By Michelle Boorstein and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 14, 2006
Greg Beatty's first look at "The Da Vinci Code" came when a neighbor reached across his back fence in 2003 and handed the Catholic lawyer the book and a question: Is this true?
After reading the novel, Beatty saw the questioning spread from his Springfield yard to his downtown office at the National Labor Relations Board. Was Jesus really married? Do some members of the Catholic group Opus Dei really wear self-mutilating belts? Beatty could answer some things but not others.
Forty-five million copies later, his challenge is about to get bigger. On Friday, Hollywood will release its version of "The Da Vinci Code," but Beatty -- along with many other Christians -- is ready.
Hundreds of churches have distributed books and DVDs meant to expose what they say are the film's many historical inaccuracies. Pastors are delivering sermons about issues raised by the movie. In classes and seminars, Christians of several denominations are being trained in how to talk about the themes.
Many people involved in these programs say they view the movie as a disguised gift: a historic evangelizing moment in which Christians will have a ready opportunity to speak with nonbelievers about God's word.
That's where Beatty fits in. Last week, he attended a talk at Queen of Apostles Catholic Church in Alexandria, where people were coached in how to handle post-film conversations. "This is a chance to teach people a whole lot more than they might have learned if they hadn't read the book," he said. "And they are bringing the subject to you, so now you are free to really explore it with them."
Some Catholic activists and authorities, including top Vatican officials, have urged Christians to boycott the movie. But the fact that so many churches are taking the opposite tack reflects what some see as religion's growing engagement with mainstream culture, not unlike skateboard ministries or hip-hop preachers.
"This is how young people find things out, through the media," said the Rev. Terry Specht, who works for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington and has given pre-movie lectures at bars and schools in the past couple of weeks.
"If I walk into a high school and say I'm going to talk about Constantine -- nothing," he said, referring to the 4th-century Christian emperor. "If I say I'm going to talk about this film and then Constantine, it connects. These are the things that are real to them."
In addition to being an evangelizing moment, this is a big-business moment. At least 45 books have come out to rebut points in Dan Brown's novel, as well as more than a dozen CDs and DVDs tied to the film's release that explore the book, church history and the New Testament.
The novel follows a Harvard professor and a Paris police cryptographer who, while trying to solve a murder, stumble across a secret covered up by a centuries-old clandestine society: that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had a daughter.
Although the drumbeat of Christian defenders grew slowly after Brown's book came out in 2003, the campaign pegged to the movie's release has been broad and highly organized. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in March launched a documentary and a Web site, http://jesusdecoded.com . Hundreds of churches are using debunking "kits" created by a coalition of nondenominational megachurch ministers. And at least seven television specials in which historians, theologians and archaeologists take issue with "The Da Vinci Code" are scheduled to air this month.
Whether Brown's thriller deserves to be taken so seriously by religious leaders is unclear. A survey released this month by the Barna Group, a religious polling firm, found that 5 percent of U.S. adults who had read the book said it had changed some of their religious beliefs or perspectives. Although a quarter of the respondents called the book "helpful" to their spiritual growth, George Barna, the company's founder, said he thought the book simply confirmed people's doubts. "I think that 24 percent were skeptics," he said.
However, pastors and Christian activists say their sense, from overhearing people chatting about the book at the bus stop or the barber shop, is that many aren't versed enough in church history to distinguish fact from fiction.
"I think some folks take everything they read at face value. And 10 times as many people are likely to see a movie as read a book," said Mark Norman, pastor at Grace Community Church near Laurel, where congregants are holding a four-week series of pre-movie talks.
"Conversations about Jesus don't happen with outsiders much. People have spiritual interest and no forum to talk about it," he said.
Steve Weidenkopf, who runs parish talks for the Diocese of Arlington, agrees that the film holds great potential for sparking thoughtful dialogue. He finds it hard to believe that tens of millions of people were drawn to "The Da Vinci Code" out of anti-Christian venom and instead sees the book's success as evidence of a spiritual hunger.
"People like it because they think they are learning about Christ and about church history. And modern man has in his heart a desire to know God," Weidenkopf said. The book's epic success "has to be drawing on something that's in people."
Not everyone takes such a sanguine view. Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Vatican's chief liturgist and one of several Roman Catholic officials who have spoken out against the film, said Christians should consider legal action against the filmmakers.
One Roman Catholic organization plans to protest at 1,000 movie theaters across the country, and another is calling for Christians to instead buy tickets for the children's film "Over the Hedge," which comes out the same day.
The Rev. Mike Licona was boycott-minded in 1988, when "The Last Temptation of Christ" came out. In hindsight, that action created the impression that Christians weren't open to debate, said Licona, who is the director of interfaith evangelism for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. This time, he has been training church groups to understand and respond to the film. This movie, he says, "is a big juicy softball lobbed at anyone" who wants to talk about Jesus.
"It's easy to knock out of the park, because so much of it is demonstrably false," he said. "There are much harder questions that could be thrown, like what is the origin of evil? 'The Da Vinci Code' doesn't ask that."