Area churches are preparing to counter unorthodox claims about Jesus Christ in the movie "The Da Vinci Code," which opens in theaters later this month.
"'The Da Vinci Code' kind of gave a focus that there's a lot [of misinformation] about Jesus Christ and Christianity out there, and perhaps it's time to rebut it," said Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, a spokesman for the District-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "If people see [the movie], they should go prepared."
Dan Brown wrote the best-selling novel, "The Da Vinci Code," published in 2003. Its film adaptation, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, will premiere in theaters May 19.
The fast-paced, fictional novel reads like a giant Christian conspiracy theory, with a plot built on claims that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that they had a daughter named Sarah and that their bloodline still exists.
The book also states early Christians never claimed Christ was divine and that the Catholic Church has covered up such information. Though the book is a work of fiction, those statements and Mr. Brown's claim in the prologue that certain details in the book are authentic have alarmed area clergy.
"It poses certain questions to Orthodox Christian believers that the church needs to address," said John Yates, rector of Falls Church Episcopal, where sermons on "The Da Vinci Code" will be featured May 21 and 28. "My hope would be that it would cause people to want to go back to the New Testament and read about Jesus more carefully than they ever have before."
The book and upcoming film have triggered a far different response from organized religion than that created by the 2004 release of "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's version of Christ's crucifixion, which prompted some churches to rent out theaters and hold special screenings of the R-rated film.
This time, churches are educating their members about how to respond to the story, but there is little encouragement to go see the movie.
"I suppose people are free to go, but [understand] you are giving money to those who are attacking the church," said the Rev. William Stetson, director of the Catholic Information Center in Northwest and a member of Opus Dei, the Catholic institution that Mr. Brown casts as a main villain in the novel.
Web sites hosted by the Catholic bishops group and Campus Crusade are dedicated to addressing aspects of Mr. Brown's book, including questions regarding Renaissance art, biblical texts and the origins of the Holy Grail.
At the 8,500-member evangelical McLean Bible Church in Fairfax County, pastors Lon Solomon and Todd Phillips will seek to debunk "The Da Vinci Code" in their respective morning and evening services, beginning May 21.
The church also has purchased thousands of "The Da Vinci Code" companion guides from Campus Crusade to give to its congregation.
"The church has to stand up for the facts of the Bible and the truth of Jesus and his divinity," said Dave Ramos, director of adult ministries at McLean. "We felt a need to set the record straight."
Other area churches are taking similar approaches. Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg brought in Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, today for a sermon titled "The Bible, the Da Vinci Code and the Christian."
Charismatic congregation Metro MorningStar is hosting Adam Claasen, visiting lecturer at Georgetown University, starting May 21 for a three-week series on "The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction?"
Concerns about the book and film have even arisen in schools. The Rev. Terry Specht, a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, recently told about 70 students in a special chapel session at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax that the book's descriptions of church history and artwork are grossly inaccurate.
"The danger is so many Christians are so ill-informed in Scriptures and history that they take what is said without any consequences," said Father Specht, who earned a master's degree in church history. "I see it as an opportunity. It's not a bad thing to have these things talked about."