The Da Vinci Code

Roger Ebert once wrote in a review, "I should read a potboiler like The Da Vinci Code every once in a while, just to remind myself that life is too short to read books like The Da Vinci Code." I haven't read the book, but I understand what he's getting at. There are novels by Dostoevsky and plays by Shakespeare that I haven't read yet. Until that changes, reading something like The Da Vinci Code isn't something I can easily justify to myself.

Still, I don't live in a cave, and I've had a lot of students and colleagues ask me about it. So I know the basic outlines of the story. So I was amused the other day when I saw on TV that the authors of a book originally published in 1982 with the title Holy Blood, Holy Grail, had filed a lawsuit against the Da Vinci Code publisher for copyright infringement. One of the allegedly stolen ideas was the notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.

It may well be that Dan Brown first came across that notion in Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Apparently he even acknowledges that book as a source. But it wasn't an original idea in either book -- the notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers is attested in ancient gnostic gospels.

More problematic is the fact that Holy Blood, Holy Grail passes itself off as non-fiction. That is, the authors claim they are documenting history (the "Secret History of Jesus," according to the front cover of one edition), not telling a fictional tale. And you can't copyright history. Are the authors of that book, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, finally admitting that the historical claims made in their book are untrue?

Maybe there is more to the lawsuit than that. I don't care enough to find out, to be honest. But it seems to me that this lawsuit, coming years after the original publication of a very high-profile book, and a mere three weeks before the film adaptation is set for release, is nothing more than a publicity stunt. And I can't let that pass without comment.

Why not? Because wasting the time of the courts, and therefore a great deal of taxpayers' money, for something as self-serving as publicity, is a form of stealing. But I doubt you'll hear too many people pointing that out.


Cartoon Controversy

Like many people, I've been watching the developments in the Muhammad cartoon controversy with great interest. Yesterday on the CBC I saw an interview with an imam who explained the Islamic prohibition of depicting the prophet visually, and a few things occurred to me that I thought I might share.

First of all, the depiction of Muhammad is not quite as absolute as the media has often suggested. I've seen at least one Islamic image from the Middle Ages of the prophet riding a horse, with his face left blank.

Secondly, as the imam on TV explained, the purpose of the prohibition is to prevent idolatry. Presumably this was a reaction to the perceived link between Christian art and Christian idolatry, which is certainly understandable.

But when this rationale is understood, the protests concerning the Muhammad cartoons becomes less understandable. Non-Muslims do a lot of things that are prohibited by Islamic law, but you don't see thousands of Muslims fly off the handle whenever it happens. And it is very hard to imagine how the offending cartoons would lead anyone to idolatry.

If anything, the cartoons are insulting and unfair towards Islam, and should be denounced for that reason. And freedom of expression is not an adequate defense -- just because one has the legal right to do something doesn't mean that doing it is necessarily moral, or wise. But the position taken by a small minority of Muslims -- that this is such a grievous offense that it is worth killing for -- is entirely inconsistent with the traditional rationale for the prohibition of visually depicting Muhammad.

For a good article about this by Robert Fisk, read this.
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