Evangelical churches across the nation are launching an aggressive effort to save souls by talking about a fictional murder mystery that many regard as blasphemous.
Pastors are setting out doughnuts and sandwiches and inviting non-Christians to come discuss “The Da Vinci Code” bestseller. They’re creating hip marketing campaigns to draw nonbelievers to sermons about the thriller. They’re even giving away free iPods loaded with their commentary on the novel.
The goal is to instill trust in the Bible and faith in Jesus’ divinity -- principles that many Christian leaders believe are threatened by “The Da Vinci Code,” which opens in movie theaters May 19 as a film starring Tom Hanks.
A poll by Outreach Inc., a church marketing firm, found 68% of its customers, mostly Protestant churches, planned to respond to “The Da Vinci Code” with some form of evangelism.
The Catholic response has been ambivalent. Some Catholic groups and a few Vatican officials have urged the faithful to shun Dan Brown’s book and the movie, directed by Ron Howard. But priests expect that many Catholics will see the movie anyway. So hundreds of parishes have set up study groups to pick apart the film’s historical and theological claims.
“The Da Vinci Code,” which has sold 40 million copies, opens with the murder of a curator at the Louvre Museum. A professor of religious symbology called in to consult discovers clues hidden in the art of Leonardo da Vinci. Racing to unravel the puzzles, he learns that Christianity is built on falsehood: Jesus was not divine; he left an heir by his wife, Mary Magdalene; and the Bible as we know it was pieced together by a 4th century Roman emperor intent on suppressing the role of women in the Catholic Church.
If those claims are true, “the Christian faith is a sham,” according to a Catholic website that offers priests tips on how to respond to the movie.
Though angry, Christian leaders say they have nothing to gain by organizing pickets outside movie theaters. That would make them look closed-minded and defensive, when what they really need to counter the power of the film is “a very positive, wholesome, winsome” response, said Josh McDowell, a Christian writer and evangelist in Richardson, Texas.
Besides, “it’s probably going to be an awesome movie,” said Garry Poole, a pastor at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.
Poole drew 22,000 to a sermon about “The Da Vinci Code” last month. He hopes that those who came for the sport of hearing a minister take on a bestseller will return this Sunday for another round. Over time, he hopes they will find truth and comfort in the church and develop an abiding faith.
Moved by a similar vision, California pastor Ken Baugh plans to hand out free tickets to “The Da Vinci Code.”
Other Christian leaders think that’s going too far: “I don’t have to watch pornography in order to be able to dialogue about it,” said Matthew Pinto, president of Ascension Press, a Catholic publisher.
But Baugh wants to encourage members of his congregation to see the film with non-Christian friends. He plans to give them Starbucks gift cards along with the tickets so they can sit down over coffee when the movie ends and offer their perspective on Jesus.
Baugh has already distributed 325 iPod Shuffles loaded with his “Da Vinci” sermons to young members of his congregation so they can give them to friends who do not come to church.
“I think the Lord is going to use this film to bring more people to Christ, absolutely,” said Baugh, senior pastor of Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo.
At the very least, it has given churches a potent marketing tool. In Littleton, a suburb south of Denver, more than 50 first-time visitors joined 530 regulars at Valley View Christian Church last month when Pastor Gene Barron launched five weeks of sermons on “The Da Vinci Code.” (He advertised the series by mailing out 15,000 postcards with an image of the Mona Lisa on one side and a map to Valley View on the other.)
Barron opened the first service by quoting an e-mail he had received from someone who had read Brown’s book: “Is the last 25 years I’ve been a Christian all a lie? Is everything I was raised to believe just made up for the money? ... Please help me ... I’m brokenhearted.”
“You need to know about this story and the potential damage it could do,” Barron told his congregation.
His sermon, like many on “The Da Vinci Code,” was no fast-paced romp through the novel’s intrigues. It presented historical, archeological and theological evidence about key elements of Brown’s conspiracy theory: The Gnostic gospels, the Council of Nicea, the Roman Emperor Constantine, the Priory of Sion.
In recent years, evangelical pastors have shied away from such dense sermons, preferring to preach practical self-help messages instead. “The Da Vinci Code” has prompted a renewed interest in basic theology -- to many scholars’ delight.
“When I go around the country lecturing on New Testament history, I’m pretty excited if I get an audience of 15. But if I say I’m speaking on ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ I can almost guarantee an audience of 600. And it’s basically the same lecture,” said Darrell L. Brock, who teaches New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Ministries have used pop culture as a springboard before, embracing the recent films “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” But those movies drew wide praise from Christian leaders.
Movies challenging Christianity have been greeted with far more hostility. In 1988, for instance, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ tried to buy -- and destroy -- every copy of the Martin Scorsese film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which depicted Jesus on the cross fantasizing about Mary Magdalene.
About 25,000 protesters marched in front of Universal Studios in Los Angeles when the film was released. A few theaters were vandalized and studio executives reported death threats.
Mike Licona was among those urging a boycott of “Last Temptation.” Looking back, he regrets it as an “immature” response.
“It created the perception that we as Christians are not interested in having our faith challenged,” said Licona, an executive with the Southern Baptist Convention outside Atlanta.
“The Da Vinci Code” gives Christians an opportunity to build a new image as being open-minded and willing to listen respectfully to skeptics, said Michael Buckingham, who runs Holy Cow Creative, a church marketing firm in Midland, Mich. Not only that, he said, the film gives churches a chance to look hip, relevant and attuned to pop culture, instead of stiff, stuffy and dull.
“People are looking for answers,” Buckingham said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s dig into God’s word and find out the truth.’ ”
Sony Pictures has encouraged precisely that response. The studio invited dozens of Christian scholars to post essays challenging the film at www.TheDaVinciDialogue.com.
Brown himself writes on his website that he hopes readers will “use the book as a positive catalyst for introspection and exploration.”
“The truth is, Dan Brown gave us a great opportunity,” said Steve Clifford, pastor of WestGate Church in San Jose. “People everywhere will be gathering around water coolers to talk about the reality of Christ. Maybe not in the exact manner we’d like, but I’ll take advantage of it.”