Kate Nicholas: Church is damned to failure over Da Vinci

It is a truism of Hollywood that when a film is dismissed as tripe by the media, punters will flock to watch it – even if only to see if it can really be so bad. Add a good, sacrilegious conspiracy theory and how can The Da Vinci Code fail?

What is worrying, however, is what this success says about the public’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Britons who have read Dan Brown’s thriller believe Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, and are under the impression that conservative Catholic group Opus Dei is a murderous sect.

Considering Brown’s book is apparently more popular than the Bible (one in five have read the former in Britain alone) that’s one hell of a group of fantasists.

Of course, the churches – in particular the Vatican – have not done much to assist the public’s grip on reality. To quote one blogger: ‘Methinks they do protest too much.’

Appointing a top cardinal, Tarcisio Bertone, to ‘unmask the lies’ no doubt helped the conversion of a potboiler into a dangerous anti-Christian tract. The formation of a Da Vinci Code Response Team, including UK Catholics and members of Opus Dei – and co-ordinated by Austen Ivereigh, head of public affairs for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor – will only add fuel to the fire.

Despite an attack by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams,  some sections of the Church of England seem to have taken a slightly more pragmatic approach, attempting to leverage interest in the film to convey quite a different message. Winchester Cathedral, which co-operated with the film’s makers, has even hosted an exhibition on the ‘The Holy Mystery Beyond the Da Vinci Code’. The Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, which also let in the cameras,  claimed the story gave the Church an opportunity to engage those indifferent to religion.

Neither approach seems to have done much good. As per usual, most complaints by Christian groups have been dismissed as at best quaint, at worst amusing. Few would dare to have patronised rioting Muslims offended by Danish lampoons of Mohammed; and Birmingham Reperatory Theatre closed the play Behzti in the face of violence and outrage from Sikhs. But as contemporary Christians prefer not to embrace violence, it is hard to imagine Hollywood taking them seriously.

Yet if they had ignored the film, they would have been lambasted for being out of touch. In PR terms, it really is a no-win situation.

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