How dull the con of Dan—at least the film version is. But for the members of the London-based Da Vinci Code Response Group it has been anything but. We’ve been having a ball: rushing from studio to studio, putting out statements and surveys, asking how Sony Corp. would feel being named in a film “based on fact” as the perpetrator of 9/11, and yes, talking about the real Holy Grail: how God became Man and died and rose for us, so we can be filled with His life and love through the daily miracle of the Eucharist.
Isn’t that just a tad more exciting, we’ve been saying, than discovering you’re a Merovingian king descended from, er, “just a man”?
Now that media interest is dying away, we’re wondering how to keep up the excitement until the film of Angels and Demons, Brown’s Vatican conspiracy, which Sony said recently they were ready to work on. Keep ‘em comin’, Dan.
A month ago we came together, our little secret society—a huddle of conspirators in a tome-lined, oak-panelled library deep in the heart of Archbishop’s House, Westminster—to hatch our strategy. Who were we? A ad hoc group: not an official body (bishops should have the right to stay silent when it comes to films) but a gang of the good: A Benedictine, known to millions as the silver-tongued abbot in the BBC2 three-parter The Monastery; a young Jesuit priest, creator of the popular Pray As You Go podcast; two women theologians—one in vows to an order, the other to her husband; a priest scripture-scholar (no beard); the secretary-general of the Catholic Truth Society (gives the game away, doesn’t it?); and a number of suspiciously telegenic members of Opus Dei, including the ubiquitous Jack Valero—these were just some of the members of our crack media unit: the Da Vinci Code Response Group.
This is our story.
We meet, we talk. We know one thing for sure. There is about to be a massive national conversation in the lead-up to the film’s release on 19 May. Whatever we do or don’t say will not alter that fact. The media know that everyone will want an opinion on the DVC, and that it’s their job to host the discussion. We think we should be a part of it.
That means avoiding two errors. One is to be angry placard-waving Christians spoiling everybody’s fun. That plays right into Sony’s hands, and gives the media the headlines they want on the story they’re looking for (the old blasphemy v. free speech story.) The other error is to lie back and say, “what’s all the fuss about? It’s just fiction, isn’t it?” Big mistake: because while you, Mr and Mrs Catholic, rightly think it’s all hunkum, a lot of people out there believe this stuff; and they believe it because of a deceitful marketing strategy asserting fiction as fact. We think someone should issue a health warning: don’t take this stuff seriously.
Two errors: One is to be angry placard-waving Christians spoiling the fun… The other is to lie back and say, ‘what’s all the fuss about? It’s just fiction, isn’t it?’
But by responding, are we giving it a seriousness it doesn’t have? No. We don’t want to discuss the “theories” of the DVC except to dismiss them; we don’t give credence to what is risible. But we are going to take the readers and viewers seriously. We don’t think it’s fair on them that the DVC should be marketed as fact-based. We are going to keep repeating our mantra—that this is “fiction trading as fact”—and to back Opus Dei’s call for a disclaimer at the beginning of the film making clear it is fiction. We know Sony won’t agree, but the issue will highlight their duplicity, and get a conversation going in the media: is it an abuse of freedom of speech to name Opus Dei in a “film based on fact” as murderers? Is it fair on fiction? Is it fair on fact?
But the main point of our existence is to announce that here is a group of leading Catholics ready and available for comment—on radio and TV, and in newspapers.
Even before we’ve got our together there’s a buzz from my cover article in the Spectator. “The Da Vinci Code Fightback” it says on the front—rather more aggressive than the Opus Dei strategy of “turning lemon into lemonade” which I describe. In the article I announce our new group, and even before the magazine is on the newstands our phones are ringing. I’m out on the BBC Today programme, and Reuters, the Press Association and The Times all say a statement from us is “expected soon”. Jack Valero and I do interviews for Sky News, which is carried that night, and BBC Breakfast TV.
Everyone is intrigued that we are not calling for a jihad.
“We do not believe in condemnations, boycotts or protests,” we say in our statement. “Prickliness on the part of Christians leads us into the trap laid by Dan Brown: that the Church is on the defensive because it is engaged in a cover-up.”
As we had guessed, the real interest in us is our approach. We haven’t given them the “Christians furious at blasphemy” headline, and they’re intrigued. The statement is widely reported in the daily papers, and members of the Group are all over the radio and TV.
The media want to know—fair enough—whether the Church will allow its claims to be probed, because the secular assumption is that faith can’t be discussed. We are showing that the Church is open to serious discussion—while being careful not to treat the Gospel of Dan Brown as a threat. The media want to give us Catholics an Oscar for indignation; we prefer to get an Oscar for politeness.
“But we are also exasperated that many people without a good understanding of the Catholic Church and its history have been understandably deceived by Dan Brown’s claim that the DVC is based on facts and respectable theories,” says the statement, which goes on to back Opus Dei’s call for Sony Corporation to include a disclaimer in the film making clear it is fiction.
A lot of people believe this stuff because of a deceitful marketing strategy asserting fiction as fact.
“In the absence of such a disclaimer, we consider it our task in advance of the film’s release to point out the yawning gap between fact and fiction. We believe that the DVC has presented the Church with a positive opportunity to discuss the key tenets of our faith.”
A Daily Telegraph writer conducts a straw poll among friends, only to find that almost half of those who have read the DVC believe that Opus Dei has carried out murders. I realise this is what we need to keep us in the news: a properly-conducted, scientific poll that will show that the DVC has taken in the gullible. ORB—a polling company run by Catholics—says they can do it over the weekend if we come up with the money. We find an anonymous donor that same day.
This will allow us to demonstrate as fact what we have only been able to guess: that while some are entirely oblivious to the charms of the Gospel according to Dan Brown, hundreds of thousands will have been duped by its claims to fact. And we’ll get an extra two days’ newstime in which to get out our messages.
But working out the questions (we can only afford five) will not be easy.
Meanwhile Ron Howard, the film’s director, has rejected the call for a disclaimer, saying the DVC no more needs one than a spy thriller. As if people believe James Bond and Spectre were real! Asked for our reaction, we point out the film’s website invites people to discuss the relative merits of the kooky Holy Blood, Holy Grail theories on which the DVC is based.
Imagine this, we say. What if Sony were named and depicted in a film as the main conspirators behind the 7 July bombings in London? And if the film makers had a website in which they invited people to discuss the documentary evidence for that claim? Would they be happy to be told this was “just fiction”, and “just a film”? Was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—the 1920s antisemitic conspiracy potboiler which fuelled the antisemitic campaigns of the 1930s—“just fiction”?
Now we have a media conversation going about fact and fiction, and the borders between them; but it’s also a conversation about exactly the things we want to talk about. Surely the Bible is just a story? Why doesn’t the Bible carry a disclaimer? How do we know Jesus walked on water? How was the Bible put together? Who were the Gnostics?
What if Sony were named and depicted in a film as the main conspirators behind the 7 July bombings in London?
Some Catholics think we are too “soft”; they want us to call for a boycott or a world uprising (whereas—call us old-fashioned Christians—we prefer talking). The point is, I tell journalists, there are a variety of Catholic responses to this—while some dream of a jihad or go on hunger strike, others want boycotts or “othercotts”; some prefer to evangelise, others to pray—which proves, if nothing else, that the Church is incapable of a unified response to the DVC. Would it therefore be capable of organising a 2,000-year cover-up?
Other Catholics say we are giving the film credence by discussing it. I take this criticism seriously. It’s all very well to use the DVC as a means of evangelisation, but you can end up being complicit in what is, after all, a deeply anti-Catholic phenomenon. As a recent piece in the New Yorker shows, Sony wanted to forestall Christian outrage by hosting a theological discussion. “There was no way to stop a Christian critique of Brown’s ideas,” notes Peter Boyer, “but if leading Christian voices could somehow be coaxed into an association with The Da Vinci Code movie, the criticism may seem less like an attack and more like engagement.” So Sony recruited Christian leaders to write papers for posting on the film’s website. (Boyer notes that the Catholics—and notably Opus Dei – refused the bait; but that evangelicals “have been eager to be heard” on the Sony-sponsored site, ).
But the discussion in London is on our terms, not Sony’s. We are not polite or gently critical about the book’s claims. In interview after interview, we keep saying that insofar as it is treated as fiction, the DVC is “harmless fun”. But, we say, Sony wants you to take it seriously. And that’s an abuse of free speech—and of fiction. Fiction is an artifice, self-declared to be untrue, through which deeper truths can be expressed. The DVC is the opposite: it is fiction disguised as fact, which is being packaged as fiction.
And we keep hammering away at the duplicitous marketing strategy.
Raft of articles quoting us in the Sunday papers; our statement has become part of the story surrounding the film. Jack is furious with the Sunday Times, which carried a huge piece about Opus Dei as a “secret society” without ever contacting him. The fact that Jack has spent the last few weeks taking TV cameras round his house is omitted, as is the fact that all you have to do is pick up the phone to discover Opus Dei is anything but secret. How inconvenient for the spinmeisters on the editor’s desk.
on us on the main weekly BBC radio religion slot, the Sunday programme. Jack and Fergal make our points; and a City PR expert praises our strategy as “sophisticated”.
Results from our are fascinating. One in five Britons has read the book. Readers are twice as likely as non-readers to believe that the Church has covered up the truth about Jesus Christ, and four times as likely to believe Opus Dei are murderers.
Reassuringly, half of those who read the DVC think it’s bunkum, but the other half are pretty gullible. The survey shows why (a) it’s important that we keep saying, “it’s fun as long as you treat it as fiction” but (b) why we’re right to keep pointing out the dishonesty of the marketing strategy, which is clearly effective.
Media interest now really heating up in advance of the release on Friday. Jack, Melissa and I have tickets to the media pre-screening tomorrow night, courtesy of the Standard and the Sunday Express. ITV and BBC want to film Jack going in, and our reactions afterwards.
One of our Group, Dr Gemma Simmonds, is terrific on Woman’s Hour. She quotes the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas about how women can only be saved by becoming men. “If that’s feminism, give me the canonical gospels any day,” she says.
Our press release with the survey results—“It’s official—Da Vinci Code alters beliefs”—goes out, and flies round the world. ORB tells us that they’re getting calls from India, Brazil, Canada—all wanting a copy.
“Our poll shows that for many, many people The Da Vinci Code is not just entertainment,” I am quoted saying. “An alarming number of people take its spurious claims very seriously indeed”.
Jack is also cited: “The Da Vinci Code has persuaded hundreds of thousands of people that we have blood on our hands.”
Spend the afternoon with Jack at the BBC. While he does HardTalk (audience: 60 million) I do News24, the main rolling TV news channel, and the BBC’s main radio afternoon broadcast, the PM programme. It’s not on the main TV bulletins that night because of the saturation coverage that’s being planned for the following night.
The sheer tedium of the film comes as a shock—but not enough to stop me sleeping through part of it...
Join Jack and Melissa for dinner in Soho with the Sunday Express film critic, Henry Fitzherbert, before the screening at nine. We wolf down steaks before moving to Leicester Square as the media scrum arrives.
Sony officials take our mobile phones off us in case we secretly film. Why anyone would want to is not clear. The sheer tedium of the film comes as a shock—but not enough to stop me sleeping through part of it, without (I’m told) missing anything. But the depiction of Silas is every bit as grotesque as anticipated: he beats himself to a pulp in front of a Crucifix, and barks Latin into a mobile phone while stepping out of cars with blood pouring from his leg.
Afterwards, we’re a bit confused: was the film even worth worrying about? Only the results of our survey still convince us that people will be taken in. Outside the Empire Cinema Jack tells ITV that “whatever you see in the film is the complete opposite of the reality of Opus Dei”—a succint message heard by millions. I go off-message for a bit, telling The Times that it’s like sitting through a tedious lecture by a batty professor in a dusty church. It appears the next day. But The Times is convinced that the majority of viewers were “gripped”. Maybe they were at a different screening.
I do series of radio interviews, mainly on BBC World Service, where Newshour carries the disastrous reviews out of Cannes. “I felt rather sorry for Sophie Neveu,” I tell Newshour. “She discovers she’s descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene and acquires all these dull-looking relatives, whom she now has to go off and have tea and crumpets with. Can this really be the Holy Grail which the Church has tried to keep secret?”
BBC World Service Radio asks if I can host a global half-hour discussion, which turns out to be interesting. A number of people solemnly give out the Gospel according to the Dan Brown: a) “Well the Bible’s just a story, isn’t it?”; b) “although it’s fiction, it’s mostly true”; c) “We don’t know that Jesus didn’t marry, and I think it’s quite nice that he did”. To which I answer: a) you can’t just dismiss 2,000 years of tradition and scholarship by saying “it’s all just a narrative”—any more than you can dismiss western science in the same way; b) it’s almost entirely hokum, but I’ll concede that the Louvre exists; c) but the fact is, there’s no evidence to say he did—and certainly not in the Gnostic gospels; and isn’t the other stuff important—Resurrection, etc.?
The others are busy too: Clare, another supernumerary who is part of the Group, goes on GMTV; Abbot Christopher Jamison, who has flown in from Manila, appears on a televised discussion on BBC World TV; on ITV Jack speaks of how sad he is to see his family portrayed in such a gruesome way; and I take part in a three-way discussion on Sky News. We’re all hammering home the health warning which Sony has refused to include.
The Response Group meets again. We decide against putting out a new statement. The verdict from Cannes is devastating, and we don’t strangle terminally-ill turkeys.
Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph accuses me of “rising to the bait” but concludes that, in fact, the Church is right to take Dan Brown seriously because he is an authentic heretic. The piece ends with a suggestion that Pope Benedict, he and I convene a new Council of Nicaea to try him.
Sounds fun, Boris. Think of the new conspiracies we could uncover. Brown might turn out to be an Opus Dei supernumerary.
But look: we’re not “rising to the bait”. We’ve never said the DVC is a serious threat to the Church’s claims about Jesus. We’ve never touched a placard, and we certainly haven’t done Sony Pictures a favour by suggesting boycotts. The reason we formed our little Group has been to draw attention to the dishonesty of Sony’s marketing strategy—their cynical method of making millions out of ignorance.
Brown a heresiarch? A heresy is a distortion of the truth. It can only be heretical if it’s a persuasive distortion of the truth. The DVC is just Monty Python, but without the humour. Rather than dignify its author with the term (poor old Arius, lumping him in with Dan Brown; have you no respect, Boris?), we prefer to point out what Sony refuses to: Relax, everyone: it’s not heresy. It’s just rubbish.
It is not we who are in charge of history, but God. Excessive defensiveness suggests otherwise.
Lots of coverage on TV news. James Mates of ITN pops up inside Casa Tevere, Opus Dei’s HQ in Rome, whispering conspiratorially: “I’ve managed to get right inside the headquarters of Opus Dei. How did I do it?” He looks furtive again, then grins. “I called them and they said: ‘come on in’.” Brilliant.
Film goes on general release tonight. Before going on BBC World Service Spanish-American service, I call to ask Jack (who was born in Barcelona) how to say “fiction trading as fact” in Spanish. We come up with ficción vendida como historia real, but it’s not as snappy. My advice to Latin America? “If you’re going to the film, take a soft pillow and a good magazine.”
Abbot Christopher attends a screening arranged by the Sunday Telegraph. Fergal is on Rock FM—not the Catholic Truth Society’s usual audience. I’m doing more radio—Premier, Vatican Radio, etc. But it’s all beginning to die away. People are getting Browned off.
But we still get lots of coverage on Sunday. One of our group, Janet Martin Soskice, takes part in a classy discussion about the Bible and Gnosticism on the Sunday Sequence programme; I’m in Manchester for 10-minute discussion on the TV show Heaven and Earth; and Jack has a big piece in the Sunday Express explaining, for the umpteenth time, what corporal mortification is really about. It’s the last wave—but we’ve ended on a high.
Now the phones are silent again—except to know what we think of the Madonna “crucifixion”—and I’m wondering: Did we succeed? How can we know?
Diehard Dan Brownies will flock to the film, which may turn out to be a commercial success even if it was a critical flop. And many of them will remain true believers. You can always dupe some of the people some of the time.
But most people were caught between scepticism about the Church and scepticism about Dan Brown. To them we’ve sent a clear message that at least the DVC is pure fiction, and not to be taken seriously. And we’ve invited them to “seek the truth” where it belongs.
The important thing was to issue the health warning. In that, mission accomplished.
And we’ve been at the heart of the biggest church story since the death of Pope John Paul II. Millions have seen intelligent Catholics unafraid to discuss their faith. They’ve met us and heard us. And they’ve seen that Opus Dei members are not murderers, mysogynists, masochists or even monks, but happy lay people seeking the holy in the daily. And we’ve had a priceless opportunity on primetime radio and TV to explain what we believe and why we believe it.
Let’s call it “critical but polite engagement”.
We’ve had a sophisticated strategy, which understands media mechanisms. Our team has been ready to drop into studios at a moment’s notice; we’ve used statements and surveys to generate airtime; and we’ve understood news cycles and curtain-raisers, and the other tools of modern communications.
But it isn’t mostly about strategy. It has been about who we are and what we are. It has been about witnessing to our faith.
How we respond to perceived blasphemies and insults speaks volumes about that faith. We trust in God’s power, and know that He judges; it is not we who are in charge of history, but God. Excessive defensiveness suggests otherwise.
I can’t put this better than Marina Mahartir, a Malaysian Muslim columnist, who compares the Christian response to the DVC with the riots and deaths which followed the Satanic Verses, or the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
“While there are many Christians who are upset about [The Da Vinci Code],” she writes, “they are countering it with seminars and other educational events to balance what is being said in the book, even if the book is only fiction. There have not been Da Vinci Code-related riots or deaths thus far. Which speaks volumes for the adherents of the faith.”
We are called to non-violence. Violence is not only physical; it is the desire to express anger in ways that harm another. I put boycotts and placard-waving and lawsuits in the same category. That’s not what we Christians should be doing—and it’s a waste of time.
Much better to be out there on the screens and the airwaves, doing what people of our faith do best—letting others know the secret joy in our hearts.
And if we have to do it in the spaces opened up by Dan Brown, then fine. God can use anything—even The Da Vinci Code.