McCracken: Have you read the book and seen the film?
Metaxas: I’ve read the book—which is how I came to write my now somewhat infamous “Screwtape on The Da Vinci Code.” But I didn’t pay for the book and never would. I stole my copy. Was that wrong? And no, I haven’t seen the movie, and I don’t think I’m going to see it. When you read a book as finely crafted and literarily exquisite as The Da Vinci Code, you know that a movie will never do it justice; it’ll probably just cheapen it for the masses. Oh, darnit! Was I being sarcastic again? I’m losing control!
But seriously, I was so bummed by the content of the book that I’d never see the movie. The whole thing for me is something like reading a book about your parents, and it says unspeakably awful things about them that you know aren’t true, that aren’t even close to true. But all your friends read the book and say “Dude, what’s your big hang-up? It’s like, just a novel! Yo, it’s fiction, dude! And hey, I had no idea your dad raped all those kids! Totally freaky!! I’d move out, dude! And the way your mom killed her parents! That was so nuts! But I guess if I’d been treated the way she was treated by them, with them being in the KKK and all. You could almost understand where she was coming from. But yeah, it was sick, dude! So lighten up!”
Anyway, I mean, this is really not that different. If you know Jesus and love him, the idea that someone would mess with the facts that dramatically and would say so many things that aren’t even close to true is upsetting. This isn’t just some historical figure you are slandering, this is someone I love. But how do you explain that to a culture that stopped listening when you said you loved Jesus?
Obviously if someone wrote a book like this about Muhammad there would be fires and demonstrations from Tripoli to Jakarta and back for the next twenty years. I think it’s actually great that Christians don’t respond to something this offensive with gasoline and matches, but I don’t think it’s so swell that in an attempt to “engage the culture” we’re actually supporting a movie that spits in the face of all we hold dear either. That, for me, is a big mistake, a Mothra-sized tactical error. Because for one thing, it will encourage others to make more movies like this.
McCracken: Why do you think the book is so massively popular? You allude, in the Screwtape piece, to the feminism factor as one possible attraction for readers. Could you elaborate?
Metaxas: Well, yes, the book plays on people’s fears and ignorances and prejudices brilliantly. But that’s what books like this have always done. The vicious anti-Semitic tract titled The Elders of the Protocols of Zion is just like that. It’s over a hundred years old, but because so many people viciously hate Jews, there is a decent market for hate-mongering stories about them. There is an audience hungry for something that feeds into their prejudices about Jews, so the book continues to sell and sell, and unscrupulous people continue to publish it. If you confronted them they’d say, “Oh, stop being so fussy. It’s just a work of fiction!” Ka-ching! But the people reading it aren’t so sure.
To them the fact that it’s been rebutted over and over again as untrue doesn’t matter. The people who want to believe it will believe it. To them Jews are loathsome and evil, so any book that represents that can’t be all bad, right? And so the book continues to sell, and no kidding, someone’s made a movie of it and it’s doing very well in the Middle East. That’s true.
And there are many, many people who have the same kind of irrational hatred of the Church and Christians, and this book is playing on those same irrational attitudes, and feeding them. Anyone who’s been hurt by someone in the Church—or any woman who’s felt that the world is run by evil men—is the perfect audience for this book. It’s telling people what they want to hear, even if what it says isn’t even close to true. We know that not all Christians are wonderful and we know that not all men have treated women wonderfully, but that doesn’t warrant what we see in this book anymore than the fact that some Jews exist who are actually not perfect warrants vicious anti-Semitism. As a civilized society we have to guard against this sort of thing and I’m genuinely upset that we haven’t done so in this case. It’s not a small thing.
McCracken: Do you think that the Christian reaction to this film and the controversy in the media will bring in more audiences than might otherwise have seen it (especially with the reviews being largely negative, even from secular critics)? Is there anything to be learned from this?
Metaxas: I think Christians either get cultural engagement wrong by boycotting something and protesting against it too much, as in the case of The Last Temptation of Christ, back in 1988, or by doing the exact opposite and getting right into bed with it. I think we’ve gotten in bed with this movie. I’ve actually heard of entire churches buying out theaters to see it. I confess that I want to go sniff glue when I hear things like that. It’s a nightmare that Christians could be that confused.
It’s a little bit like visiting a brothel and sleeping with prostitutes so that you can more effectively minister to them and their johns. We need to know when we have crossed the line from intelligent cultural engagement into craven cultural surrender, and on this one, we’ve done just that. The fact that Christians are filling theaters to see a movie that puts forward genuinely blasphemous ideas about Jesus and his followers is cringe inducing. But again, Christians don’t even like to use the word blasphemous because they’re afraid if someone hears them using it they’ll appear like, so uncool.
There’s a kind of cowardice out there, a feeling that the culture has won, and we’d better make friends with it, we’d better appear hip at all costs. That was never Jesus’ way. Jesus always spoke the truth in love, and he didn’t care what people thought of him. If you speak the truth in love you don’t have to worry about what people are thinking. If you speak the truth in love you are the definition of cool. Getting a few piercings and wearing a soul patch will only take you so far. At some point you have
to know who you are and what you believe in and say so. That’s what people are looking for and that’s what they’ll respond to.
McCracken: Do you really think, as Screwtape so proudly asserts in your essay, that this book “has the genuine potential to mislead, confuse and vex millions.” Are readers honestly so apt to buy into this outrageous, conspiratorial stuff?
Metaxas: Unfortunately, yes. Hell, yes. As I say in the piece, the ignorance of people on issues of theology and on Church history is so astronomical that it’s scary. There’s no question that people will be misled and confused. And the worst thing of all is that many Christians will, too. We live in a postmodern culture that already has horribly little respect for facts and truth. From Screwtape’s POV, this is like taking candy from a baby. That’s been heavily drugged.
McCracken: Do you think Dan Brown has an agenda, apart from money, in putting forth such a “veritable phalanx of practical propaganda and disinformation?”
Metaxas: Honestly, no. I think he’s a tool and is being used by the arch-enemy of God. Would it be too uncool to say “Satan?” But really, Dan Brown is clueless as to what he’s really doing. He knows not what he does. There’s someone we should be praying for. Take the two and a half hours you’d use to go see the movie and pray for Dan Brown and everyone else who’s seeing the movie. Hey, there’s a nutty idea! Prayer! Cultural engagement and prayer go hand in hand, by the way. Jesus didn’t just hang out in bars talking to drunks. Every now and again he went off and prayed and prayed. It tends to make the hanging out much more productive. So putting money in the pockets of people who are making movies like this is a horrific idea, but praying earnestly for them is a great idea.
McCracken: What film or cultural event, in your mind, does this Da Vinci situation most closely resemble or recall?
Metaxas: I can’t think of anything that comes near this, really. Maybe when Elvis’s swivelling hips were blacked out … except that was the opposite problem. That was Christians freaking out and being completely on the other side of cultural engagement. But whatever the opposite of censoring Elvis’s swivel would be, this is it. As incredibly dumb as that seems to us now … Christians filling theaters to see The Da Vinci Code will seem exactly as dumb, if not dumber—or even dumberer—to future generations.
Eric Metaxas is the author of the acclaimed Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid to Ask). He has been a writer for VeggieTales children’s videos and Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint and is the author of 30 children’s books. His humor has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. Visit his website, www.ericmetaxas.com, and read his popular essay, "Screwtape on The Da Vinci Code," at this link.