Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sermon: "Mistaking Offense: The Da Vinci Code Outrage Conspiracy" (Delivered 6-11-06)

Opening Words
[These opening words were inspired by a post on the UU minister’s list-serve. A comment about Jesus in India inspired this riff…]

I imagine we are all familiar with Dan Brown’s book, now a movie, The Da Vinci Code which suggests that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, who fled with child to present day France, where the line of Jesus’ biological descendants has continued to this day.

But, to suggest this is clearly offensive to some religious people who insist that wasn’t the case at all. For example, if you travel to Sringar, in the Kashmir region of India, you will find the tomb of Jesus. There, Hindus believe that Jesus survived the crucifixion and then journeyed to India where he became a Hindu holy man and had seven children. He died there at an advanced age and is buried there.

Hold on just a second. That isn’t what happened. At least, it isn’t according to the residents of Shingo, Japan. In Shingo, they would tell you that Jesus didn’t stop in India, how could you believe that? To them, clearly Jesus journeyed all the way to Japan, where he married, had a family, died, and is buried.

Hold on just a second. That’s not how it happened – that’s what a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints would tell you. When they tell the story, Jesus did die on the cross, but then came back several hundred years later in South America. That’s what it says in the Book of Mormon.

Which of these scenarios is true? Perhaps a more important question to ask would be: Who owns this story? Who gets to decide which version of it may be told? How does one version become official? And, how do you arbitrate when one group insists its version is the right one, and the existence of any others is offensive?

About two and a half years ago, I preached to you about the book version of The Da Vinci Code and talked all about early Christian history, gnosticism, pagan influence, and the idea of the Divine feminine. This morning I want to take a different tack on the whole Da Vinci Code phenomenon – I want to explore the popularity aroused (note the double entendre) and the controversy engendered (double entendre again) by the book and movie. I want to explore how The Da Vinci Code came to be the latest territory battled over in the culture wars.

If you drive around town looking at church billboards you can’t help but think that every church in town has caught Da Vinci Code fever. The last movie to cause such an uproar was Mel Gibson’s depraved, ultra-violent, and embarrassingly misguided The Passion of the Christ – which I preached on as well when it was released a little over two years ago. In hindsight, that phenomenon, like this one, was such a mingling of pop culture, marketing savvy, and religious group-think. If you remember, Mel Gibson exploited his supporters by getting evangelical Christian ministers to exhort their flocks to return to see the Passion over and over again, telling them that it was their Christian duty to keep Jesus number one at the box office. And if you remember – something I believe I was the first to point out – the film that finally toppled Gibson’s Passion was a remake of George Romero’s zombie-classic Dawn of the Dead. Yes, a violent gore-fest about returning from the dead… eventually got bumped from #1 by a zombie movie.

This time around, the churches are less happy about the movie. They are criticizing it and calling it offensive. Some are protesting it. Some find its depiction of Catholicism offensive. Others are offended because of what it claims about Jesus. This time the Evangelical churches are worried about whose faith it may “destroy” or “misguide” or “weaken,” calling it a danger to their faith. They worry that it may lead potential, if not faithful, Christians astray and away.

Of course, on one level, The Da Vinci Code is fiction. Opus Dei doesn’t run around killing nuns and museum curators. But, just as The Firm with Tom Cruise succeeded by playing with our anxiety about corrupt workplace ethics, and the new version of The Manchurian Candidate succeeded by playing with our anxiety about power-hungry politicians and corporations, so too does The Da Vinci Code play with anxiety about cloaked religious secrecy. If the Cardinals can meet in secret to elect a Pope, what else the imagination wonders might take place in secret? In that vein of thought, one would really have to question whether defensiveness is actually the best strategy.

But then there is that other level, the outrage and taking offense about what The Da Vinci Code says about who Jesus was. While the wrappings – the setting, plot, context, etc. of The Da Vinci Code may be fiction, like all art (even some pop art) the artifice of the wrappings does not mean that we aren’t asked important and serious questions. That is perhaps the nature of art – even formulaic, gimmicky art: A representation of reality allows us to ask questions about what is real.

These are the real questions, and our reactions to them, that I want to explore with you this morning.

The first thing I want to explore with you is the nature of offensiveness. To a degree we live in an “in your face” time when attitude is a supposed virtue. Ours is a time when homophobic ministers protest at the funerals of soldiers, when the Vice-President of the United States tells a Senator to “F___-off” on the Senate floor and act smug about it, and when, just this past week, Ann Coulter viciously attacked women whose husbands died in the World Trade Center on September 11 suggesting that they should pose for Playboy.

And at the same time, we paradoxically live in a world that claims sensitivity to offense. Though often maligned, Political Correctness – in its most basic, essential form – was concerned, and I believe rightly so, with altering language to make it more inclusive and more compassionate. So, what are we to do with offensive things? And, how are we to respond to the claim that something is offensive?

I think we ought to begin by looking at the intent, the motivations, of what is causing offense. There are times when what causes offense seems to exist for no other reason than to offend – to get a rise out of somebody. This seems to be the case with those drawings which appeared in a Dutch newspaper, you know, the ones that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. These drawings were clearly intended to incite. In this way, they are like the creations of shock-jock Howard Stern: they are designed to titillate, provoke, shock and/or disgust.

Of course, one can say shocking and outrageous things for personal gain – be it attention, sales, or whatever, but this strategy can also backfire. Witness the poor box office turnout for the latest Mission Impossible sequel starring Tom Cruise; people now are more turned-off than seduced by his tendency to do and say shocking, offbeat things.

Similarly, there are times when calling something offensive serves a purpose. Again, I return to the idea of political correctness, the aim of which is to make public discourse more inclusive, more accessible for those who are usually excluded. But claims that The Da Vinci Code is offensive are not in this line. At least I don’t think they are. Claiming that something is offensive can be a way of silencing dissent and claiming authority and power.

In 1998 I had the opportunity to attend a program on religious scholarship with Professor Bruce Lincoln of the University of Chicago. A few dozen of us were invited to spend an afternoon in discussion with him. We got to talking about questions of authority and Bruce Lincoln, referring to a piece of his writing, had this to say:

“Those who sustain an idealized image of culture do so, inter alia, by mistaking the dominant faction of a given group for the group or ‘culture’ itself. At the same time, they mistake the ideological positions favored and propagated by the dominant faction for those of the group as a whole.

“The same destabilizing and irreverent questions that one might ask of any speech act ought to be posed of religious discourse. The first of these is, ‘Who speaks here?’ ‘To what audience?’ ‘In what immediate and broader context?’ ‘With what interests?’ ‘And should the speaker persuade the audience, what are the consequences?’ ‘Who wins?’ ‘How much?’ ‘Conversely, who loses?’”

What Prof. Lincoln is saying is that there is a tendency for the powerful, the dominant, to try to speak on behalf of the less powerful. Another great scholar of religion, Robert Orsi, studied groups of ethnic Catholic women in Chicago. He found that their religious praxis centered on the Virgin Mary; Jesus was clearly subordinate. However, if you would have asked their Priest, or Bishop, or Cardinal, or Pope about the degree to which the church venerated Mary,. you would get a different and contradictory answer. These groups of ethnic women, though, would tell you that they were devout practicing Catholics. So, who is right? “Who speaks here?” “With what interests?”

So, with The Da Vinci Code, when someone says that it is offensive to Christians, or that it challenges the beliefs of Christians, we would probably be wise to ask: “Which Christians?” “Whose beliefs?” and “Who speaks here?” “With what interests?” and “Whose voice is silenced?”

It is a power play. It is to say, “Those of us with this theology, this interpretive system, this version of scripture, this version of history, this concept of salvation – we are the ones who get to decide what the official version of the story is. We are the ones who get to decide what the true version of the story is. We’re official. And to tell the story differently is not just unorthodox, it is offensive to us and to our official version.” To call it offensive is to say, “You’re not allowed to challenge our dominant view; you must be silenced.”

Which is really ironic, because if you want to read The Da Vinci Code at all generously – looking for what wisdom can be mined – the best thing about the book and movie is that they succeed in asking these sorts of important questions: “Who owns the story?” “Who decides?”

I might spend just a minute on the history of things here. When I was an undergraduate student, I learned Coptic in order to earn the favor and attention of a religion professor who was, in my estimation, about as cool as Robert Langdon. Coptic is the language of those excluded gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas, Phillip, Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. The Nag Hammadi Library was composed in Coptic. Coptic was also the language of even weirder holy texts, such as the Apocryphon of John in which truth is revealed, not through Jesus, but from the spirit of the feminine Divine, Sophia, the incarnation of wisdom. It is important to note that these unofficial gospels, like the official ones, tell very little and with little certainty about who Jesus actually was. But what they do tell us, and with tremendous certainty, is that among the spiritual options available in late antiquity were versions of the story in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a special relationship, as well as versions in which a Divine Feminine Spirit embodies wisdom.

Being offended by something can serve to expand our circle, can help us to welcome and include. Or, being offended by something can be used as a tool to exclude. To push away. To limit. To control. To silence. We can attempt to remove the obstacles that prevent voices from being heard. Or, we can attempt to silence other voices on account of their being threateningly other.

Causing offense and taking offense are neither inherently good, nor inherently bad. For a good example of this, we might turn to the Hebrew Prophets and consider their antics and rhetoric. The Hebrew Prophets were not exactly the type of people who you would like to invite to a dinner party. They would be more likely to overturn the table, or start a food-fight. According to the Jewish tradition, some of their behaviors included dressing in sack-clothes and covering their bodies in ashes, public disrobing, and neglecting conventions of personal hygiene. As I said, these guys were offensiveness personified. Yet at the same time, I have a difficult time condemning these antic. The role of the prophets was to recall religion and government to a moral standard – not to exploit the weak and vulnerable, not to ignore the poor and sick, not to make war for greed and conquest and then call it peace.

Saint Augustine once famously said that the twin daughters of hope are anger and courage, anger that things are the way they ought not be, and courage to work to make things as they ought to be. I don’t think it is too big of a stretch to say that our central problem is neither an excess of anger, nor an insufficiency of anger, but an intensity of emotion directed to where it ought to be directed: Offense taken by those things that are, in fact, offensive rather than mistaken offense.

The example here that I cannot help but include is from Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical minister, who has been known to begin a sermon this way,

“I want to tell you three things. The first thing is that while you were sleeping last night, twenty-thousand children died of starvation and curable diseases. The second thing is that none of you give a shit. And the third thing, is that many of you are more upset that I said the word shit than you are that twenty-thousand children died of starvation and curable diseases.”

And so we pray that we take all things – all offense and trespass – in correct proportion, not making mountains of molehills, not worrying over splinters while neglecting motes. That we may treat all things in life with the intensity proper to them. We express gratitude for the wonder of stories, imagination, and mystery. We affirm: Life is too serious for it to be solemn. Truth, too abundant to be clung at. And grace, resolute even throughout all our worries.