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Deep into the ‘Code’

Times Staff Writer

On a rainy day in Paris last week, 50-year-old Linda Ackerman headed to the Louvre for a bit of detective work. Her checklist included the “Mona Lisa,” a painting that she had seen before -- but not this way, not with new eyes on the “Cracking the Da Vinci Code at the Louvre” tour.

Sure enough, just as author Dan Brown had described in his novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” Ackerman noticed for the first time that the woman in the Renaissance masterpiece looked androgynous. Ackerman took in the bulky shoulders, masculine face and, of course, the Smile. In Brown’s mystery-thriller, Da Vinci left clues in his artwork pointing to an explosive secret about early Christianity and the irresistible notion of a cover-up by the Catholic Church and other power players.

In Paris, throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, insatiable fans are exploring the controversial themes in “The Da Vinci Code,” even pulling members of the intelligentsia into the novel’s energy field. The book’s grip on the popular imagination is so fierce that academics and theologians are putting aside their ancient Greek and Latin texts and boning up on Brown’s characters, including a self-mutilating, white-haired albino villain.

“The Da Vinci Code,” which was published by Doubleday a year ago this week, is the fastest-selling adult fiction title ever, with more than 6.5 million copies in print in the U.S., according to a Publishers Weekly report to be released Monday. It has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sparked a wave of nonfiction titles analyzing Brown’s theories. And just wait until Ron Howard’s film adaptation is released in the next year or so by Columbia Pictures.

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Captivated audience

Such is the fascination with the book that readers are seeking connections, no matter how remote. At a mall in Port Charlotte, Fla., fans of the book were among those who recently paid $2 each to study a wax-figure display of “The Last Supper,” another painting in the book that holds clues to the key mystery.

In Chicago, even Cardinal Francis George reportedly read the book because so many people were asking him about it. He told the Sun-Times that he was afraid the book would “undermine people’s faith.” (George’s office did not return calls for comment). Art historians and other experts who can speak on the book have become the rock stars of the lecture circuit, packing in crowds from across the religious spectrum.

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In Utah, the Brigham Young University Museum of Art has presented two lectures so far in a series of four on Brown’s book (DVDs of each program will be for sale). The first lecture drew 700 people and museum officials turned away 300 more; last week, 1,000 people attended the discussion, some of whom were seated on the floor, said co-organizer Cheryll May.

Earlier this month, in Woodland Hills, Rabbi Rachel Bovitz was thinking of setting out a couple hundred chairs for a panel discussion on the book at Temple Aliyah, a conservative synagogue. The event, which was co-sponsored by a neighboring Catholic Church, brought in 1,000 people, including several book clubs. Bovitz, who was on a panel that included a priest and an art historian, heard people flipping through their copies of the book throughout the session.

Her congregants probably were attracted to the book because of the buzz, Bovitz said. But also, “Conspiracy theories are very in vogue. This brings in a different kind of conspiracy theory, different from JFK, from a religious perspective.”

(Spoiler alert: Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know Brown’s bombshell, which has been widely repudiated by experts -- Jesus and Mary Magdalene married, had children and have surviving descendants; and, if that’s not enough, Christ’s very divinity is challenged.)

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In interviews, Brown has said the story is fiction but that he believes, after extensive research, that the underlying premises are true. On an introductory page in the book, he defines some major references under the heading of “fact,” leaving readers to sort out the truth from the fiction.

In response to the craze, tour companies are building itineraries around the book’s settings in Paris, while others are adding “Da Vinci"-related stops to existing tours.

Ackerman, who works as a bank officer in Philadelphia, had been considering a trip to Paris when a friend dangled the piece de resistance -- the special Louvre tour. The 2 1/2-hour tour has been offered by Paris Muse since February and has become the guide service’s most popular, said director Ellen McBreen, an art historian with degrees from Harvard and New York University.

“For me, the thunderbolt came when visitors to the Louvre started asking me questions like, ‘Is this the room where the curator was murdered in “The Da Vinci Code?” ’ " McBreen said in an e-mail interview.

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Brown’s book touched off new questions about faith, said fans Lynette Hopkins, 69, and Shama, 48, who goes by her first name only. “It seems to be different from what I was taught as a good Catholic girl,” Shama said. The two Van Nuys women have signed up for a tour of France, England and Scotland called “In Search of the Mysteries of the Sacred Feminine,” a theme in Brown’s book.

Without a movie tie-in or action-figure spin-offs, “The Da Vinci Code” still is riding a wave of word-of-mouth acclaim, though book critics have been divided. Brown’s sales figures are extraordinary, considering that he was hardly a household name and that sales of adult hardcover books overall are down, according to the Assn. of American Publishers. The book has just recently begun losing its hold on the No. 1 spot on most bestseller lists and, in a boomerang effect, Brown’s three previous novels have also ranked in the Top 10.

“Nobody expected this kind of international response,” said Suzanne Herz, a Doubleday spokeswoman. “I think the most interesting thing that’s come about is that it has almost become part of the culture these days -- reading ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and talking about the religious aspects.”

Opus Dei, a worldwide Catholic organization that is painted in the book as an extremist cult, has prepared a 127-page response to the premises of Brown’s book. The organization gets daily e-mails related to “The Da Vinci Code,” said Brian Finnerty, the group’s U.S. spokesman in New York. “We’ve received inquiries thanking us for the [website] material to, ‘How come Opus Dei is hiding the truth about the Holy Grail?’ ... A vast majority of people who read the book will understand that it’s simply a novel but even a tiny percentage of 6 million is a lot of people.”

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With authority and accessible prose, Brown, a 39-year-old former English teacher, wraps a modern-day whodunit into an alternative history of Christianity. In interviews, Brown has said the underlying facts, including a secret about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, are true. Brown’s take is not new, but he has introduced intriguing possibilities to the average reader, such as the theory that key Gospels were excluded from the New Testament. And he manages to tap into lingering questions of faith while rooting the story in the familiar. Clues to the mystery turn up in famous artworks and even in the works of Walt Disney.

In fact, the story rings so true that New Testament scholar Darrell L. Bock felt compelled to respond, particularly after Brown appeared on an ABC prime-time special on “The Da Vinci Code.”

“I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t just a novel, a guy having fun,’ ” said Bock, who also was interviewed for the “Primetime Live” special in November. “When he said he thought this was true, and millions of people were in effect raising questions, I thought, ‘This needs to be dealt with.’ ” In response, Bock, a research professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote a nonfiction book, “Breaking the Da Vinci Code” (Nelson Books), which will be released April 22. The first printing is a hefty 100,000 copies.

Other forthcoming spin-offs include “Secrets of the Code,” edited by Dan Burstein and due in April from CDS Books, and “Cracking Da Vinci’s Code” by James L. Garlow and Peter Jones, also due in April, from Victor.

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At John Carroll University in Cleveland, Joseph Kelly, chairman of the department of religious studies, has been booked for so many speaking engagements that, by the end of spring, he will have spoken to 10,000 people about the book. Kelly, a professor at the Jesuit university, tried to delay one public library engagement in Holmes County until the weather improved.

But he was persuaded to brave the icy roads to accommodate the work schedule of the county majority. In the spring, he was told, the Amish would be too busy in the fields.

Kelly, who has written three scholarly books on early Christianity, said his religious studies colleagues have never been this popular. “What this book does,” he said, “is enable someone like me to get these issues out in front.... We’re getting a chance to do what we could never do.”

Meanwhile, Brown is holed away, working on a sequel scheduled for release in summer 2005.

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