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Monday, May 15, 2006

A spiritual decadence opens 'Da Vinci' door By Dennis P. McCann

A spiritual decadence opens 'Da Vinci' door
By Dennis P. McCann Mon May 15, 8:01 AM ET
Before we canonize The Da Vinci Code as the mother of all cult films, it might be good to consider the reasons for its pre-release success. What can we learn from the way moviegoers are fascinated about this and similar films, such as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?
Escaping through cinema in which global threats are vanquished by the forces of good is compelling in this time when many report a sense of apocalyptic foreboding. Glacial breakdown seems to indicate global warming is real. The Middle East is a quagmire more dangerous than Southeast Asia ever could have been. The people of New Orleans offer the latest example that America's basic social problems endure. Yet we are uncertain how to quiet these pangs of spiritual hunger.
Many of us are too tired or indifferent to pay attention to world politics, and too distracted to know or care what the George Bushes of this world are up to. Translating discontent into meaningful political alternatives requires us to confront the fact that we are willing victims of spiritual decadence. We need to wake up and search for ground higher than that provided by those who pander to our yearnings for spirituality on the cheap.
There's nothing wrong with a good read or an engrossing film. I enjoyed Dan Brown's story. It cleverly plugs into our yearnings about Jesus and his love life, our paranoid suspicions about the Roman Catholic Church, and our incorrigible hope that everything could be different if only we could be free from the stubborn facts of life and escape into a faith-based world of fantasy. Brown has done such a good job of entertaining us, some readers don't realize they are merely being entertained.
We have made a cult of his work in part because we hope the church may be the worst villain we must face. The truth is anti-Catholicism is the last respectable prejudice in the USA. The church remains an easy target because it doesn't play by the rules laid down for modern institutions. Its lack of transparency and accountability give rise to popular resentments and paranoia that are exploited by Brown.
The supposition that the church suppresses documents that would refute central claims of Christianity is nonsense. It's a kind of wishful thinking that is just as self-defeating as our refusal to examine our half-baked foreign policy. Both must be aggressively challenged.
The price of a movie ticket is about $8.50, but in psychic terms, it's far cheaper than the price Catholics pay to belong to their church. We live in a time of religious individualism, and Brown has become one of the leading cheerleaders, giving us permission to believe whatever we choose.
The obsession over Brown's book and the upcoming film represents more than just a craving for escapist entertainment. It is another sign of decadence in our civilization. The Catholic Church represents a religious anti-individualism some might find profoundly threatening. Catholics are told from childhood they cannot make things up as they go along. Despite the millions of "cafeteria Catholics" who choose to follow only those church rules that fit their lifestyles, the church, so sinisterly depicted in The Da Vinci Code, continues to challenge its members to face up to the realities of the human condition and deal with them humbly before God.
Digging for stubborn facts, apprehending the truth about them and acting accordingly are inconvenient, but the failure to do so has resulted in the whirlwind we are reaping. Though our private fascination with all-too-easy fantasies such as those Brown offered is only one symptom of our spiritual disarray, it has the potential to corrupt all aspects of American life.
Let's pray that our faith-based decadence isn't fatal.
Dennis P. McCann is the Alston Professor of Bible and Religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga.


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