Opinion Page: 'Da Vinci Code' Truths

Religious historian Elaine Pagels says what is important about The Da Vinci Code is not what the movie got wrong, but what it got right.

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Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Despite some bad reviews and claims of historical and theological errors, the movie version of The Da Vinci Code topped the weekend's box office sales, taking in $77 million. The central theme of both the novel and the movie revolves around the controversial idea that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child, and that the Catholic Church covered up the truth.

Elaine Pagels is a Professor of religion at Princeton University. She's also the author of The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. In this Sunday's San Jose Mercury News, she wrote an op-ed piece arguing that Brown's story is a work of fiction, but what makes it so compelling is not the parts he made up but those parts that are true.

If you've read the book or seen the movie, what are your questions about what's true or not in The Da Vinci Code. 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And the e-mail address is talk@npr.org

And, Elaine Pagels, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor ELAINE PAGELS (Professor of Religion, Princeton University): Thank you. Good to be here.

CONAN: Professor Pagels is with us from her office in Princeton, New Jersey. And I guess we have to begin with the big one. Is there any evidence to support the idea that Jesus Christ was not crucified, got married, and he and Mary Magdalene had children?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, there certainly isn't, although nothing's probably impossible historically, but there's no evidence that I know. I mean, it makes a great fiction novel, I think.

CONAN: And I guess that's the point, fiction.

Prof. PAGELS: Yeah, it is. Although, you wonder if Dan Brown had said it was just fiction whether it would have been such a sensation. There is a lot in it that's very interesting and true.

CONAN: Well, you wrote in your piece, in fact, that Dan Brown credited you and your book on the Gnostic Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Philip, for sending him off on this novel.

Prof. PAGELS: That's true. This is a secret Gospel. It was found - it's probably written in the early 2nd century and it has words like this, Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than the other disciples and kissed her often. And the other disciples were jealous and asked, why do you love her more than all of us? Now, you know, in the Gospel of Philip that sounds pretty provocative.

CONAN: It sure does. Tell us, for those of us who don't follow such things closely, what are these Gnostic Gospels, when were they written, who wrote them, and how do they relate to the Gospels that we're familiar with in the New Testament?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, those are big questions. I mean, what I learned in graduate school was a surprise, that there are many other Gospels that we didn't know about. A lot of them were buried and suppressed as early as the 2nd century and rediscovered, actually, in 1945 in an archeological find that was just amazing. We found about 50 ancient Christian texts. And so, you know, they show us a much more diverse picture of the early Christian movement than we ever saw before.

CONAN: And a picture, you say, the Church, neither then nor now, is altogether too happy with.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, yes. But, you know, these texts are various. What they mainly claim is that certain disciples had secret teachings of Jesus and it differs in some ways from what the Church teaches.

CONAN: In an important way, what some of them suggest is that Christ was not himself divine, but human.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, that's true; although it suggests he was human as we are, and also had a capacity to manifest God. And I guess one of the things that is disliked by many people in the churches is the suggestion that you and I are like that, too, that we are human but we have within us a connection with God because we're created in His image.

CONAN: A direct connection, as opposed to one that requires us to go through the church?

Prof. PAGELS: Right. The church, in a way, invented a sort of technology of getting to God, which is not, I think, a bad thing. I'm not a conspiracy theorist like Dan Brown. But some of these texts suggest it's not necessary, that you can find God in yourself, you can find God in the universe.

CONAN: Of course, an idea that resulted some years later in a major theological split in the Christian churches?

Prof. PAGELS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, most of the churches are based on the assumption that, you know, outside the church there's no salvation. That is, you have to go to the churches, you have to be saved through Jesus Christ, and so forth.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And so this idea that these - there is hidden history to the gospels that were suppressed by the church. Dan Brown writes about that. And broadly, you're saying, he got that right.

Prof. PAGELS: He did. And that's the great adventure that those of us who work on these texts are exploring at this point. Actually, I find what we - what the real story is more interesting to me than what we could make up, because it does show a secret gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example.

CONAN: And saying that - talking a lot more about the feminine side.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, that's true, and that's another thing Dan Brown picked up from some of these sources. That is, if you can speak of God, who anyway would be infinite, in masculine form as a father and king and judge and all of that, you could also speak of God in feminine form as Holy Spirit and mother, because those words in Hebrew and Syriac are feminine words; Holy Spirit, wisdom, and so forth.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners in on the conversation. If you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

We'll start with Greg(ph). Greg calling from Raleigh, North Carolina.

GREG (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Greg.

GREG: Hi. Dr. Pagels, I read in your book on the Gnostic gospels, I believe it was, in the introduction you refer to that quotation from the Gospel of Philip about the...

Prof. PAGELS: Yes.

GREG: ...kissing often. And I noticed in your work, when I checked your footnote, you had inserted, on the mouth, but in the original there's a hole there. How did you come up with that?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, that's right. That's a good point. What happens, you know, is these texts are made out of papyrus. They're very ancient, and if you touch them they crumble. There're many parts of them that are broken, so it says, just as you said, Jesus kissed her often on her, and then the text breaks and you never know.

GREG: Yeah.

Prof. PAGELS: So no, I wasn't the person who put that word in, but others who worked on it before realized that the word mouth would fit in the space that's missing. Now, maybe other words would fit in the space and you can imagine what they might be, but that's the one that most people thought was most appropriate.

CONAN: So they put the word mouth in her mouth, as it were.

Prof. PAGELS: That's absolutely correct. And you see...

GREG: I just thought - when I checked the footnote, though, when I actually looked at what you were quoting from, it didn't say mouth there.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, if you look at Robert McLloyd Wilson's(ph) edition, I think it was published about '59 - he's at the University of Edinburgh - he put that reconstruction in. But when you do, you're supposed to put little marks...

GREG: Yeah.

Prof. PAGELS: ...that indicate that it's reconstructed. And that's what...

GREG: The brackets. Yeah.

Prof. PAGELS: Yeah, brackets, right.

GREG: Yeah.

CONAN: All right, Greg, thanks very much for the call.

GREG: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to Carl(ph). And Carl's with us from San Antonio.

CARL (Caller): Yes. It seems to be odd how Mr. Brown has gone out and he announces this book as fiction, but it seems the whole Christian community feels threatened by a book that the author has gone out there and claimed it's fiction; which is almost like twenty years earlier, I believes it was Holy Blood, Holy Grail, they're almost similarly the same. But it just hits me odd how people can go up in arms and everything else on this.

CONAN: Well, Prof. Pagels, he said it was fiction, sort of.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, he did, you know, I think you're right about that. And Holy Blood, Holy Grail is a really far-fetched thing. It's not really history. You're right. But the other side is, he said that it was all based on fact, you know, so he wanted it both ways.

CARL: Yeah, I mean...

Prof. PAGELS: And I think if he hadn't said that, then it wouldn't have been the sensation that it was.

CARL: Yeah, but there's a lot of other stories that are out there that are the same thing, where they blend in fact with fiction.

Prof. PAGELS: That's true.

CARL: And to make you great novels and everything else. You know, like Gone With the Wind, that just didn't, you know...

Prof. PAGELS: I guess somehow these here...

CARL: I don't understand why people feel threatened by this book when it's, you know, the author himself has announced it as being fiction but a mixture with history. You know, in the same way as Gone With the Wind.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, that's a good point. I mean, I find, as a piece of fiction, it's perfectly okay with me. But you're right; a lot of people take it very seriously.

CONAN: Well, a lot of people would consider some of these ideas heretical. Some of these ideas that they say are, you know, part of a, well, you know - this is an effort to undermine the church.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, I gather that, you know, his purpose is rather anti-Catholic, and suggests that the Catholic Church, you know, or Opus Dei anyways, having people killed to keep the secrets hidden and so forth, I mean that's really far-fetched, I would think.

CARL: Yeah, but it just hits me odd, that's all. That's all I wanted. All right, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Carl.

CARL: Bye.

CONAN: Opus Dei, of course, the previously mysterious group that is, in fact, a real group, which was willing to talk about itself a great deal, much more openly in the aftermath of The Da Vinci Code than it was beforehand.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, they probably felt they had to.

CONAN: Yes. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Eric(ph). Eric calling from Macon, Georgia.

ERIC (Caller): Yes, I was wondering if Prof. Pagels can comment on the historical accuracy of the book and the movie concerning the first Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, and some of the issues that were involved.

I think in the book, as I recall, it was implied that the divinity of the Christ was decided upon at the church council - at the instigation of the Emperor Constantine, and it was done, actually, with a rather close vote.

I don't think that's exactly - that's an accurate depiction. What are your thoughts about it?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, I'd have to check again, you know, exactly what he says there. It is true that at the Council of Nicaea the main issue was whether Jesus was to be considered God or not. I don't think the vote was close at all. I think you're right about that, it was overwhelmingly in favor of the creed, and the Emperor voted in favor of it.

And when the Emperor voted in favor of it, anyone who didn't vote with the Emperor could easily be seen as, you know, kind of suspect.

CONAN: Or hurry and change their vote.

ERIC: (Unintelligible) vote for this at the council, though.

Prof. PAGELS: Pardon me?

ERIC: I don't believe the Emperor voted at the council, though.

Prof. PAGELS: He didn't vote, but I'm saying that the bishops who did tended to favor his point of view. Although, I think it was favored by many of the bishops, as well.

ERIC: In any case, an additional problem with the thesis that the Roman government forced that decision on the Council of bishops is that, at some point 20 or 30 years afterwards, the opposite position, the Arian position, and maybe you can comment about who Arius was, the Arian position came to the forefront and for some 50 or 60 years, Arianism was, at least the Roman government's...

Prof. PAGELS: Yes, you're right. There's a very good book by Timothy Barnes, which you may have read, called Constantine and Eusebius, which talks about this.

Arius was a priest from Libya who was preaching in Egypt, and he opposed the idea that Jesus was God incarnate and suggested that Jesus was human. And that debate, as you say, was intense and was very highly engaged for many decades by many bishops.

CONAN: We're talking with Elaine Pagels on TALK OF THE NATION's Opinion Page. She wrote a piece that was published yesterday in the San Jose Mercury News. If you would like to see a copy of that article, go to our website and there's a link to it: npr.org.

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Right now you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get back to Prof. Pagels and our conversation about The Da Vinci Code and the Gnostic Gospels. And interestingly in 1945 - that's the same year that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Prof. PAGELS: Absolutely. It's an amazing year, and there's only a small part of the Middle East that's so dry that papyrus doesn't rot, it actually survives. And that's where both the Dead Sea Scrolls and these texts were found in Egypt.

CONAN: Let's get another listener on the line. This is Carrie(ph). Carrie calling from Lawrence, Kansas.

CARRIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE: I would like to say it's delightful to listen to you speak with all these gentleman callers.

Prof. PAGELS: Thank you.

CARRIE: One of the things - I've only read the book, I've not seen the movie. And the reason why I read the book, having sort of picked it up and sort of given it a cursory look at the bookstore and chose not to purchase it, was that later on, my 20-something car salesman was all excited about it. And I thought well, if my car salesman is excited about this feminist theology-based book, I think maybe I should go read it.

My question, though, and this is a discussion that I had recently with my husband, is that, is there anywhere in - I guess it's implied, but does it say specifically anywhere that Christ was a virgin? Is there any reason that we should think that he was not sexually active?

Prof. PAGELS: That's a very interesting question. I don't think anything is said about that that I know of in the New Testament or any other Gospel. I mean, some people suggest that he may have been married, because it was common for most rabbis to be married...

CARRIE: (Unintelligible)

Prof. PAGELS: ...back then, as it is now. And because, you know, it might not have been a subject for comment, because it was just taken for granted.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. PAGELS: But there are teachings in the New Testament, at lest in Mark and Matthew, in which Jesus praises people who are single and celibate. And so, you know, blessed are the eunuchs, for they shall make themselves, you know, it's in Matthew 19. Those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, and those are people who are sexually inactive.

CARRIE: Inactive.

Prof. PAGELS: So there were at least suggestions that he was celibate, but we don't know that for sure. It's a good point.

CARRIE: Well, thank you very much and I look forward to hearing the rest of the conversation.

CONAN: Okay, Carrie. Thanks very much. Let's turn now to Katherine(ph). And Katherine's calling from Minneapolis.

KATHERINE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

Prof. PAGELS: Hello.

KATHERINE: I wanted to respond, actually to the earlier callers comment about -he was wondering why the church was so - or why members of the church have been outraged about the book when he claims that its fiction.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KATHERINE: I think that one of the messages that a lot of readers are taking away from Dan Brown's book is that we shouldn't necessarily look at the bible or biblical documents as, you know, literal documents that should be interpreted literally, or that we should necessarily take the church's interpretation of them, you know, at face value, but that we should look at them in an historical and cultural context of the time in which they were written. And that puts into question a lot of peoples' doctrine and belief about bible and the Christianity, in general.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, I think that's a really good point. Historians do the same thing, though, whether they're Christians or not, and many of my teachers and colleagues are very definitely Christians; myself included. So, you know, looking at them in historical context, you're right, it does change it.

Taking literally, though, doesn't just go on one side. I mean, I thought he took, you know, Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene, very literally. Because if you read the Gospel of Philip - further than he did - you realize that it's a mystical text and that she, here, represents the Holy Spirit or the Church, and the Church is the bride of Christ, as Christians know from the letters of St. Paul.

So there's a great deal of symbolic and mystical language in these texts, which, you're perfectly right, shouldn't be taken literally, and which needs to be interpreted and understood spiritually.

CONAN: Katherine, thanks very much.

KATHERINE: Thank you.

CONAN: Prof. Pagels, have you seen the movie?

Prof. PAGELS: Not yet.

CONAN: You looking forward to it?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, I'd like to see it. Have you?

CONAN: Not yet. But I'm looking forward to it too.

Elaine Pagels, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. PAGELS: Okay. It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Elaine Pagels, a Professor of religion at Princeton University and author of the book, The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Her Op-Ed appeared in yesterday's San Jose Mercury News. You can find it by going to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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The Truth at the Heart of 'The Da Vinci Code'

Archbishop Angelo Amato, a top Vatican official, recently railed against The Da Vinci Code as a work "full of calumnies, offenses and historical and theological errors.'' As a historian, I would agree that no reputable scholar has ever found evidence of author Dan Brown's assertion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a child, and no scholar would take seriously Brown's conspiracy theories about the Catholic group Opus Dei.

But what is compelling about Brown's work of fiction, and part of what may be worrying Catholic and evangelical leaders, is not the book's many falsehoods.

What has kept Brown on the bestseller list for years and inspired a movie is, instead, what is true – that some views of Christian history were buried for centuries because leaders of the early Catholic Church wanted to present one version of Jesus' life: theirs.

Some of the alternative views of who Jesus was and what he taught were discovered in 1945 when a farmer in Egypt accidentally dug up an ancient jar containing more than 50 ancient writings. These documents include gospels that were banned by early church leaders, who declared them blasphemous.

It is not surprising that The Da Vinci Code builds on the idea that many early gospels were hidden and previously unknown. Brown has said that part of his inspiration was one of these so-called Gnostic Gospels as presented in a book I wrote on the subject. It took only three lines from the Gospel of Philip to send Brown off to write his novel:

The companion of the savior is Mary Magdalene. And Jesus loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often... The rest of the disciples were jealous, and said to him, "Why do you love her more than all of us?''

Those who have studied the Gospel of Philip see it as a mystical text and don't take the suggestion that Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene literally.

Still, by homing in on that passage and building a book around it, Brown brought up subjects that the Catholic Church would like to avoid. He raised the big what-ifs: What if the version of Jesus' life that Christians are taught isn't the right one? And perhaps as troubling in a still-patriarchal church: What if Mary Magdalene played a more important role in Jesus' life than we've been led to believe, not as his wife perhaps, but as a beloved and valued disciple?

In other words, what Brown did with his runaway hit was popularize awareness of the discovery of many other secret gospels, including the Gospel of Judas that was published in April.

There have long been hints that the New Testament wasn't the only version of Jesus' life that existed, and that even the gospels presented there were subject to misinterpretation. In 1969, for instance, the Catholic Church ruled that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, as many people had been taught. The church blamed the error on Pope Gregory the Great, who in 591 A.D. gave a sermon in which he apparently conflated several women in the Bible, including Mary Magdalene and an unnamed sinner who washes Jesus' feet with her tears.

But even that news didn't reach all Christians, and it is the rare religious leader who now works hard to spread the word that the New Testament is just one version of events crafted in the intellectual free-for-all after Christ's death. At that time, church leaders were competing with each other to figure out what Christ said, what he meant — and perhaps most important, what writings would best support the emerging church.

What we know now is that the scholars who championed the "Gnostic'' gospels are among the ones who lost the battle.

In the decades after Jesus' death, these texts and many others were circulating widely among Christian groups from Egypt to Rome, Africa to Spain, and from today's Turkey and Syria to France. So many Christians throughout the world knew and revered these books that it took more than 200 years for hardworking church leaders who denounced the texts to successfully suppress them.

The copies discovered in 1945, for example, were taken from the sacred library of one of the earliest monasteries in Egypt, founded about 10 years after the conversion of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to join the fledgling church. For the first time, Christians were no longer treated as members of a dangerous and seditious group and could form open communities in which many lived together. Like monks today, they kept in their monastery libraries a very wide range of books they read aloud for inspiration.

But these particular texts appeared to upset Athanasius, then archbishop of Alexandria; in the year 367 he sent out an Easter Letter to monks all over Egypt ordering them to reject what he called "illegitimate and secret books.'' Apparently, some monks at the Egyptian monastery defied the archbishop's order and took more than 50 of the books out of the library, sealed them in a heavy jar and buried them under the cliff where they were found 1,600 years later.

In ordering the books destroyed, Athanasius was continuing the battle against the "Gnostic'' gospels begun 200 years earlier by his revered predecessor, Bishop Irenaeus, who was so distressed that certain Christians in his congregations in rural Gaul (present day France) treasured such "illegitimate and secret writing'' that he labeled them heretics. Irenaeus insisted that of the dozens of writings revered by various Christians, only four were genuine — and these, as you guessed already, are those now in the New Testament, called by the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Irenaeus said there could be only four gospels because, according to the science of the time, there were four principal winds and four pillars that hold up the sky. Why these four gospels? He explained that only they were actually written by eyewitnesses of the events they describe — Jesus' disciples Matthew and John, or by Luke and Mark, who were disciples of the disciples.

Few scholars today would agree with Irenaeus. We cannot verify who actually wrote any of these accounts, and many scholars agree that the disciples themselves are not likely to be their authors. Beyond that, nearly all the gospels that Irenaeus detested are also attributed to disciples — some, including the Gospel of Thomas, to the original 12 apostles. Nonetheless, Athanasius and other church leaders succeeded in suppressing the gospels they (and Irenaeus) called illegitimate, won the emperor's favor and succeeded in dominating the church.

What, then, do these texts say, and why did certain leaders find them so threatening?

First, they suggest that the way to God can be found by anyone who seeks. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus suggests that when we come to know ourselves at the deepest level, we come to know God: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.'' This message – to seek for oneself – was not one that bishops like Irenaeus appreciated: Instead, he insisted, one must come to God through the church, "outside of which,'' he said, "there is no salvation.''

Second, in texts that the bishops called "heresy,'' Jesus appears as human, yet one through whom the light of God now shines. So, according to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, "I am the light that is before all things; I am all things; all things come forth from me; all things return to me. Split a piece of wood, and I am there; lift up a rock, and you will find me there.'' To Irenaeus, the thought of the divine energy manifested through all creation, even rocks and logs, sounded dangerously like pantheism. People might end up thinking that they could be like Jesus themselves and, in fact, the Gospel of Philip says,

"Do not seek to become a Christian, but a Christ.'' As Irenaeus read this, it was not mystical language, but "an abyss of madness, and blasphemy against Christ.''

Worst of all, perhaps, was that many of these secret texts speak of God not only in masculine images, but also in feminine images. The Secret Book of John tells how the disciple John, grieving after Jesus was crucified, suddenly saw a vision of a brilliant light, from which he heard Jesus' voice speaking to him: "John, John, why do you weep? Don't you recognize who I am? I am the Father; I am the Mother; and I am the Son.'' After a moment of shock, John realizes that the divine Trinity includes not only Father and Son but also the divine Mother, which John sees as the Holy Spirit, the feminine manifestation of the divine.

But the Gospel of Mary Magdalene — along with the Gospel of Thomas, the Dialogue of the Savior, and the Gospel of Philip -– all show Peter, the leader of the disciples, challenging the presence of women among the disciples. We hear Peter saying to Jesus, "Tell Mary to leave us, because women are not worthy of (spiritual) life.'' Peter complains that Mary talks too much, displacing the role of the male disciples. But Jesus tells Peter to stop, not Mary! No wonder these texts were not admitted into the canon of a church that would be ruled by an all-male clergy for 2,000 years.

Those possibilities opened by the "Gnostic'' gospels — that God could have a feminine side and that Jesus could be human — are key ideas that Dan Brown explored in "The Da Vinci Code,'' and are no doubt part of what made the book so alluring. But the truth is that the texts he based his novel upon contain much deeper and more important mysteries than the ones Tom Hanks tries to solve in the movie version that opened this weekend.

The real mystery is what Christianity and Western civilization would look like had the "Gnostic'' gospels never been banned. Because of the discovery by that Egyptian farmer in 1945, we now at least have the chance to hear what the "heretics'' were saying, and imagine what might have been.

Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, is a professor of religion at Princeton. She wrote this article for the Perspective section of the San Jose Mercury News.

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