The lure of The Da Vinci Code
Published in: Daily Mail
So in the end, it's the publisher who's had the last laugh. In the High Court last week Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, the two authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail who claimed that Dan Brown had stolen their ideas to write his mega best-seller The Da Vinci Code, failed in their attempt to sue him for breach of copyright.
The outcome of the case, however, is that both these books -- which are published by the same company, Random House -- are now flying off bookshop shelves once again. Sales of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which had becalmed at 3,500 copies a year in Britain, have shot up to 7,000 copies a week. Similarly The Da Vinci Code, which has already sold 43 million copies worldwide, has now eased back into the bestseller lists with sales of 20,000 copies a week.
It is fashionable to sneer at The Da Vinci Code as execrable literature and to gripe therefore at its telephone directory-figure sales. War and Peace it certainly is not. But its appeal to the popular imagination should not be dismissed in such a cavalier and -- dare one say it -- snobbish way.
It's huge success is in large measure due to the fact that it's a compulsive, page-turning thriller, and thus the kind of intensely enjoyable read which actually -- perish the thought -- entertains people. But it's surely also because, at some level, people think that it will help answer one of the greatest questions of all -- whether the Christian story is actually true.
Brown claims that, apart from the characters and plot line in his novel, all the details about medieval secret societies, artworks and secret rituals and so on are true. And The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which suggested that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene and fathered a medieval line of French kings, purported to be non-fiction.
Such claims about both books are doubtless properly treated by scholars with unbridled derision. But part of the skill of Brown's novel is that the impression of verisimilitude suggests in turn through his plot that a great truth has been concealed from us. That truth is that Christianity has pulled a gigantic con-trick upon the world.
That, of course, is why the church has been huffing and puffing about the book. But one has to ask why the public would be so fascinated by whether or not Christianity was a conspiracy against the truth. After all, in our apparently post-religious, secular age wouldn't people assume that it was and therefore be monumentally indifferent?
Not a bit of it. The fact is that there is a profound spiritual hunger in the western world which, for a variety of reasons, its church is no longer able to assuage. So a book which suggests that there is a spiritual significance to the Christian story but that this has been suppressed by the church undoubtedly appeals to those who are anxious to square this circle.
That's why the popularity of Brown's basic plot line, a variant on the search for the Holy Grail, goes back into antiquity because of the universal desire to discover the meaning of life. That is also why the codes at the heart of the plot are so seductive, because unlocking them satisfies a deep desire to find an orderly pattern beneath what appear to be random and disorganised events.
This quest for meaning furnishes the never-ending popular desire to know whether or not the Bible was true. That's why Michael Baigent is mining this rich seam once again with his new book The Jesus Papers which, claiming to be based on two ancient scrolls discovered in Jerusalem in the 1960s, tries to strip Jesus of his divinity by claiming that he wrote letters denying that he was the son of God.
That's also why there's such interest in the discovery of the 'Judas Gospel', unveiled last week by the National Geographic Society, which suggests that Judas was really a good guy after all who did the divine bidding by enabling Jesus to shake off the limitations of the flesh through the crucifixion.
It turns out, however, that this document was written too late to be credible. But the intense interest it has provoked suggests that, far from assuming -- as militant atheists would have us believe -- that the Bible is no different from the product of Dan Brown's imagination, people are still mesmerised by the question of whether it is true.
The reason is the inadequacy of scientific evolutionary theory to meet the extravagant claims by secularists that it explains the origins of life itself. This inadequacy - and the increasing number of scientists who are acknowledging it - has created growing pressure from evangelical Christians to include 'creationism' or its more sophisticated variant, intelligent design, in the school science syllabus, downgrading evolution from the way it is currently taught as unchallengeable fact to a mere theory alongside religious belief.
This movement is growing so fast that the more prominent atheists are becoming ever shriller in their denunciations. Last weekend Professor Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council, even used the arrival of bird flu on British shores to beat the drum for Darwin and claim that there was no intelligent design in a virus, only the mindless force of natural selection.
Now the discovery in Canada of the fossilised remains of Tiktaalik Roseae, a creature that was half fish, half land animal and which lived more than 375 million years ago, is being said to prove that mankind descended from fish. One might retain a measure of scepticism about such an excitable claim, since in itself this fossil proves nothing of the sort.
For many, the claim that evolution enabled life to cross the species barrier so that humans are merely the last link in the evolutionary chain remains a step too far -- not least because, by the standards science itself sets, it fails the test of evidence. It is merely a theory.
To go even further, as some scientists do, and make the leap from evolutionary theory to the claim that this somehow explains the origin of life itself clearly fails the test of logic. The assertion by some scientists that the world probably began without any beginning sounds to many as preposterous as the belief that the world was created in six days sounds to an atheist.
Scientific knowledge may have dealt a serious blow to religious belief, but science does not fill the gaps in our understanding of existence. It does not explain the irreduceable complexity of certain cells for example, which cannot have been formed by simple organisms coming together. And contrary to Darwin's theory that evolution is a slow and continuous process, the fossil record itself shows long periods where nothing happened and then several new species -- just like buses -- came along at once.
Not unreasonably, people are reluctant to believe that they are a universal accident produced in a fit of cosmic absent-mindedness. So they will carry on searching for the Holy Grail - to the considerable enrichment of skilful authors and the undoubted dismay of the church.
At the start of this solemn Easter week, the church badly needs to produce its own best-seller to meet the spiritual needs of those so desperate to believe.