Da Vinci debates: Preparing for the storm

I realize that the tornado surrounding The Da Vinci Code (the book) has eased up a bit and that we are just starting to see the first media feeder bands come ashore from the category-five hurricane that will accompany the release of the movie in May 2006. I think GetReligion will need a "Da Vinci Code" category in our index by the time this thing is done. We resisted taking this step with The Passion of the Christ, but I don't know if we will be able to avoid it this time around.

I could be wrong. After all, The Passion offended the MSM, while Da Vinci is primarily going to offend two groups -- traditional Christians and historians who are not on the payroll of director Ron Howard. If you have been on Mars and are not up on the controversies surrounding Dan Brown's novel, click here for a nice summary and some links.

We are going to be seeing all kinds of events, forumns and protests -- on both sides. If you don't believe me, check out reporter Marta Falconi's Associated Press feature, which ran all over North America this weekend. The Washington Post's headline was, "Art Experts Hold Mock 'Da Vinci' Trial." Here's a chunk of the story.

The event in Vinci, just outside of Florence, began Friday with an opening statement by Alessandro Vezzosi, director of a Leonardo museum. He said he will produce photographs and documents as evidence of the mistakes and historical inaccuracies contained in Dan Brown's best seller.

"Leonardo is misrepresented and belittled," Vezzosi said. . . . "His importance is misunderstood. He was a man full of fantasy, inventions and genius."

The novel's contentious allegations -- namely, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a bloodline -- have provoked unprecedented protest among Roman Catholic and Protestant conservatives, who claimed that Brown's characters inaccurately malign Christianity.

In this case, most of the discussion was about art, starting with debates about whether the Mona Lisa was created in Leonardo da Vinci's image. While avoiding serious interviews, Brown has continued to emphasize -- as he said on NBC's Today show in 2003 -- that all of the "art, architecture, secret rituals, secret societies, all of that is historical fact."

My point is not to get into another debate about the book or the movie. What I think is going to be interesting is watching professional religion writers cover this story. What happens if Brown remains silent? How do you cover this story, if it is basically a debate between armies of Da Vinci Code fans and ranks of mainstream historians?

At that point, reporters are going to be tempted to stick this story into a familiar story template -- progressive artists being attacked by mindless Christian "fundamentalists." The true story is actually going to be much more complex and interesting than that.

For example, what if the studio actively pressures the director and screenwriter to tone down Brown's acidic take on traditional Catholicism? With Tom Hanks in the lead, will the powers try to make the movie more acceptable in red-zip-code theaters? The debates have already begun. It will be interesting to see how the press covers them.

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