- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

It’s too late now for serious-minded Catholics to discredit “The Da Vinci Code” because the movie’s based on a trashy genre novel.

Or because Tom Hanks’ hair looks ridiculous.

“You might as well tell people not to watch TV,” laments James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “My Life With the Saints.” He calls the novel the “theological equivalent of junk food.”

The Catholic apologist blogger Mark Shea is asked if the book and movie can be enjoyed at arm’s length, purely as entertainment. “I say I just want to go see ‘Birth of a Nation’ and learn about the glories of the Ku Klux Klan,” he retorts, “and the dangers of giving the black man too much power. If you want to entertain something that will kill your brain cells and makes you stupider than you were before, then fine.”

Dan Brown’s semiliterary juggernaut, which has sold 40 million copies worldwide, has already spawned a veritable counterpublishing industry, with both Catholic and Protestant authors publishing tracts that seek to debunk the novel’s sensational claims about early church history, including the scenario that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who bore him a child.

And now, unless the public is scared off by the movie’s ominously negative advance reviews, the Ron Howard-directed adaptation is poised to become the summer’s first major blockbuster.

The risk all along in organizing resistance to the “Code” phenomenon was that it would backfire, heightening the forbidden-fruit appeal of the book. Yet enough conservative Christians felt Mr. Brown’s claims — not least his prologue contending that the novel is based on fact — were so insidious that they demanded a head-on confrontation. Seemingly widespread public gullibility raised the stakes further.

Ordinary Christians’ scant familiarity with church history, combined with a post-sex-scandal susceptibility to doubt the candor of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Mr. Martin says, made “The Da Vinci Code” an easy sell.

“It fits into people’s idea of things,” he says. “They like conspiracy theories. And the idea that the church would be covering up something is not hard to swallow these days.”

It’s clear a “Last Temptation of Christ”-style boycott would be, at this point, ineffectual at best — unpaid advertising for the film at worst. As a commenter on University of California, Los Angeles law professor Stephen Bainbridge’s blog quipped, “Every condemnation from a bishop probably sells another 1,000 copies; from a cardinal, 2,000; and from the Pope, 5,000.”

Barbara Nicolosi, a Catholic screenwriter living in Los Angeles, thinks she may have stumbled on the ever-elusive third way. It’s neither a boycott nor a capitulation. She’s calling it an “other-cott,” that is, a campaign to discourage Christians from seeing “The Da Vinci Code” but not to skip the multiplex altogether. The other-cott calls on participants to see instead the animated movie “Over the Hedge,” which also opens today.

The other-cott, which Miss Nicolosi says has supporters in Spain, Chile, Italy, France and Australia, in addition to the U.S., endorses an alternative movie as a way of more or less precisely demonstrating Christian market strength.

“The idea is to give people of faith something to do besides gnashing of teeth,” Miss Nicolosi says. “We’ve learned since ‘The Passion of the Christ’ that when we get together we have enormous power. Christians came out in force and made it the most successful indie film of all time. We want to use that power again because Hollywood is very aware of it. They still refer to it as ‘Passion dollars.’”

Mr. Shea concurs. “Hollywood pays attention to the bottom line, and if the take for ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is disappointing, Hollywood will take note of that,” he says.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t go around kicking a large portion of your audience in the groin,” adds Mr. Shea, who co-authored with theology professor Edward Sri “The Da Vinci Deception: 100 Questions about the Fact and Fiction of ‘The Da Vinci Code.’”

The central premise underlying the “Da Vinci Code” other-cott is that the culture wars can’t be won by condemnation alone; tradition-minded folks must engage Hollywood and other outposts of the artistic elite and, ideally, learn how to compete.

And to create: Miss Nicolosi founded Act One Inc., which holds an annual scriptwriting workshop in Los Angeles. Teach enough orthodox Christians about the craft of moviemaking, the thinking goes, and watch a thousand “Passions” bloom. Hollywood is no monolith; it is a patchwork of corporate entities that compete vigorously for consumers — Christians emphatically included.

Right now, though, Miss Nicolosi and her fellow Catholics have a blasphemous blockbuster to deal with. She says she’ll be happy if she merely succeeds in proving that the other-cott is a viable concept.

Claiming that box-office expectations for “Over the Hedge” this weekend are modest — no more than $10 million — Miss Nicolosi says, “If we can get that to 15 or 20 million, then we will have made a huge statement.”

The movie’s creator, DreamWorks Animation, declined to comment for this story, but according to a Reuters news agency story, the studio has a lot riding on “Hedge,” which it sees as its major summer release.

Of course, Miss Nicolosi is downplaying “Hedge’s” prospective grosses so that come Monday morning, she can claim credit on behalf of the faithful for the “surprise” hit’s big opening.

Evidently, people of faith are, indeed, learning to do more than “gnash their teeth.”

They’re learning to play the game.

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