they refuse to try to understand my point of view? I’m not sure. But most of them stayed put on their side, speaking from their fundamental reliance upon the Bible and their own personal convictions that they have been saved by the blood of Christ. Nothing else mattered.
True, the redemptive, saving grace of Christ’s death and resurrection binds all of us Christians into one community, one Body of Christ. It is the cornerstone of our faith and is told through the God-inspired writings of the Bible.
“So why do you worship statues and pray to the saints instead of to Jesus?” I would tell them that we don’t worship statues. The church has a long history of using art to teach and inspire our prayers to God.
Before the 1450s when Johann Gutenberg invented book printing, most ordinary men and women had no formal education. They learned about God at church, listening to the priests tell the stories behind the statues, the intricate stained glass windows, and other man-made art in their churches. Even the churches were built like crosses to remind the faithful of Christ’s sacrifice.
So these symbols, I explained, are visual reminders of God’s glory, the life of Jesus on this earth, and the Christ-like lives of ordinary people whom we remember as the saints. What you see is what you get. There are no hidden meanings or secret codes to discover. All roads lead to the Jesus we know in the Bible.
But leave it to a savvy author like Dan Brown to take these same images and weave a fanciful tale to ignite our imaginations and get us talking. While many people are working hard to refute its storyline, millions more are discussing The Da Vinci Code and thus talking about Jesus and their faith.
Now that’s a “wild ride” worth taking.
First published in the May 19, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio.