East Wing – Part 2, A Different Way to Discuss The Da Vinci Code

Michael Metzger

The Da Vinci Code.
For the uninitiated, The Da Vinci Code is a novel by Dan Brown that has been on top of best-seller lists since early summer of 2005.  In Brown’s novel, the “Da Vinci code” refers to cryptic messages supposedly incorporated by Leonardo Da Vinci into his artwork. According to the novel, Leonardo was a member of an ancient secret society dedicated to preserving the “fact” that Jesus designated Mary Magdalene as his successor since she was married to Jesus and had his children.  The Holy Grail of legend is really Mary Magdalene.  Brown’s an excellent writer.  Let’s give him credit — he knows how to fill the reader’s imagination.  But we also need to recognize this horse has left the barn.  Like Arab youth (see 4/14 Commentary), most readers already have their imaginations formed.  This is why we need an East Wing Strategy that reframes the conversation.

Starting over.
Albert Einstein said we could never solve a problem in the framework in which it was created.1  Critiquing the factual errors in The Da Vinci Code has limited value.  Instead, we ought to introduce new metaphors for the arts and faith that make sense inside of our friends’ assumptions.  Dr. Peter L. Berger believes that people only say “yes!” to any idea “insofar as it connects with the rest of my experience of reality.”2  This is how the East Wing Strategy works in the short-run: recast the metaphors.3  We ought to reframe the conversation by suggesting the arts are sneaky, upstream, and make truth coherent.4

Sneaking up.
The arts help us “steal past those watchful dragons” who are ever vigilant against the intrusion of religion Monday through Friday.5  Educators have long understood this phenomenon, describing it as “incidental learning.”6  For example, most kids go to movies or rent videos to be entertained.  The directors and producers who make the films may not intend to teach moral lessons any more than Arab youths intend to come out after watching Baywatch imagining Americans as evil people.  But, while being entertained, their moral imagination and assumptions are being shaped.  This is why St. Augustine said the soul delights in particular what it learns indirectly.

There’s an old saying that you attract more bees with honey than vinegar.  Dan Brown could have written a screed against the Catholic Church.  Give him credit — he didn’t.  Instead, Brown penned a riveting novel that captures our imagination while lowering defenses; which is exactly what C.S. Lewis set out to accomplish in his fictional works. By presenting truth “in an imaginative world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations,” people can see facts “for the first time…in their potency,” wrote Lewis.  If we’re going to connect with our friends, we need to suggest that the arts are sneaky.  Dan Brown snuck his book past many readers, passing it off as factual history.  But this should remind us that a West Wing frontal assault on Da Vinci’s factual errors will turn off most people.

The arts are upstream.
C.S. Lewis was known as “The Apostle to the Skeptics.”7 He believed reason and imagination have distinct roles: reason has to do with theoretical truths and facts; imagination has to do with the very conditions of truth.  Imagination prepares the mind to receive facts as meaningful.  As Lewis saw it, imagination informs reason — because imagination shapes the meaning we assign to facts.  If Lewis was right, the arts are upstream.8 Artists get there first.  Put another way, the arts, which provide meaning, trump facts.  Facts do not speak for themselves; they are filtered through our experiences, forming our imagination.  But Lewis was not saying (as is the case with many romantics) that the arts are sovereign.  Imagination did not supersede reason as the organ of truth; rather it preceded reason as a condition for truth:

It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth.  We are not talking of truth, but of meaning.  For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.  Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.9

Forty years ago, if anyone were asked to describe a homosexual man, we would have most likely heard disgusting, effeminate, or distasteful.  That’s how most people imagined homosexuality; shaped by media and the arts.  And four decades ago, if we went to church and listened to a sermon describing homosexuality as a sin, that description would “fit” with our imagination.

Now fast-forward to the twenty-first century.  If anyone were asked to describe a homosexual man today, likely descriptors would be humorous, caring, or sharp.  Now go back to that church and listen to the same message we heard forty years before.  Because biblical truth doesn’t change, homosexuality is still sin.  But for most listeners, the idea that sharp, caring, and humorous people are an abomination to God is incoherent.  The biblical truth is much more difficult to swallow because the arts beat the preacher to the punch. The arts are upstream.

C.S. Lewis believed “the imaginative man in him was more basic than any other aspect.”10 Samuel Johnson shared the same view, describing poetry for example as “the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.”11 Because the arts are upstream, they both reflect and advance a society’s hopes and dreams, its attitudes and patterns of thought, and its understanding of what human life is and ought to be.  If we’re going to connect with our friends, we need to be upstream.  Give Dan Brown credit — he beat us upstream.  We ought to go even further up to influence our friends!

1 This is part of a fascinating interview with Justin Foo, a strategist and manager with Neurostrategies Group, a part of BrightHouse (a hybrid creativity/strategy consultancy) in Atlanta. “Fast Talk: Voices from the Creative Front Lines.” ( Fast Company, October 2005), p.29.
2 Peter L. Berger, Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity, (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), p.13
3 Robert Hefner writes that “cultural institutions that lay claim to ultimate meanings (and, whether or not all religions do this, these ones [Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam] do) face a dilemma: how to maintain a coherent world-view and steadied social engagement while acknowledging the pluralism of the modern world.” Multiple Modernities: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in a Globalizing Age. p.98
4 The Clapham Institute understands “coherent” to mean an idea or institution is logically or aesthetically consistent and holds together as a harmonious or credible whole.
5 C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, p.37
6 A. Rogers, “Learning: Can We Change the Discourse?” Adults Learning 8, no. 5 (January 1997): 116-117. McGuffey’s famous readers, widely-used in 19th century US schools to teach reading, used stories that contained important morality tales – and another opportunity for incidental learning. For an example, see Phil Burgess, “Schools fall short on values, virtues,” Rocky Mountain News, March 10, 1998.
7 Chad Walsh, C.S. Lewis, Apostle to the Skeptics (Norwood, 1974)
8 On this point, see Bill Wichterman, “The Culture: Upstream from Politics,” in Don Eberly (ed.), Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
9 C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, Selected Literary Essays, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 265
10 “C.S. Lewis, the Sneaky Pagan,” interview of Colin Duriez by Rob Moll, Christianity Today, June 28, 2004.
11 John Milton, Lives of the Poets


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