Secularists can lay claim to precious few recent cultural victories. In today's Reformation America it seems like eons, not decades, since the 1966 Time Magazine cover which posed the question, "Is God Dead?"
The theocrats are organizing and advancing. Secularists are in cultural retreat. Our president looks to Jesus as his "favorite philosopher." Our federal courts are dominated by religious conservatives who inject their own version of God's moral code into every aspect of public life and watch, smiling, while dismantling, brick by brick, the ersatz wall between church and state. Our Congress gleefully intervenes in morality cases, siding with right-to-lifers and citing Scripture.
There is, however, one major cultural phenomenon that sustains secularists. The heady success of Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" has pious persons palpitating. There are 36 million copies of the fictitious work in print, lifting it toward becoming of one of the best-selling novels of all time. Hollywood, never far off the scent of a mega-seller, has the movie version in production this summer in that heinous den of secularism, Europe.
Palpitating proselytizers are not sitting idly by. The New York Times reports, "[Sony] Studio officials have consulted with Catholic and other Christian specialists on how they might alter the plot of the novel to avoid offending the devout. In doing so, the studio has been asked to consider such measures as making the novel's central premise -- that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene -- more ambiguous, and removing the name of Opus Dei."
In case you missed Dan Brown's delightful romp through church history, real and imagined, Opus Dei was depicted as a Catholic sect rife with murderous, self-flagellating monks. The real-life membership of Opus Dei doth protest, claiming prelature, not sect, status and taking offense at the novel's portrayal of its followers as murderers, torturers and practitioners of blood-drawing corporal mortification.
Why is it that studio officials feel it necessary to consult with church censors so as to avoid "offending the devout." No one ever worries about offending the secular. Can you imagine Mel Gibson consulting with Buddhists, wiccans, secularists or even Jews while making his Passion film? The "devout" Anti-Defamation League sought an audience with Gibson and he declined.
After viewing a screening set up by pastors (not Gibson), the ADL reported, "We were saddened and pained to find that 'The Passion of the Christ' continues its unambiguous portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus. At every single opportunity, Mr. Gibson's film reinforces the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are the ones ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion. Yet Gibson trampled over these concerns and went on to release an international hit which netted him a reported $700 million.
Sony's precaution seems particularly out of place when filming a movie based on a novel that generated such a large, loyal following precisely because it took on the church. Church officials have been ballyhooing about the book's transgressions and Brown's publisher, like Gibson, has, in turn, laughed all the way to the investment house.
Before genuflecting to church authorities, Sony should consider the following: Some 40 percent of Americans tell pollsters they attend church regularly. But even at that claimed level (which is disputed by scholars) church attendance is dwindling. Parishes are shrinking and secularism is growing, particularly since the long-hidden priest pedophilia scandal was outed. Theocrats wield greater political power and influence than at any time in recent U.S. history. But the American public is yawning at church authority. Hence, the success of the "Da Vinci Code."
If studio executives tamper with and tamp down the novel's controversial plot to placate "the devout," they also destroy the story's draw to the tens of millions who have embraced it. We all know Hollywood's true god is money. My guess is, studio fat cats would sooner offend followers of any other form of religious currency than risk forsaking even a fraction of their almighty dollar.
X Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.