Friday, May 26, 2006

Da Vinci Code -- The Movie

Well, I saw it last night. My friend, Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, invited me to join him at the movie and then a conversation about the movie afterwards. So, what do I think? Without spoiling the surprise -- there are some differences between the movie version and the original. It seems that Ron Howard tried to soften the edge of the book by making the character of Robert Langton less committed to either the divine feminine principle and Priory of Sion. That is left to Leigh Teabing -- who ultimately is the bad guy. Opus Dei comes off poorly, as does the Catholic Church -- except that Howard again softens things by suggesting that the bad guys are a small council operating on its own to keep the Priory of Sion underground. The ending is different as well from the book -- but I won't give that away if you've not seen it.

The issues remain, however, the way Dan Brown either does not know the history of Christianity or has chosen to play fast and loose with it. Then there is the question of biblical scholarship. The role of women needs to be addressed -- especially regarding Mary Magdalene. Finally, there is the whole issue of paganism, Judaism, and their interactions with Christianity. So, whether you read the book or see the movie, we should have the conversation!

Monday, May 22, 2006

American Gospel -- by Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham's new book, American Gospel, is a truly important work. Whether religious or secular, Christian or not, it is a truly valuable introduction to the relationship of religion and American cultural and political life. Check out my review of the book on the Disciples World web site:

Meacham is Managing editor of Newsweek Magazine. Thanks also to Rebecca Woods of Disciples World for asking me to write the review.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Published in the Lompoc Record
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Faith in the Public Square

Cracking the Code -- the Da Vinci Code, That Is!

Three years on the bestseller lists, now a major motion picture directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a can’t miss block-buster. This mystery-thriller takes on the Roman Catholic Church, Opus Dei, and Christianity in general, while mixing in the Knights Templar, Masons, Gnosticism, the Holy Grail, and famous works of art. The book and its conspiratorial claims have drawn a great crowd of fans and elicited a considerable industry of critical responses.

As a piece of literature, The Da Vinci Code doesn’t rank with Steinbeck or Updike, but something about the storyline is intriguing. The story centers on a secret that if exposed would rock Christianity to its very foundations. The secretive "anti-Catholic" Priory of Sion guards this explosive secret, which a conservative Roman Catholic group – Opus Dei – is willing to kill in order to keep it secret. The secret? The Holy Grail of legend isn’t a chalice, it’s a child born of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Why is it so popular? Possibly it’s the conspiracy theory that drives the plot or the feminist angle. There’s the recent interest in Gnosticism – consider the release of The Gospel of Judas. Then there’s the allegation that Jesus was a human just like us, who enjoyed sex and wanted to be married. Maybe it’s a reflection of ongoing interest in the goddess and "New Age" spirituality.

As fiction, The Da Vinci Code poses little threat to the Christian faith. But, Brown claims that the book is based on fact, something many of his readers accept at face value. Unfortunately, the book depends on such discredited books as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and Brown demonstrates no understanding of modern biblical scholarship or the underlying facts of Gnosticism. There is also the misrepresentation of Opus Dei that is problematic. But perhaps there’s a silver lining – maybe the book will stir a renewed interest in the history and interpretation of the Bible at a time of growing biblical illiteracy.

The book raises important questions, though its answers are flawed at best. Uppermost might be the question of Jesus’ humanity. While the church affirms the full humanity of Jesus, it also affirms his full divinity. Too often the humanity gets lost in the divinity, but Brown’s turn to Gnosticism won’t provide the necessary counterbalance. If anything, the Jesus of Gnosticism was even more divine than the Jesus of the canonical gospels. Gnosticism also divorced Jesus from his Jewish context, offering a version of Christianity that was distinctly anti-Semitic.

As for Mary Magdalene, she figures prominently in both canonical and Gnostic gospels, but never as Jesus’ wife. She was, even in the canonical gospels, a significant disciple of Jesus. Could Jesus have been married? There’s no reason why not – except that there isn’t any evidence he was, especially since he was an itinerant preacher.

Then there is the issue of the church’s suppression of the women. There is truth to this charge, but Christianity isn’t unique in this. Though there has been great change, many parts of the Christian community continue to treat women as second class citizens. If the book stirs us to a discussion of the role of women in church and society, then it has done the church a good service.

Finally, there is the question of how the Bible came to be. Since it didn’t fall from heaven, how did Christians decide what was authoritative and what was not? It wasn’t, as Brown suggests, the work of Constantine. Constantine can be blamed for a lot of things, but he didn’t have a role in choosing the books of the bible in an effort to create a divine Jesus. Truth be told, the four gospels date from the latter half of the 1st century, a half-century before the Gnostic gospels, with which Brown is enamored, started appearing. Still, the question of how the Bible came to be is worthy of careful study in our churches.

Although Dan Brown got his facts wrong, it’ll probably be a movie that should be seen. Then, we should have a conversation about the questions it raises concerning the history and message of the Christian faith – I’m willing, if you’re willing.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, CA ( He may be contacted at or at First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.
The archived version from the Record is at the following address:

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Presidents, Religion, and Moral Values

With the Republican Party making great hay on the issues of moral values and family values, I was pleased to read Jimmy Carter's new book that responds by offering a counterpoint. In a sense, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter offer two perspectives on how Christians should view themselves and their relationship to the nation and to the world. Both perspectives have long standing presence. I recently wrote a piece on this topic for the Lompoc Record -- which has now gotten picked up by Sojourners -- a voice for the other side of things.

Take a look:

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Ten Commandments Day

A group of mostly conservative Christians (with a few conservative Jews thrown in) declard today to be the first annual Ten Commandments Day. It's really a politically motivated effort to try to pursue causes that include but don't end at public display of the Ten Commandments. As a Christian I'm all for the Ten Commandments, but I also know that their value comes in relationship with the covenant making God who called the people of Israel out of the bondage of slavery and set them free to become a nation who would walk in relationship with God. As a Christian, I find myself within this people of God only by adoption.

Anyway, if you're interested, I took another stab at the Ten Commandments today in my Lompoc Record column. Why not take a peek and let me know what you think.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Our Covenant Relationships

Today I had the opportunity to share in a clergy retreat with Dr. Michael Kinnamon -- Disciple theologian, ecumenist, and professor at Eden Theological Seminary. Michael came to talk to us about our covenant relationships as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) -- of which church I'm a pastor. He spoke to us about the centrality of covenant language to our existence as a church, and our abysmal record of living out or even understanding those relationships.

As a church we have seen ourselves as being in covenant relationship but too often we operate as autonomous entities with no real forms of mutual accountability present. Congregations tend to flout their autonomy -- saying that the General Church and Regions can't speak for them or even to them. Ultimately this is a question of wrestling with issues of authority -- how do we keep each other accountable without either hierarchy or coercion. As a pastor there is the question of how I speak and act authoritatively responsibly and humbly, allowing the proper freedom, while still leading. This is my overly simple overview.