Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Code of Dishonor

I've been quite perplexed by all the fuss over the Da Vinci Code. My perplexity began with the book, which some lay Catholics regarded as the worst thing to happen to the Catholic Church since the elimination of Index Bibliorum Interdictorum. As books go it's not a particularly bad mystery, but of course it is just a novel and to worry that it is going to lead folks astray is rather like worrying that Life of Brian is going to create a new version of Christianity to compete with the older one. My feelings about the book were nicely summed up by a Jesuit (mirabile dictu) whom I heard in an interview say in response to some bizarre question about the effect of all of this on the Church, "I don't mean to sound obtuse, but are you asking me whether a novel is true?"

And now my perplexity continues with the movie version of this stormy little teacup. The reaction has not been quite so apoplectic as some had predicted it would be (perhaps to the consternation of some in the mass media), but around the blogosphere it is not difficult to discern folks who are foaming at the mouth about it. Poor Opie must be wondering what all the fuss is about--he doesn't seem to be the sharpest tool in the shed. In a sense, though, I have to wonder as well. The movie is certainly no worse than the book, and the book is nothing to be afraid of. Neither the book nor the movie is a unique phenomenon in the history of the Church, and whether or not Dan Brown takes seriously his own novelization of his fantasy life there is little that can be done about the credulity of some people, who are eager to believe whatever is congenial to them.

As for polemics and the activity in the blogosphere, there is literally no point whatsoever to engaging with the folks who think that either the book or the movie is a representation of reality. The task is simply to say what is true, without bothering to tailor the truth to a specific audience or, more importantly, get oneself all worked up about answering some specific claim or perceived threat. Especially when the "threat" is just a story.

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times had a particularly salutary point to make about the process of engagement in these debauched times:
Brown's claims for his book and, by extension, the film adaptation belong to a strong new current in American life--the culture of assertion, which increasingly pushes logical argument out of our public conversation. According to this schema, things are true because I believe they are true and you have to respect that, because it's what I believe.
This is a phenomenon that anyone who teaches in a high school or university encounters every day. I went to college in the 1970s, when you couldn't turn around without bumping into somebody chanting some slogan along the lines of "Question Authority", but for all of that, if I was sitting in a chemistry class and found myself not quite believing that a particular reaction was going to go the way the instructor suggested that it would go, I understood well enough the notion of expertise to know that, ceteris paribus, the instructor probably knew more about it than I, and I did not push for my view too strenuously for fear of making a fool of myself. These days, I find that students have no shame whatsoever when it comes to openly questioning the expertise of their instructors. I once engaged in a rather lengthy argument--why I didn't just shut the thing down immediately now escapes me--with an entire class of students in a philosophy of science course, all of whom were disputing my claim that an object that falls from a moving airplane will fall, not straight down, but downwards and also in the direction of the movement of the plane. They were all insisting that it would fall straight down. These kids were, for the most part, science education majors. And some people are surprised to find educators willing to teach intelligent design in science classes. Of course they're willing to do it: they don't know anything about science themselves, and one of the main reasons for that is that they don't really regard going to school themselves as obtaining an education. For some students it is rather the obtaining of a set of credentials that will then permit them to teach what they've always believed all along, in spite of what they were taught in school.

Soon the whole Da Vinci Code kerfuffle will go the way of all kerfuffles, and the sum total of all heresies will be neither greater nor less because of Dan Brown and Sony Pictures. But a lot of bloggers will have wasted a lot of their time, time that could have been spent discussing more interesting topics.

1 comment:

Steven said...

Dear Sir,

Very nicely said.

I didn't think the book particularly well written, but I did enjoy it for what it was despite egregious errors of fact that had absolutely nothing at all to do with the main issue. (I keep pointing up the Alexander Pope not being Catholic issue as my favorite example.)

I agree entirely. If one's faith is toppled by DVC, then it needed to be toppled so that it might be reconstructed on firmer ground. For most, this is merely the excuse to do as they wish--an invitation to disagree.