Religious Groups Respond to 'Da Vinci' Movie Release

Churches are not boycotting the movie The Da Vinci Code. But pastors' groups, seminaries and other religious groups are. They are releasing books and DVDs, organizing training sessions and setting up Web sites to set the record straight and to capitalize on the upsurge of interest in early church history.

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Seek the truth. That's the tagline in ads for the upcoming movie The Da Vinci Code. Next week's opening will be a big Hollywood event, and as NPR's Greg Allen reports, America's religious leaders are also getting ready.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Visit any bookstore and there's likely to be a table of books with titles like, Exploring the Da Vinci Code, Breaking the Da Vinci Code, and The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code, many released by Christian publishers.

With the release of the film, based on Dan Brown's record-breaking best seller, just days away, America's Catholic Bishops have weighed in with their own Dan Brown debunker: a TV documentary and DVD, Jesus Decoded. The documentary's trailer mirrors the tone and music of The Da Vinci Code's, but instead of seek the truth, the tagline is, testifying to faith.

(Soundbite of movie, “Jesus Decoded”)

Unidentified Announcer: Nowhere, in any ancient text, is there ever any claim that Jesus was married. There's never a reference to a wife.

Unidentified Man: Jesus wasn't married. There's no evidence for it.

ALLEN: The documentary, which is being released to coincide with the opening of The Da Vinci Code, will be shown on NBC stations around the country.

Monsignor Frank Maniscalco, head of communications for the U.S. Conference of Bishops, says the documentary aims to set the public straight on what he says are the novel's many mistruths.

Monsignor FRANK MANISCALCO (Head of Communications, U.S. Conference of Bishops): We can see in The Da Vinci Code much that simply misinterprets the origins of Christianity and takes, say, for example, second and third century writings by people who are not really in synch with the Christianity, the New Testament, and puts them on the same level as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

ALLEN: Biblical scholars, historians, and especially clergy, are united in their criticism of The Da Vinci Code, and what Dan Brown calls facts in his work of fiction. They're concerned about the message of The Da Vinci Code, one which questions the trustworthiness of the church and the divinity of Jesus; and they dismiss Brown's reliance on the Gnostic Gospels; minority viewpoints that, they say, were never taken seriously by early church leaders.

Biblical scholars and clergy say there's no evidence of a cover-up or conspiracy to suppress those ideas. They simply were not accepted by the faithful and withered away over time.

But as critical and as angry as many religious leaders are about The Da Vinci Code, their main response has not been to try to stop Christians from reading the book or seeing the movie, but to meet it head on.

Mr. LEE STROBEL (Author, Exploring The Da Vinci Code): I think a lot of Christians have realized that the boycotting and picketing approach really isn't very productive.

ALLEN: Lee Strobel is an author who's produced books and DVD's about The Da Vinci Code.

Mr. STROBEL: I think we end up looking like people who are afraid to face something or people who criticize something, even though they haven't seen it or read it themselves. I think what churches are realizing is that this is an opportunity to be seized, because people who do read the book, and I'm sure who see the movie, begin to have a lot of spiritual questions. And that's a positive thing.

Pastor RON MCCRARY (Christ Church Anglican, Kansas City): How many--how many of you have actually read the book, itself, The Da Vinci Code? Whoa! Now that's amazing!

ALLEN: At Christ Church Anglican, in suburban Kansas City, Pastor Ron McCrary is in the middle of a five-week series of sermons on The Da Vinci Code. Hundreds of hands go up, maybe 90 percent of the congregation.

Like Lee Strobel and many others, McCrary sees the release of the film as something of a teachable moment. But, at the same time, he's worried.

Pastor MCCRARY: You know, faith is all about trust. And I think anybody who sees the movie is going to really be in for a very deep, powerful impact that they won't easily wash out of their minds. And I think it'll rattle people's ability to place their confident trust in Jesus.

ALLEN: In talking about the film recently, star Tom Hanks said he believed it could end up helping churches by boosting attendance at services where The Da Vinci Code is discussed.

At Christ Church, Ron McCrary says that's already happened.

Pastor MCCRARY: I think, yeah, we're going to see a great deal of interest. It could be good for churches, and it certainly forces people to think through what they actually do believe. And believe isn't just what they profess with their lips, it's what we are prepared to act on. And from that standpoint, if people get clearer about what they actually put their trust in and what they're prepared to act on, I think it leads to stronger Christians, stronger churches.

ALLEN: That's not to say that McCrary is encouraging people to see the movie or read Dan Brown's book. He's not planning on seeing the film himself, and for people who want to read the book, he makes just one request: that they borrow it, not buy it.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Kansas City.

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