Da Vinci Code: Why Now?
Why is The Da Vinci Code so popular? I had the misfortune of first experiencing it as a book on tape, which renders it ridiculous, perhaps because Dan Brown's adjective-laden descriptive prose doesn't hold up to being spoken out loud.
More interesting than the story, I think, is the book itself as a phenomenon. Sloppily written suspense tales based on the Magdelene mystery have been written before; why does this premise strike a chord at this moment in history?
There are a number of strands of cultural change going on right now in the US, that The Da Vinci Code pulls together. The most visible is the worldwide surge in religious involvement--among Evangelical denominations particularly. This trend may not need exposition, but in brief it is seen in the expansion of megachurches and the growing importance of fundamentalist Christian voters as a bloc.
A related phenomenon is the way in which decline of the ascendence of the secular humanist worldview has occurred, namely, disenfranchisement of a generation of young adults with a radically pluralistic morality. I think it was Napoleon who once said that to understand a man, you have to know what was going on in the world when he was 20 years old. The generation shaped by September 11, 2001 will be much more confident passing moral judgements based in absolute principles than the generation forged in the moral disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate and reacting against McCarthyism and totalitarianism. No system of morality that leaves a hint of room permitting Islamism is tolerable. Rooting absolute principles requires a source of authority--today religion seems preferred over political ideologies.
This is not to say that secular institutions are losing significant power or influence, but that secular sources of knowledge have lost some of the authority that they had. In the 1960s, it was reasonable to think that rational application of human organizations could eliminate poverty and cancer in a generation; today such notions seem hoplessly naive.
The third trend is a crisis of feminism. So-called "Liberal Feminism"--the brand of feminism focused on attaining equal political and economic rights for women--has achieved a large swath of its goals in the 20th century, but as Cathi Hanauer has shown, the project of "liberal feminism" has proven more complex than initially envisioned. Using Kegan's terms, we might say that post-feminist America has developed the holding environment to help women achieve the Institutional Self, but not to support them once they've gotten there. Men and women need to try to make meaning of its unfinished work within their own families and relationships, but they are reluctant to reject its ideals of equal pay for equal work and opposition to sex discrimination, and rightly so. As they re-negotiate roles and identities, they identify with dominant cultural metaphors, simultaneously taking mythical figures as role models and projecting themselves onto them. The figure of Mary Magdalene admits of so many powerful interpretations--forgiven woman sinner, strong woman companion misunderstood as harlot, early church mother--that she is a good choice for such meaning-making.
The Da Vinci Code had the second highest box-office opening ever despite aweful reviews. It may be a coincidence that a movie about the supression of the truth that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife and a chuch leader is wildly popular at a moment that religous discourse is ascending, secular discourse is losing authority, and feminism's project is leaving women wrestling with questions of family, workplace, identity and priorities. But I doubt it.