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Defusing the Message of a Hollywood Blockbuster
Evangelicals Prepare 'Da Vinci Code' Response

By Mark I. Pinsky
The Orlando Sentinel
Saturday, February 11, 2006; B09

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.

"I don't comment on projects I'm working on," says Bock, who has promoted "The Chronicles of Narnia," "The Lord of the Rings," "Holes" and "Walk the Line."

Some evangelicals say they have rejected tentative approaches from Bock's firm.

"Grace Hill would know we're not going to get behind this film," says Bob Waliszewski, of radio ministry Focus on the Family, "unless it takes moviegoers in a different theological direction than the book. Which I'd doubt is going to happen."

But others have been more amenable to an accommodation with "The Da Vinci Code."

"The Campus Crusade book simply shows that, even among more conservative evangelicals, the church's response to controversial movies is changing," says Robert K. Johnston of Fuller Seminary. "Belligerence seldom works. It is more for the speaker than for the listener."

This is in sharp contrast to Campus Crusade's reaction to Martin Scorsese's controversial film "The Last Temptation of Christ." In 1988, the organization was part of a group that attempted to buy all prints of the movie and destroy them.

The marriage of convenience -- if that is what it is -- between evangelicals and the film's producers "doesn't seem so startling to me," says Teresa Berger, professor of ecumenical theology at Duke University Divinity School. "That's how consumer capitalism functions in relationship to religious traditions."

For his part, McDowell can't wait for May 19.

"I look at the book and the movie as a platform for evangelism," he says. "A little controversy can be a marvelous tool."

Some of the most intense reaction to "The Da Vinci Code" has come from Roman Catholics, who see themselves as the main villains of the novel.

In his book, Dan Brown portrays the Vatican -- through a real secret order, Opus Dei -- as going to any lengths to conceal the "truth" about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Even murder.

Last March, Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, a former Vatican official now serving as archbishop of Genoa, condemned the book.

"Don't buy and don't read that novel," he told the conservative Italian newspaper Il Giornale. "There's a big anti-Catholic prejudice. It aims to discredit the church and its history through gross and absurd manipulations."

Amy Welborn, author of "Decoding Da Vinci: The Facts Behind the Fiction of the Da Vinci Code," a Catholic-based critique of Brown's book, is not offended by the actions of Josh McDowell and other evangelical Protestants to use the movie's release to defend and spread their faith.

"I'm not going to pour cynicism on this," she says. "To me it's just ironic. It's a hard place for all of us to be in. When do you cross the line from using it as a teachable moment to promoting the film?"

Welborn draws the line at preparing study guides that are posted on a Sony-sponsored Web site: "That implies that one needs to either read the book or see the movie."

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, also criticizes the movie's release.

"Obviously we're going to have a problem with it," he says, given the story's content.

"But all I'm asking for is a disclaimer" from director Ron Howard and the film's producers, he says. "I'm not asking for the moon. My feeling is this: If there's a disclaimer prominently displayed at the beginning of their movie, that this is a work of fiction, that will relieve my objections."

Donohue does not intend to ask Catholics to stay away.

"I don't call for too many boycotts," he says. In this case, "prudence dictates that a boycott is a fool's proposition. It's not a plausible strategy."

He prefers to "have an education campaign to let Catholics know that the book is a fraud."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company