Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each student the article “The Good News of Da Vinci” from Christianity Today magazine (included at the end of this study).
A group of evangelical Christians was talking about a movie recently released on DVD that had an R rating for racy and crude language. One person in the circle thought the movie was hilarious; in fact, he had even rented it to show his parents, who agreed. Others in the
group had more critical opinions of the movie, and one person who had remained silent finally spoke up. “When it was still in theaters,” he said, “I took my wife to see it. We thought it was so offensive that we got up and walked out in the middle of it!” These were all dedicated Christians, but they responded differently to the same movie: from approval to criticism to rejection.
At one time, many evangelicals would have responded like the couple who walked out of the movie. In fact, for many evangelicals movie-going itself was considered off-limits. Then many evangelicals came to the position that pop culture shouldn’t just be dismissed—that we should at least be aware of what’s available “out there,” engage it, perhaps critique it, and even provide healthy alternatives to what is depraved and destructive. But many Christians who engage pop culture have difficulty being discriminating: they deny themselves hardly any book, movie, or TV show.
[Q] Is mainstream culture encroaching upon the attitudes, beliefs, and lifestyles of evangelical Christians? If so, why?
[Q] What are some recent popular movies that might not appeal to all Christians?
[Q] How did you respond to these movies? Were they wholesome entertainment? Did they have redeeming value? Did they challenge Christian beliefs and behaviors? What effect did they have on you?
Darrell Bock’s article, “The Good News of Da Vinci,” discusses a popular book—The Da Vinci Code—which has been on the New York Times bestseller list. Although it is an engaging thriller, it raises questions for orthodox Christians because of its erroneous assumptions and portrayals of the New Testament and of church history. It espouses the notion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that they had children who settled in the south of France, but that the early church squelched this information. Still more troubling is that the author passes his revisionist perspectives along as fact.
[Q] Have you read the book? If so, what do you think of it? If not, what do you know about it? What have you heard others say about it?
[Q] On the whole, is this novel just a fun, thrilling read that shouldn’t be taken seriously? Or is it a challenge to Christian faith that should receive some kind of response? If the latter, what kind of response?
[Q] What do you think of Bock’s suggestion that we engage the culture in discussion about the assumptions of this book rather than engage in cultural warfare against it? What would this engagement look like?
Note to leader: To learn more about The Da Vinci Code novel, go to http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2003/nov14.html and follow the links there to other sites.
Discover the Eternal Principles
This lesson debates how Christians should engage popular culture. We will examine what Scripture has to say about the world, which can refer to several distinct but overlapping things: the physical creation, all of humanity, human culture, and the portion of human culture that is in rebellion against God.
Teaching point one: God made the world, and everything God made is good.
Read John 1:3a, 9–11. Like an overture to an opera, these verses sound motifs that recur throughout John’s gospel and letters: God created the world and all that is in it (cf. Genesis 1:1ff., Psalm 146:6, Acts 17:24); yet, because of human sin and rebellion, God sent his Son into the world to redeem it.
What is of special interest at this point, however, is that God’s creation is good: again and again, the creation account in Genesis 1 affirms this reality. Unlike Greek and Eastern views that the material world is evil, the Bible values the material world and does not see it as intrinsically evil or in opposition to the world of the spirit.
[Q] Two key biblical teachings—the Creation and the Incarnation—indicate that the world God created is good and is valued by God. Yet Christians often have a hard time thinking of the world as being good or having enduring value. Why is this? What are some examples of the ways Christians denigrate God’s world? Do the Christians you know tend to think human bodies are intrinsically evil? Why is this problematic?
Teaching point two: Due to human sin, the people God made rebel against God, bringing the world under God’s judgment.
Read John 3:17–20 and 16:8–11. There is great irony in these verses, for we know eventually Jesus is tried, condemned, and executed. But Jesus sees the larger truth: it is not he who is guilty of sin and worthy of condemnation; rather, it is the world, including humans and human culture, that is guilty of sin and therefore under the judgment of God. Still, it isn’t Jesus’ intention to judge the world (3:17, 8:15b, 12:47); the world’s rejection of him brings condemnation upon itself. Jesus also points forward to the time after his life, death, resurrection, and ascension when the Holy Spirit will come into the world. The role of the Holy Spirit in relation to the church is to remind it of the life and teachings of Jesus, to reveal what couldn’t be seen even during Jesus’ lifetime (16:12ff.); and the role of the Holy Spirit in relation to the world (of which we all are a part) is to act as prosecuting attorney—to bring us before the eternal court to convict us of sin so we might turn toward the love, grace, and redemption of God in Christ (16:8–11).
[Q] When was the last time you heard a sermon about the judgment of God? Are you uncomfortable hearing about or thinking of God’s judgment? If so, why?
[Q] Is God’s judgment intended to be punitive? Or is it intended to be redemptive? Does God judge us? Or do we bring judgment upon ourselves by rejecting God and God’s salvation?
[Q] Is there judgment for someone who teaches error about Christ, if the person does not realize he’s in error? (See 1 John 2:22–27; Luke 12:47–48.)
Teaching point three: In spite of the world’s sin, God still loves the world and sent his Son into the world, not to condemn it but to redeem it.
Read John 3:16–18 and 12:47 (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19). God didn’t abandon the world in spite of its willful rebellion; in fact, he still loves and values the world, so much that he is willing to give that which is most personally precious for its salvation. Indeed, God sent his only and beloved Son into the world, not to bring judgment upon it, but to save it; and those who believe in Jesus and accept him are, in fact, saved.
[Q] God gave over that which was most precious to him—his Son—for the salvation of the world. Think about what is most precious in your life. Would you be willing to give it up for the sake of the world’s redemption? What are you willing to sacrifice or do for the sake of the world coming to God through Christ?
Teaching point four: Jesus’ disciples are to live in the world, yet not love the world’s sinful and rebellious ways.
Read 1 John 2:15–17 and John 17:15–16 (cf. Rom. 12:1–2). For Jesus’ disciples, there is always a tension in living in the world. What God has created is good, and God loves and wills to redeem it. Yet the world also represents a rebellious, anti-God force and reality, and the disciples of Jesus must not love the world in this sense. Still, Jesus did not go out into the wilderness to try to escape the world. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples was for them in the world.
[Q] First John 2:16–17 talks about “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does” and worldly “desires [that] pass away.” What are some concrete examples of the cravings, lust, boasting, and desires that John is talking about?
[Q] What worldly patterns (Rom. 12:2) do you find yourself or your Christian friends most conformed to? Why are these worldly ways so alluring? What power do they have over us?
[Q] In what ways might some forms of entertainment contribute to these worldly patterns? How can we prevent the negative influence of worldly entertainment? Read 2 Corinthians 7:1 and Philippians 4:8. What part do these verses play in decisions about what entertainment we take in and how we respond to it?
Teaching point five: Jesus’ disciples are to be salt and light in the world—preaching the gospel, making disciples, and teaching them to observe the teachings of Jesus.
Read Matthew 5:13–16. In Jesus’ day, salt was used as a food preservative, such as in the salting of fish. In like manner, Jesus is telling his disciples not to escape from the world to keep themselves pure. Rather, they are to give themselves to the world in such a way as to preserve it, to keep it from moral and spiritual decay. This is a nonjudgmental kind of presence in the world.
Of course, it is not just our individual lives that make a difference; how we live corporately as Christians in relation to each other makes an impact on the world too (John 13:34–35). In any case, we can’t be salt in the world by living private, separatist lives. We must engage the world in business, government, health care, the environment, the arts, entertainment, and community life.
The other image Jesus uses here to talk about the church’s witness to the world is that of light. We are to shine in the world, not to bring attention to ourselves, but rather to call attention to the drama of God’s redemption. Like stage lights, we illuminate what is happening on the stage of history: God’s efforts to bid all to come to him in faith through Jesus, so everyone lives as though the reign of God has already come (which it has).
[Q] What positive changes have you seen Christians trying to make in the world?
Read Matthew 28:18–20 (cf. Acts 1:8). To make disciples is a key theme in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, the verb “make disciples” appears only four times in the New Testament, and three of those occurrences are in Matthew (13:52, 27:57, 28:19, cf. Acts 14:21). (Additionally, the noun “disciple” appears much more in Matthew than in the other Gospels.) The only time “to make disciples” is used in the imperative is here in the Great Commission. The basic imperative, in fact, is to make disciples; the form that takes is to baptize them in the name of the Triune God and to teach them to observe all that Jesus taught his disciples. But as a necessary condition of doing this, Jesus’ disciples are sent into the world; just as Jesus himself came into the world to save it, he sends his disciples out into the world to make other disciples. This is the purpose for which God’s people live, the mission to which we are called. Jesus disciples, according to Matthew, are those who accept the lordship of Christ and follow his teachings as summarized, for instance, in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5–7).
[Q] Do you agree or disagree with the following assertion: Evangelicals are strong in calling people to faith in Jesus Christ, but weak in teaching new believers to observe all that Jesus commanded. Whether you agree or disagree with this statement, why?
Apply Your Findings
Marvin Olasky, editor in chief of the conservative evangelical World magazine, has recently said: “Some of us might wish we lived in a different time, but that is coveting a situation different from that in which God has placed us.… We have pluralism by providence.” Through constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, the United States has become a religiously pluralistic nation. And Olasky, even though he has many arguments with what prevails in American culture, attributes that pluralistic development to the providence of God.
[Q] What do you think of Olasky’s assertion: is the religiously pluralistic world in which we Americans live God’s will? If so, how does this shape the way we respond to phenomena like Brown’s The Da Vinci Code?
[Q] Of the following options in response to The Da Vinci Code, which ones sit most comfortably with your Christian convictions:
Ignore the book.
Use all the power we Christians have to oppose it: write letters to the publisher, boycott the publisher, write letters to newspaper editors, etc.
Just make sure friends know the book is based on fallacious assumptions.
Respectfully try to engage (dialogue and debate) the assumptions of the book in conversations, parties, discussions at work, etc.
Start a new line of Christian thriller novels that competes with books like The Da Vinci Code.
If your group is large enough, divide it into smaller groups of 4–5 persons. In each group, think about some aspect of your community where you’d like to be salt and light—where you’d like to serve as a moral and spiritual “preservative” or where you’d like to witness in word and deed to the reign and rule of God. Think about what your goal would be. For instance, if you want to make a difference in your local public school, what kind of positive change would you want to effect? Then spend some time strategizing how you would go about making such a change. Keep in mind the people you would like to help. For instance, with the public school system you might want to go to school administrators and ask them how you could be helpful to them.
Then spend some time in prayer for your efforts. Have each group share their reflections and plans with the larger group for response.
—Study prepared by Richard A. Kauffman, former associate editor of Christianity Today and author of numerous studies in this series.
Contending for the Faith: The Church’s Engagement With Culture, Ralph C. Wood (Baylor University Press, 2003; ISBN 091895486X)
“Decoding ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ ” cover story in Newsweek (12/8/03); see http://msnbc.msn.com/id/3606237/ and related links
“Thanks, Da Vinci Code,” Chris Armstrong, Christian History newsletter (11/14/03); see http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2003/nov14.html and related links
Transforming Mission, David Bosch (Orbis Books, 1991; ISBN 0883447193)
The Good News of Da Vinci
How a ludicrous book can become an opportunity to engage the culture.
By Darrell Bock, for the study, “Engaging The Da Vinci Code.”
The ABC special Jesus, Mary, and Da Vinci was a fair program about a silly idea, but it illustrates a key distinction Christians need to be mindful of in our efforts to engage this culture.
The recent special walked through the ludicrous idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that he had children that were shepherded off to the south of France, and that the church suppressed this information because it would undercut Jesus' deity. Furthermore, Mary's reputation as a prostitute was fabricated by church leaders to undercut her influence, and that of women in general, in the early church. The real story was kept by a secret society called "The Priory of Sion," to which many famous Europeans, such as Leonardo da Vinci, belonged. The entire theory is strung out in a novel known as The Da Vinci Code. What caused the stir, at least in part, was the author's claim that the backdrop to his fictitious story is based on the truth.
Anyone familiar with the Bible knows that three facts are clear. First, Mary indeed was not a prostitute. The effort to connect her to the woman who anointed Jesus' feet in Luke 7:36–50 or to Mary of Bethany in John 12 is fraught with difficulty. Second, Mary is introduced to us in Luke 8:1–3 as the beneficiary of an exorcism by Jesus. Third, her only other biblical role is that of witness to the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
The Apostle Mary
When some in the early church called Mary an "apostle to the apostles," the point was not to promote women's ordination (and thus pose a threat to early bishops). The title only meant that she was divinely chosen and sent to the Apostles as bearer of the good news that Jesus was raised. In an era when women were not counted as legal witnesses, this exalted Mary as a significant role model for women in the early church.
Regarding this business of her supposed marriage to Jesus: When Paul was defending his right to have a wife (as in 1 Cor. 9:5), a right he did not exercise, he mentioned that Cephas (Peter) and Barnabas had wives. Had Jesus been married, Paul would have certainly mentioned such an important detail; it would have clinched his argument. I mentioned this in my interview on the ABC special, and the program noted that most biblical scholars agreed with the point. This inclusion leads me to the next point.
Many Christians have become so worked up in the cultural war metaphor that they risk losing the ability to engage the culture at all. In this case, many believers have mocked not only The Da Vinci Code but also the TV special that discussed it. For reasons that will help us engage the culture in ways that help them understand us better, I believe this is a mistake.
ABC ran this special because over 4 million people had read the book and had been exposed to this revisionist view of Jesus. The special sought to investigate these claims journalistically. To do so, the producers had to walk through the theory in detail to give context for its assessment. The mass media are not an arm of the church, nor should Christians expect them to be. Their job is to report all sides of an issue, employing a variety of perspectives, the true and the false, not to mention the plausible and the fringe, especially when such ideas are making a cultural impact. That is what this special tried to do.
In watching such programs, we need to distinguish between those who advocate revisionist theories, who also get prime-time exposure, and the reporting that takes place, especially if there is a good-faith effort to present both sides. In this instance, I counted several times when a point made from the book was followed by scholars who said there was no evidence for the idea.
I have my quibbles with the special, and with the hype the network used to advertise it. But the popularity of both the book and the special points to our culture's continuing fascination with Jesus. And even when that curiosity borders on the perverse, we need to be engaged in the conversation—if not on TV specials, certainly in our neighborhoods, schools, and offices, wherever the topic of conversation comes up—talking about the real Jesus in a constructive way.
—Darrell Bock is research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of Jesus According to Scripture:
Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Baker, 2002).
“The Good News of Da Vinci,” by Darrell Bock, Christianity Today, January 2004, Page 62.