Defusing the Message of a Hollywood Blockbuster

By Mark I. Pinsky
The Orlando Sentinel
Saturday, February 11, 2006

As a conservative evangelical leader, Josh McDowell is one of the last people you'd expect to urge young Christians to see "The Da Vinci Code," the upcoming movie based on the phenomenally best-selling novel. After all, the book argues that Jesus sired a line of royalty before he died on the cross -- Mary Magdalene being pregnant with his child -- and that it was covered up by religious leaders through the centuries.

But McDowell, author of "The Da Vinci Code -- A Quest for Truth," not only urges a trip to the theater, but also advises everybody to read the novel by Dan Brown.

Then, he says, read his book.

"I don't attack Dan Brown. I don't attack the book," says McDowell, who is on the staff of Orlando-based Campus Crusade for Christ. "Let's see where fact leaves off and imagination begins. It's a marvelous opportunity to be positive. The main purpose of my book is to reinforce their belief and placate their skepticism. If you look carefully, truth will always stand."

McDowell and Campus Crusade, a worldwide ministry with more than 20,000 staff members and volunteers, seem to have accepted this truth: The movie, starring Tom Hanks and set to open May 19, almost certainly will be a blockbuster. So instead of fighting the wave of popular culture or urging a boycott, Campus Crusade is pushing McDowell's book, which is aimed at young moviegoers and tries to spin their interest in an evangelical direction.

McDowell says he wrote the book after distraught parents told him their children had read the novel and, as a result, walked away from their faith.

The evangelist's rejoinder is a short paperback written in the form of a series of dialogues between a college graduate student and several of his friends. They meet for coffee on a weekly basis to discuss the book after seeing the movie together. The tone is neutral regarding Brown and his motives and complimentary to his storytelling, but the grad student systematically refutes the way biblical and church history are portrayed in the story.

"Quest for Truth" publisher Green Key Books is considering a first printing of 100,000 copies. Crusade is also planning to print 500,000 copies of a mini-magazine version of the McDowell book, complete with stills from the movie. Like other evangelical groups, Crusade is preparing Web-based study guides to the film.

Meanwhile, the Hollywood media machine is teaming with a New York publishing powerhouse to create a perfect storm of synergy for a best-selling book turned blockbuster movie.

In March, Random House will release 5 million paperback copies of "The Da Vinci Code," which has been on best-seller lists for three years, along with several illustrated versions of the screenplay and the complete shooting script.

This kind of coordinated effort is standard drill for tie-ins and marketing hype. What is not by the numbers is a quiet campaign by Sony, the studio producing the film, to court the one group most likely to be offended by the book's central theme: evangelical Protestants such as McDowell.

Through Grace Hill Media, a Hollywood firm headed by Jonathan Bock that markets studio films to Christian audiences, those who oppose the book's thesis are being courted, consulted, cajoled and encouraged to voice their criticism in ways that could blunt their opposition. Bock has had extensive meetings and conversations with Campus Crusade officials, as well as faculty members of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

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