Most of us, I suspect, are familiar with Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.

Here’s the storyline: Looking at Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, Brown proposes that the figure on Jesus’ right, the “beloved disciple”, is Mary Magdala, who married Jesus, bore him a child, and was Jesus’ real choice to succeed him as leader. Moreover what she represents (the goddess, the eternal feminine, sexuality) is the “Holy Grail”, the real quest of every heart.

But the official church, from its beginning to this very day, has suppressed this, often violently, burning to death more than five million women in the process. Indeed, it’s almost as if the real reason the institutional church exists at all is to suppress this truth. Fortunately a few great men (Da Vinci, Galileo, Curators at the Louvre, Walt Disney, and a Harvard professor) have, through secret codes, preserved the real truth. The Last Supper painting by Da Vinci is such a code, as is Disney’s, Daffy Duck (a symbol of Mary Magdala).

All of this, of course, would just make for a good story if the book hadn’t caught such a fertile, if not exactly deep, vein within the popular imagination. Millions of people are taking its storyline as a truth-claim and numerous groups and societies are springing up around it, presumably to continue to crack and preserve “the code”.

What’s to be said about this?

On the positive side, I give Dan Brown full marks for telling a good story and for being clever, clever enough to know what sells today. What does? The elements of this book: Gnosticism (There are hidden secrets you need to know), anti-Catholicism (Rome is founded on a lie and protects itself by a lie), the importance of a return to the sacred feminine (Patriarchy has thoroughly distorted both history and consciousness), sex (It’s the ultimate liberating force, if the church would but step aside), and fiction as history (Truth is less important than perception). Brown reads the market well.

Less to his credit, his book is full of historical misinformation and flat- out error. Just a couple of examples:

Brown claims that the church has always belittled Mary Magdala as a prostitute to hide her true relationship with Jesus. So much for the tributes of countless church writers, including popes, who spoke of her as “the apostle of apostles” and “the new Eve announcing not death but life,” and so much for the fact that she’s celebrated as a saint by the official church. As well, the claim that Constantine shifted the Christian day of worship to Sunday is simply false, as are his claims that virtually all the elements for Christian worship were taken directly from pagan mystery religions (bypassing their Jewish origins), as is his claim that the sacred name, YHWH, was drawn from the idea of an androgynous physical union between the masculine JAB and the pre-Hebraic name for Eve, HAVAH.

Of course, Brown can claim that he is, after all, writing fiction, not history. True enough, except that millions of people are taking it as history. Is this Brown’s fault? Not entirely, but largely. His historical disclaimer at the beginning of the book is far from honest. Had he said what every fiction writer should say, that this is simply a work of his imagination, nothing more, a lot of the nonsense around the book would not exist. But that’s not what he did and his disclaimer is, to my mind, deliberately ambiguous and self-serving for his thesis (that we’ve all been naively swallowing a Vatican-enforced conspiracy for centuries).

Brown plays to the gnostic in us (“You’ve been had, but I can tell you the real secret!”). But which is the greater naivete, believing in the truth-claims of Christianity or believing that a few intellectuals have access to spiritual secrets denied to the rest of us because they who know the truth have been too intimidated for 2000 years (by the Vatican!) to ever reveal it? Who exactly is being taken for a ride here?

In his memoirs, Nikos Kazantsakis shares why he wrote, Zorba, the Greek. He believed that Christianity was ultimately founded on a lie, a loving lie, but a lie nonetheless. When Jesus died, Kazantsakis suggests, Mary Magdala loved him so much that she simply couldn’t accept his death and so she resurrected him in her heart and began to spread the news that he had risen. Her story took hold and a great religion was born. Kazantsakis had similar feelings about Zorba and tried to do for him what Mary Magdala did for Jesus. Well, that made for a good book and an excellent movie, but hardly for a great religion.

Christianity is a great religion with a billion adherents and the world measures time by its inception, and that’s hardly because a few self- serving church officials have been able to hide the real truth from everyone (except “the wise and the clever”) for a couple of thousand years.