Cashing in on the 'Code'

Times Staff Writer

CALL it "The Da Vinci Lode": an almost-anything-goes industry of spinoffs and tie-ins emerging in the shade cast by the mega-bestseller and movie.

A researcher says he can prove the story of Adam and Eve actually describes human evolution. A historian says the Holy Grail is buried in an estate near Stafford, England. A documentarian has linked the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandals to satanic images cunningly concealed in the religion's artwork.

Legions of experts are making themselves available to the press to decode "The Da Vinci Code." As the movie's May 19 opening neared, a publicist touting one biblical expert fired off an e-mail to the media pleading, "Last Call for Da Vinci Expert/Author (I Promise)." The books, TV programs, DVDs and lectures are timed to tap into the phenomenal public interest in ancient secrets and religious quests sparked by Dan Brown's book, many teasing potential audiences by embedding "code" in the title.

The pseudo-historical thriller suggesting that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had sexual relations has sold 40 million copies in hardback and 1.4 million in the first month of its U.S. paperback release.

"It's a hot topic right now," said Debbie Douglas, who is handling public relations for a firm offering to help people whose religious beliefs may be "confused by 'The Da Vinci Code' " by providing spiritually uplifting films that can be downloaded off the Internet.

"Until the movie comes out, people are going to be battered everywhere -- on television, radio and in print -- because there's a good chance of using the book hook to have your pitch heard," the Newport Beach-based Douglas said.

Nate Andrews, a spokesman for lecturer Vishal Mangalwadi, who is scheduled to speak Monday on "Sexual Mysticism: The Da Vinci Code and Beyond" at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, agreed. "In terms of timing," Andrews said, "we're trying to capitalize on the interest 'The Da Vinci Code' movie will create."

Although some promoters predict "Da Vinci Code"-mania will ebb with the release of the movie -- which critics predominantly panned after a Cannes screening last week -- the bandwagon doesn't seem to be slowing down.

The "Today" show scheduled segments about "The Da Vinci Code" to air each day last week. The Discovery Channel (with four documentaries) and History Channel (with seven) jumped in as well, offering such programs as "Bible Code II: Apocalypse and Beyond" and "Secret History of Jesus," which provocatively asked: "Was the crucifixion of Jesus faked?"

Amazon.com is pitching myriad books, such as "The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction," "Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse" and even a travel book, "Fodor's Guide to the Da Vinci Code: On the Trail of the Bestselling Novel."

There was a time when biblical scholars labored in obscurity, even anonymity. The rare exception was Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels, whose "The Gnostic Gospels" became a surprise bestseller and a hot topic in Upper Manhattan cocktail society in the 1970s.

But now an estimated 44 new books promise to debunk "The Da Vinci Code." The "Complete Idiot's Guide" series this week released new books to help readers explore the mysteries of key code figures, including Mary Magdalene and the Freemasons.

Mark Silk, director of Trinity College's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life in Hartford, Conn., compared the frenzy to "the carnivalesque atmosphere surrounding the liberation of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the scholars who controlled them" in the early 1990s.

"It's not an academic salon out there, it's a Renaissance faire, with people letting off ugly smells and beating each other over the heads with bladders," he said with a laugh. "You gotta love it." For some serious scholars, however, the "Code" craze has been a boon and a bane.

On a Los Angeles Times Festival of Books panel earlier this month, Dennis MacDonald, director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont School of Theology, lamented that even as "The Da Vinci Code" has revived the public's interest in the world's great traditions, it has blurred the lines between scholarly investigation and pop culture.

His audience applauded with delight when he pointed out that such books "are crossing over into my territory, and they are not helping." James M. Robinson, an expert on ancient texts, sees it another way. He's the general editor of the Cairo-based Nag Hammadi library, the definitive collection of ancient Gnostic writings, including such controversial works as the Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus performs no miracles and dies for no one's sins.

In a telephone interview, Robinson said, "I love 'The Da Vinci Code'! Because of it, sales of the Nag Hammadi Library have increased." That kind of talk has publishers digging deep for new books that only a few years ago would not have seen the light of day in mainstream stores.

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Piggybacking on success

A month ago, on the day "The Da Vinci Code" was released in paperback, Harper San Francisco published Michael Baigent's "The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-up in History," which suggests that Jesus was anesthetized by friends to numb the pain of crucifixion, then went on to raise a family with Mary Magdalene.

"We wanted 'The Jesus Papers' to be out before Easter and then carry the book through the advent of the film 'The Da Vinci Code,' " said Harper Deputy Publisher Mark Tauber. "It's a business move. This is when the media is talking about it, when readers are interested in it, and when the movie is being released."

Carrie Carter of Fenton, Mich., is among those compelled to speak up with the movie's release. She's a self-described "spirit medium" and said a special source told her "the time is right" to spread the good news: " 'The Da Vinci Code' will change our future. The angels told me 'The Da Vinci Code' will rock this world. They said it will make people look inside themselves and start to question things," said Carter, adding that she also has channeled Mary Magdalene.

"The angels also told me this is only the start of a great awakening -- there will be more books and more movies," she added. "I may write a book myself, or maybe lecture."

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