Sin, Sex, Secret Societies

January 19, 2008 | By | 9 Replies More

Last night I saw The Da Vinci Code for the first time.  I had read the first chapter of the book some time ago and frankly it so did not capture my imagination that I haven’t picked it up since.  Years before, I’d read Holy Blood Holy Grail, the book upon which most of Brown’s novel seems based, although the ideas in both have been around for a long, long time.

What did I think of the movie?  It was entertaining.  It moved well.  One might say it is almost (almost, not quite) a Thinking Person’s Indiana Jones.  The photography is gorgeous, the settings cool, and I am never disappointed by Ron Howard’s direction.  Tom Hanks character seems a bit too restrained at times, but this is a minor quibble.

I am frankly impressed that they had the nerve to follow the argument all the way through.  The whole notion of Jesus’ sex life drives many people into spasms of irrational anxiety and vehement denunciation.  It is not just that the early church—from the time of Constantine on—exhibited a profound and evolving misogyny, but that the very idea of sexual intercourse itself elicits a kind of systemic, reflexive revulsion I find baffling to say the least.  I mean, if it were only the subjugation of women at issue, then the notion that Jesus might have used them like kleenexes (much as most charismatic cult leaders have done and continue to do) should raise no passions.

No, it is beyond that.  It is a rejection of sex as a valid exercise between men and women.  Jesus and the Apostles become not just the ultimate He-Man Woman Haters Club, but a paradigm for an asceticism echoed down through time as some sort of ideal state for the true christian.

It falls apart, though, in the subsequent perversion of the Ideal in the very subjugation and profound misogyny that Jesus himself seems to have had no time or patience for.  Later generations of church leaders found that in order to reject sex, they had to demonize the very thing that kept pulling them away from that Ideal—the desirability of women.

(I’m speaking here in terms of heterosexuality, but the same applies to all forms of sexual intimacy.  If it was sinful for a man to lust after a woman, at least such lust was discussable, while homosexual lust brooked no dialogue whatsoever, just condemnation.)

The difficulty of this part of the standard operating procedure of christianity appears unique among the other ideals sought—honesty, humility, generosity, forgiveness.  Frankly, none of them are as difficult to achieve and live by as chastity.

The fact that sexual love can be so magnificent, so transcendent, so Other Worldly makes me wonder—has always made me wonder—if this were even an issue for Jesus.  I seriously doubt it was.  I seriously doubt it was part of his ethic.  He seems to have regularly chastised his disciples for being “boys” when it came to letting the women in as equals.  Doubtless there was a lot of competition among the Twelve for Jesus’s attention and approbation, and doubtless—because of the persistence of the aesthetic within Roman, Greek, and Hebrew cultures—there was more than a little resistance to letting women in on anything the boys did, so it would be natural, while the male competition was going on, to resent even more the intrusion of—ugh—females!

Like all oppression, misogyny on the systemic level is a control device.  The church learned early that it could control its followers best by instilling a constant state of anxiety over sin, by making them all feel guilty and requiring expiation through the intervention of priests.  If they could make you feel guilty during your most private and intimate moments, boy they had you.

Did they do this consciously?  Some probably knew very well what they were doing.  Most just followed orders.  They revered hermits and ascetics, set them up as standards—like St. Jerome, who castrated himself rather than be distracted by lust.  After a time, it becomes entrenched, and the cult of chastity becomes self-perpetuating.  It is always a mistake to think that psychological tyranny is a new thing, invented by the Bolsheviks, or that Back Then people weren’t good at it.  Nonsense.  Modern dictators study Caesar for more than mere military advice.

But was it based on Jesus’s teachings?  Likely not.  He was very much about freedom, about getting out from under the shadow of sin, about finding truth, and about people being equal.  The idea that he would somehow have found women lesser beings is not borne out in the texts, either canonical or apocryphal.

The idea that he was married is hardly the Big Deal the church makes of it.  All it would mean is that he lived life fully as a human being, eating, sleeping, working, talking…loving, in all the ways humans have of loving.  To claim, as the church does, that he was made human in order to live as us so that when he died he could die as one of us is undermined if you take away one of the most basic and powerful and intimate of human experiences.  All the rest of that list is barely more than survival.

I’ll leave the examination of why the decision was taken to subjugate women in the church to others.  It’s a lengthy topic.  Suffice it to say that they did and we’re paying the price of ridding ourselves of that condition, and have been for some time.

What interested me in the ideas behind The Da Vinci Code and it source material is the notion that the revelation of such a fact would overturn the church.  People are gullible, but stubborn.  It would do no such thing.  People would fight and cling to their faith and reject the new fact, just as they reject anything else, true or otherwise, that threatens them where they pin their hopes.  I see atheists all the time hoping for the day religion disappears (hoping, of which most faiths draw sustenance, hence an ironic condition for one who wishes faith to disappear) and thinking that this or that piece of science might dispel as if by magic the blindness of those who see the world otherwise.  Never happens.  Never will.

At best, people adapt and modify the new facts to fit with the old framework, and over time the whole thing gradually morphs into something new, even while appearing to be the same old schtick.

Therefore, I see the idea of the Priory of Scion not as a secret organization designed to guard a Great Secret until the time is right to reveal it, but as another church that has a different kind of icon at its center—a human one, but nevertheless just as potent a symbol as any other.  The bitterness of Ian McKellen’s character that when the first millennium rolled around and the Priory failed to reveal the heir misses the point.  They didn’t reveal the heir (fictionally, mind you) because it would have gotten them all killed, including the heir.  But more importantly, they would have lost their icon.  Their center.  They changed, became like the thing they sought to replace, and simply continued on, worshiping in their own idiosyncratic way.

I quite enjoyed the whole scene with The Last Supper.  Absurd in many ways, though.  While I liked the notion that the person on Jesus’s right is, in fact, Mary, it is a problematic conjecture.  The original was painted on a wall in a mess hall—the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.  It did not fare well.  Even in 1556, one commentator described it as ‘a muddle of blots.’  It has been restored more often than any other painting by Da Vinci.  The church itself was hit by a bomb in 1943 and rubble covered the painting.  The current version is the nth restoration and no doubt a lot of it is guesswork.  It is not the only Last Supper with a beardless youth at Jesus’s side, but many have pointedly identified this person as John, his brother (another point of contention among those who find the idea that his mother had sex with Joseph offensive).  If Da Vinci had been so bold as to paint a woman, I think there would have been public controversy at the time.  But who can say?  It’s as concrete as any other aspect of this particular issue.

I think we are best left to the long and slow process of just growing up when it comes to this issue.  The supernatural elements of the church have less and less hold on more and more people.  The essential points of Jesus’s teachings do not require his deification or the intercession of divinity—except, perhaps, the divinity we ourselves possess simply as conscious beings capable of greatness.  Capable of wholeness.  Capable, finally, of love.

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Category: American Culture, Art, Bigotry, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Entertainment, Good and Evil, History, Meaning of Life, Religion, Science, Sex, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (9)

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  1. Vicki Baker says:

    It's unfortunate that some of the ideas about sexuality and Christianity in "The Da Vinci Code" got buried under Dan Brown's unfortunate prose style. I agree with you that Jesus was probably not hung up on sexuality as some of his later followers. One interesting idea that I read somewhere was that St. Paul's more misogyist statements and policies were a backlash against women having too much (comparatively) power in the early church.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    Your last paragraph is very lyrical, by the way. Enjoyed reading this.

  3. Ben says:

    "a Thinking Person’s Indiana Jones"

    Blaspheme!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Jones_and_th

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    I got and read Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code back when churches began forbidding their congregations to read the latter. The pair in hardback cost me just a dollar from a book club. I enjoyed them, much as I enjoy books by Tony Hillerman and John D. MacDonald. Brightly painted adventure stories wrapped around murder mysteries.

    I found it refreshing to have a popular book treat the idea of Jesus as a man rather than as a gay godling. (No, I am not suggesting that Jesus, if he existed, was homosexual. But look at his lifestyle.)

    I have no interest in seeing the movie: I am always disappointed in the compromises that a movie has to make in telling a story first presented in a novel. Too much is inevitably chopped out. I suspect that the action, the motivations, and the character depth (such as it is) of the book were all diluted.

    btw: I'd like to read Drink, but don't want to pay almost the price of a fully functioning |||low-end laptop computer for a hardback sized reading gadget.

  5. the chaplain says:

    Great post. I enjoyed both the book and the movie, notwithstanding Dan Brown's shortcomings as a writer. Christianity and Islam have done a huge disservice to humankind by demonizing sex. Even when I was a Christian, I had no difficulty with the idea that Jesus may have been married. The idea actually raised my estimate of him since, as you pointed out, it would have been evidence that he was fully engaged in the human experience and therefore able to speak about it more authoritatively.

  6. Dan,

    It was anthologized in Asimov's Vampires, link below. Used paper is cheaper than a kindle.

    http://www.amazon.com/Isaac-Asimovs-Vampires-Gard

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I think the Judeo-Christian ideas of sex and sexual morality have nothing to do with the religion, but stem from the church when it was a governing body. Th Judeo-Christian belief set mankind apart from the animals, and sex is the most obvious reminder that we are animals in the physical sense.

    Much of the attitude toward women actually started as something else. In the earliest nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, women were considered more important than men, as they were the one who bore the children. I battles between warring tribes, the women and children would be taken into the winning tribe. Therefore, women were to be protected. As the nomadic lifestyle gave way to the agrarian cultures, this concept of protection turned to something more like enslavement. This was heighten in the cultuers of ancient greece and in the Roman empire, which child bearing as a weakness instead of something important to the survival of the people.

    The Christian faith came into existence during the time of the Roman empire. As such it reflected a mixing of both Judaic and Roman cultural memes, At the time, both cultures had stories of men being weaked by wiley women, to the point that by the time of Christ, both Roman and Judaic mythology view women as weak-willed and easily controlled by the less wholesome concepts of greed, selfishness, and petty ambition.

  8. Jaquisha says:

    I really enjoyed the books The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demon. I don't think there is anything wrong with My Saviour having a girlfriend or wife for that matter. It encourages others to get married as well. If this did happen I don't think it was right of the Church withold information. I believe in Jesus's divinity despite the book. All it did was open my eyes a little wider. By the way great story

  9. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Dan,

    (warning: slightly off-topic)

    I have used several ebook readers over the years. I find the useful for carrying volumes of reference information, more than for casual reading.

    The basic concept has not done well in the US, but has been very popular in Europe and Asia for several years. They aren't for everyone, but for those of us who use them, theya are better adapted to their purpose than any lowend laptop. most have exceptional battery life, are readable in all lighting conditions, and are lighter-weight and more portable than a comparable laptop.

    For casual use, however, ereader software on a webpad, iphone or android based phone can provide the same functionality.

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