- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

NEW YORK - Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is a million-selling historical thriller that has angered Catholics by attacking the clergy and implying that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is a brutal box-office hit that has angered some Jewish and Christian leaders, who claim that the movie could encourage anti-Semitism.

As theology, they are far, far apart. As phenomena, however, the book and movie have had a common effect, driving sales for a wave of Christian-themed books, some of them highly controversial.

Thanks to Mr. Gibson’s film, which features a graphically violent portrayal of the Crucifixion and the hours leading up to it, religious publishers such as Tyndale, Tan Books and Crossway have seen enormous jumps in sales. Tyndale reports that a 150,000-copy first printing of the film’s companion book, titled “The Passion,” sold out so quickly that some stores may have to wait up to two weeks before an additional printing of 250,000 fully arrives.

“It’s a bit of a sore spot for us,” says Dan Balow, executive director of international services for Tyndale, based in Carol Stream, Ill. “Most stores were somewhat skeptical about the book, especially since it’s a big coffee-table edition. And now many of them don’t have copies.”

Mr. Gibson has cited “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” a 19th-century memoir that describes Jewish mobs as “cruel” and “hardhearted,” as a source for his movie. Sales have jumped from fewer than 3,000 for all of 2002 to 17,000 just last month, according to Tan Books, a publisher based in Rockville, Ill.

A book unrelated to Mr. Gibson’s film, “The Passion of Jesus Christ,” by Baptist minister John Piper, came out in January.

Published by Crossway Books with a first printing of 175,000, it has 1.6 million copies in print.

“We’ve sold a number through stores, but a lot of them are going through John Piper’s ministry,” says publicist Kathy Jacobs of Crossway, based in St. Paul, Minn. “So many churches are getting involved. The book isn’t about the movie, but it answers a lot of questions the movie might raise.”

Meanwhile, “The Da Vinci Code” has more than 6 million copies in print since being published a year ago and has created a mini-industry of best sellers, even as some Catholic retailers decline to stock it. Mr. Brown’s novel speculates that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, for which no documentary evidence exists, and depicts the Catholic clergy as a pack of sinister liars.

“Blasphemy is delivered in a soft voice with a knowing chuckle,” free-lance writer Sandra Miesel observed last September in Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine.

Mr. Brown’s “Angels and Demons,” a religious thriller published in 2000, has 4 million copies in print and is selling 100,000 copies a week. “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” a nonfiction work first published in 1982 and an acknowledged inspiration for “The Da Vinci Code,” has more than 750,000 copies in print. Co-authored by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, “Holy Blood” has spent four months on the New YorkTimes’ list of nonfiction paperback best sellers even as many have disputed its findings.

Mr. Gibson’s movie was based on an old-fashioned but distinctive reading of the Gospels — so distinctive, critics say, that “The Passion” could revive the notion that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death. Mr. Brown, in contrast, has been criticized for being too liberal-minded, favoring the ancient world’s rival secret-knowledge (Gnostic) sects and depicting centuries-old folk tales as fact.

One of Mr. Brown’s sources, Elaine Pagels’ “The Gnostic Gospels,” sold more than 100,000 copies in 2003, seven times more than the year before. Sales also have gone up for other books by Mrs. Pagels, a popular scholar of Gnosticism, including “The Origin of Satan” and “Adam, Eve and the Serpent.”

Books about Mary Magdalene are selling well, too. Inner Traditions, a spiritual publisher based in Rochester, Vt., reports great interest in “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” a fragmentary text rejected by church fathers, and Margaret Starbird’s “The Woman With the Alabaster Jar,” which argues that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were indeed married.

“Both ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘The Passion’ have gotten people more interested in Mary Magdalene,” says Rob Meadows, Inner Traditions’ vice president of sales and marketing.

“But we have almost no sales through Christian stores. They don’t buy our stuff. It’s too offbeat.

“Some find it too heretical and won’t even touch it.”

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