by Jean Mayland
from Signs of the Times No. 20 - Jan 2006

My grand-daughter recently persuaded me that I should read The Da Vinci Code, which she had found thrilling and fascinating.

As I began to read it the media were telling stories about Christians who were horrified by the book, who were demonstrating outside Lincoln Cathedral where part of it was being filmed. They praised Westminster Abbey for refusing to let the cameras in. It's a gripping story which challenges our intelligence and keeps us turning the pages as we move from one twist and turn to another. It takes us into the world of art and symbol and such artistic icons as the Mona Lisa, the Madonna of the Rocks and the Last Supper.

Robert Langdon, the Professor of Religious Symbolism and cryptologist Sophie Neveu are drawn into a search for the Holy Grail, handed on by the secret Priory of Sion. Sophie is the grand daughter of one of the guardians of the Holy Grail, who is shot as the book begins. The secret of the Grail, which Langdon discovers at the end of the book is most unexpected and brings him to his knees.

Bound up with the story is the claim that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their descendants are still alive today. It is this suggestion which horrifies many Christian protestors. The book also presents Opus Dei, the conservative Roman Catholic society, in a very bad light - just at a point when the current Pope is busy rehabilitating them.

It saddened me that my grand daughter was prepared to read this entire book but not the slim pamphlet on the real Mary Magdalene which I handed to her. I also wonder why her aunt, my younger daughter seems more ready to believe some of the more far fetched ideas of the book and not the gospel record.

I also have no truck with those who think that Jesus must have had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene and can see no place for male/female friendship. I do not believe for one moment that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had descendants who are alive today.

Yet within this gripping story Dan Brown presents truths which will gladden the hearts of many a Christian feminist and such I would claim to be. All that he says about Judaism and Christianity pushing out the feminine and driving out the 'goddess' and fixing women's servitude is true. He writes

'...  the goddess, which of course has been lost, virtually eliminated by the Church. The power of the female and her ability to produce life was once very sacred, but it posed a threat to the rise of the predominantly male Church, and so the sacred feminine was demonized and called unclean. It was man, not God who created the concept of 'original sin', whereby Eve tasted of the apple and caused the downfall of the human race. Woman, once the sacred giver of life, was now the enemy.'

He is also correct to claim that Mary Magdalene was 'downgraded' during the course of Christian history. In the gospels Mary Magdalene is a woman cured of her illness and a devoted follower with a firm faith. She was the first witness of the resurrection. Even St Augustine called her 'the Apostle to the Apostles' and the Orthodox regard her as 'Equal to the Apostles'. Some of the apocryphal gospels present her as an early church leader and a rival of Peter. The Church, as it developed, however, could not cope with strong women. Mary the Mother of Jesus - the Mary of the Magnificat - was transformed into a submissive virgin who yet could be crowned as 'Queen of Heaven' and called 'Star of the Sea' - ancient goddess titles. Mary Magdalene was transformed without any evidence into a prostitute and became the model of the temptress who must be resisted but who could be saved by Jesus.

The female was oppressed, subject to the male and often subjected to violence. In the 20th century the 'woman spirit' began to rise again. Women demanded a full place in the ministry of the church. Women's gifts must be used and recognized. There was a growing demand on the part of many women and some men that the feminine must be put back into the concepts and images of God. This did not work quickly for some women who voted with their feet and left the church - a few turning to 'goddess' worship.

Near the end of the book when Langdon says in near distress

'But if the Sangreal documents remain hidden, the story of Mary Magdalene will be lost for ever.'

Sophie's Grandmother replies

'Will it? Look around you. Her story is being told in art, music and books. More so every day. The pendulum is swinging. We are starting to sense the dangers of our history...  and of our destructive paths. We are beginning to sense the need to restore the sacred feminine'.

Within the fast moving story with its gripping plot, artistic knowledge and history and fantasy, there lies a deep and challenging truth. The Church in its history has feared instead of valuing the feminine and still struggles with it today. Women are still not regarded as fully in God's image by so many in the hierarchy of the churches either consciously or subconsciously. There is still an enormous hidden and unacknowledged fear of women's sexuality. Instead of getting themselves all worked up by some of the more extreme theories of this book, the churches need to face up squarely to the need to value and affirm the feminine in humans and in God. We also need to consider the appeal this book has for so many people and the spiritual journeys which it has inspired.

How can the churches catch the popular imagination in such a way? Certainly not by denunciation and threat but by humility and a willingness to join in the search for authentic spirituality and a true and deep knowledge of the living God.


Jean Mayland is a retired priest and former Co-ordinating Secretary and  Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.