The Christian displeasure over the premise that Jesus was an ordinary mortal reminded me at first of the annoyance we Muslims felt when newspapers published derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammad. Yet after careful scrutiny The da Vinci Code can be seen as a deeply religious attempt to actually salvage Christianity. Americans who can no longer maintain their Christian faith while immersed in a scientific culture, showed with mega-dollar enthusiasm that they delight in the intimation that we don’t need miracles to have faith. In celebrating such an idea secular fans of The da Vinci Code have reached an essentially Islamic viewpoint.
Muslims have been saying for centuries that their prophet was just a man. He was born of the union of a man and a woman. He married, had children, got sick, and died. Yet even though Mohammad didn’t walk on water or raise the dead he inspired a major religion equal in spiritual energy to any other.
In proposing a miracle-free version of Christianity The da Vinci Code brings to mind the same challenges we Muslims faced early in our history. Fourteen hundred years ago Islam pried our psyches away from belief in miracles. Even then some new Moslems immediately grabbed onto a surrogate: the belief that the bloodline of the Prophet is special. The da Vinci Code offers the same shelter to a Christianity orphaned by modern rationalism. The allure of Code is the thrill of discovering that Jesus may have left descendents, and that they may still be among us. Shiite Muslims understand this sentiment well. Even though Mohammad was mortal, Shiites believe he and his descendents are unique in a way that you and I aren’t. Muslim Sunnis on the other hand scratch their heads at the thought that God would play favorites with bloodlines. I was raised Shiite, but I can appreciate the Sunni insistence that God looks upon all of us as equals. Yet the popularity of Code demonstrates that the Shiite point of view also has a powerful aesthetic rightness.
To illustrate, the late Harvard scholar, Stephen Jay Gould, relates the story of the Spirit of St. Louis display at the Smithsonian. A scale model of the historic airplane was to be placed low enough it could be touched. When the advocacy group for the visually impaired was contacted for feedback, they commented that the model should be placed underneath and as close to the original as possible. In this anecdote Gould observes how essential it is for humans to feel the presence of the real thing even if we have no way of ascertaining that presence. The Shiite claim that genetic proximity to the Prophet’s blood is meaningful expresses the universal human preference for touch over abstractions. The idea that there are special people among us who physically carry Jesus’ blood will have mass appeal in the Christian West. The biological resurrection of Jesus is a message of hope for many who are culturally Christian, but whose rational minds can no longer accommodate a religion of miracles.
The parallel between Islam’s Shiism and The da Vinci Code version of Christianity extends to the emphasis on the female as a divine vessel . In The da Vinci Code Mary Magdalene is this vessel, the Holy Grail. The heroine of the story is her direct modern day descendant. In Shiism the lineage of Mohammad is carried through his daughter Fatemeh. The wife of the first Shiite Imam, Ali, and the female ancestor of all subsequent imams. Fatemeh is described in these terms by Ayatollah Khomeini: “Fatemeh is the full truth of humanity. She is a being from the realm of the angels that has appeared in the shape of a human with the face of a woman.” Of course Islam and The da Vinci Code part ways as to how to honor the female connection with the divine. In Islam the tendency has been to venerate through extreme segregation, whereas The da Vinci Code continues the modern Western penchant to venerate through extreme sexuality.
Are there historical lessons from Shiism that modern “da Vinci Code Christians” could learn from? Yes, we Shiites were ultimately unable to accept a miracle-free spiritual diet. Many of us still wait for our last Imam to reappear like a messiah to reestablish justice in the world. So if you are culturally Christian and were fascinated by the book or the movie, whether Jesus was God or mortal is ultimately irrelevant to your experience. If you were drawn in by a sense of deep mystery over Jesus’ biological descendents, then The da Vinci Code has succeeded in putting religion back into you.