April 7, 2006

Defense Verdict in Britain and Missionaries in Knoxville

How odd that Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh chose the two months before the release of the movie The Da Vinci Code to sue Dan Brown for copyright infringement. Their claim was that Brown ripped off their idea that Jesus survived his crucifixion, married Mary Magdelene, had children, and that their descendents eventually became French royalty. To some Christians, this seems like an off-the-wall theory indeed, but there is some meat behind the idea.

I read both Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Baigent and Leigh's Holy Blood, Holy Grail. There is no doubt that Brown was influenced by Baigent and Leigh -- Brown admitted as much and he named a character in his book after the two researchers whose earlier work popularized an otherwise-esoteric theory.

Brown did a lot more than Baigent and Leigh in his book and does not claim that his book is historically accurate or even that his book presents a historically accurate theory. Brown added a lot of art history and contemporary politics. And some car chases and anagram puzzles. And his research for the book undoubtedly included more scholarship and historical speculation than just Baigent and Leigh. While Baigent and Leigh's book was the first book I ever read to point out that the figure sitting to Jesus' right in The Last Supper is very feminine in appearance, Baigent and Leigh can't copyright that -- The Last Supper is a work of art that is in the public domain.

Baigent and Leigh lost their lawsuit because at the end of the day, what Brown took from their book was an idea, not a part of their writing. Under British copyright law, as is the case under American copyright law, an idea cannot be copyrighted. A way of expressing that idea can be, but not the idea itself. The distinction is subtle, and I wrestled with it somewhat when I first learned copyright law -- a friend on the law review drilled the fundamentals into me one afternoon.

What's more, The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction and intended strictly for entertainment purposes only. Baigent and Leigh engaged in an intriguing bit of historical research and reconstruction of available evidence. But at the end of the day, even they must admit ultimately that despite all of the research they put in to the subject, their work is speculation and not history.

What's astonishing to me is the virulence that this idea has generated. Next month, there will no doubt be protests and calls for boycotts of the movie (which will only increase the movie's box office appeal, I might add). For nearly two years now, there have been "explain-it-away" books published by very religious people attempting to point out all of the historical flaws and inaccuracies in The Da Vinci Code, and some religious leaders have exhorted their congregations to not read this book. Dan Brown doesn't care -- he wrote a work of fiction. He purports to have accurately described art and architecture, some of which I have seen with my own eyes and can verify is accurate; he also purports to describe certain rituals performed by a quasi-fundamentalist sect of the Catholic Church with accuracy, and there is at least some scholarly support for those claims. But as for the underlying theory, Brown has been clear that it is, at best, speculative, and that the novel is not intended to be anything more than a good read. So I have to ask myself -- how could these people be so threatened by what is admittedly a work of fiction?

Now, I see fiction which is contrary to my own world view all the time, and I find it immensely entertaining. I like Harry Potter, but my world view is not challenged by their portrayal of British teenagers in jeans and sweatshirts performing magic or riding dragons. I liked The Lord of the Rings immensely but I know perfectly well that there are not Balrogs living underneath the mountains or elves in the forests. I like the Star Wars movies but I don't think that I, or anybody else, can really use The Force to telekinetically make lightsabres fly around the room during duels. I liked The X-Files even though it always seemed to be that there really was a paranormal explanation for the mysteries rather than a naturalistic one. None of these pieces of fiction -- fiction -- ever threatened my skepticism to religion and the paranormal; none of them offended me in any appreciable way. The reason for this is that none of this fiction was ever presented as reality.

If someone seriously wanted me to believe that there really are Vulcans and warp drives and Klingons and Borg, it might be a different story -- I would demand proof and when the proof wasn't forthcoming, I'd either dismiss the person as a lunatic or tell them to peddle their imaginative goods elsewhere. If they just urged me to believe, I'd be polite about it; if they tried to threaten me ("You're going to hell if you don't believe this") or change the laws based on their beliefs ("We're going to teach kids in public schools that God created human beings instead of evolution") then I'm going to inject some more steel and acid in my response.

Just yesterday I had occasion to do this, as a matter of fact -- two Mormon missionaries came to the house. They asked me what I would say if they could tell me there was a living prophet here on Earth. "I'm an atheist, so I don't find that a particularly convincing sort of statement," I said.

"Really? You mean you don't believe in God at all?"

"Nope. Not at all."

"So you, like, believe in evolution, then?"

"That's right. I think intelligent design is a bunch of nonsense. Look, you seem like nice enough guys, but there's just not anything you can say that will make me start believing."

"Nothing? Well, okay then, thank you and have a nice day."

I suppose that seems close-minded of me. But while I think it's important to not be scared of ideas, and to be open-minded to new ideas, that does not mean that all ideas deserve equal treatment. I've heard plenty about the LDS theology and quite a lot of really scary things about the LDS establishment. When you've already considered and rejected an idea, then there's probably not a whole lot that can be done to make you re-consider.

These guys weren't going to have any evidence, just a copy of the book of Mormon to wave in my face. A book I would give as much credence to historical reality as I would The Da Vinci Code -- the only thing being that The Da Vinci Code admits that it is a work of fiction, where I was going to be asked to accept the contents of the Book of Mormon on nothing but faith. I only need to suspend my disbelief to enjoy Dan Brown's book; Joseph Smith asks me to surrender my disbelief entirely.

The truly faithful will not be threatened by The Da Vinci Code any more than I was threatened by the Mormons' attempt to proseltize me; they will treat The Da Vinci Code as pure entertainment, just as I treat Harry Potter as pure entertainment.


Anonymous said...

The problem is, many readers aren't skeptical, won't do independent research, and if they are told something has any distant factual basis at all, they will accept, repeat and argue it as fact in its entirety, especially if it says something they like. (For some reason, Catholics are sensitive lately about their public image.) They won't always cite or remember the source; they'll just absorb the assertions into their view of reality.

Remember the early 90s and Oliver Stone's "JFK"? I was the opinion editor of the college paper when that came out. Amazing how many would-be student pundits used that nutty movie as support for their nutty arguments.

RC said...

I think Baigent really took advantage of the the Da Vinci Code to propel his name and book and that this book is ridiculous.

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com