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Published: Saturday, 5/6/2006

Groups set to decode Da Vinci film

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Sister Judy Zielinski, a Sister of St. Francis and former Toledoan, stands with the team that helped create  Jesus Decoded,  which will be broadcast on NBC beginning May 21.
Sister Judy Zielinski, a Sister of St. Francis and former Toledoan, stands with the team that helped create Jesus Decoded, which will be broadcast on NBC beginning May 21.
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Pastors, historians, theologians, authors, filmmakers, and leaders of various religious groups are bracing for DVC Day as in May 19, the day The Da Vinci Code opens in theaters worldwide.

It s an unlikely battle brewing, one in which scholars and experts are dusting off their history books to fight off the conspiracy and cover-up theories that transformed author Dan Brown s novel into a cultural phenomenon.

More than 45 million copies of the novel have been sold and Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks plays the lead role in the movie directed by Ron Howard.

Clearly, Mr. Brown has captured the public s fascination with the tautly paced tale of intrigue and murder that brings religion, politics, art, and history into the mix. Central to the novel is the premise that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, and that their marriage was covered up through the centuries by a small group of influential conspirators that included Leonardo Da Vinci.

Sister Judy Zielinski, a Sister of St. Francis and former Toledoan, is among those hoping to help audiences separate truth from fantasy. She led an effort to create a documentary debunking some aspects of the book and film.

Unlike Archbishop Angelo Amato, a high-ranking Vatican official who last week urged Catholics to boycott The Da Vinci Code, Sister Judy believes informed moviegoers will recognize when the plot diverges from historical accuracy.

If one puts both the film and the book in the perspective of being fiction, I don t think they can do damage to themselves, Sister Judy said. I think it s just a matter of realizing one s faith would not be challenged by something as flimsy as this novel or movie.

Another Roman Catholic teacher who is working to educate audiences is Geoffrey Grubb, dean of the college of arts and sciences at Lourdes College in Sylvania. He will lead a Theology on Tap session for the Toledo diocese titled Uncoding Da Vinci at 6 p.m. May 18 at the Ground Round Bar and Grill in Maumee.

The thing people constantly ask is, What s the history here? What really happened? Mr. Grubb said. And yes, there is history in The Da Vinci Code: There is a museum in Paris called the Louvre.

Other than that simple fact, fantasy far outweighs reality in Mr. Brown s writings, Mr. Grubb said in an interview.

Sister Judy, a native of Detroit who lived and taught in Toledo from 1976 to 1982, helped write and produce the documentary Jesus Decoded, which will be broadcast on NBC stations around the country beginning May 21.

The hourlong documentary was funded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the filming took Sister Judy and her crew to Israel, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and several U.S. locations.

Much of Mr. Brown s story involves the Catholic Church, implicating the Vatican in the cover-up and writing about henchmen belonging to Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group with 87,000 members worldwide.

While other programs and books have taken on The Da Vinci Code, Sister Judy said she felt there was a need for a response that is specifically Roman Catholic. The U.S. bishops timed the documentary to be released two days after the Hollywood film s premiere.

There have been tons of documentaries on the History Channel, the Discover Channel, National Geographic, and other channels, but they take a smattering of scholars, priests, historians, and Protestant theologians, and everybody kind of gives an opinion, Sister Judy said. What bothered the bishops and a lot of Catholics is that there had not been an all-Catholic show answering some of the questions raised by the book.

She found there was a lot of congruence between the Catholic response and the Protestant response, mostly because Christianity had not divided into separate branches during the first few centuries after Christ when much of the conspiracies allegedly began in The Da Vinci Code.

Sister Judy, who taught at Cardinal Stritch High School and Catholic grade schools in Toledo and Rossford, is director of faith and values programming for NewGroup Media, based in South Bend, Ind.

She has a master s degree in communication arts and spent seven years working for a Catholic production company in Los Angeles.

A one-hour documentary would not be able to address all the religious and historical questions raised by The Da Vinci Code, Sister Judy said, so in her proposal to the bishops, she narrowed the film s focus.

I made a clear, conscious decision to deal with basic foundational theological issues, roughly from the first three centuries, she said.

For example, our program does not address anything about Opus Dei. It s a big theme in the book but we don t go there. And we don t do anything with Arthurian legends or the Merovingian royal bloodline in France. There s another whole path we could have gone down with that, but we knew there wouldn t be time or budget to do that.

NewGroup Media decided to focus Jesus Decoded on four main areas:

wDa Vinci s painting of The Last Supper. Mr. Brown alleges that the disciple to Jesus right looks feminine because he symbolizes Mary Magdalene.

wThe relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. She s a disciple, not a wife, Sister Judy said. We looked at who Mary was, how did she get money to support Jesus, what was the town of Magdala like, all those kinds of things.

wThe person of Jesus. Was he celibate? The novel says 1st century Jews were not celibate, but we debunk that, she said.

wThe Development of the New Testament. The novel claims there were gospels and various books suppressed by the church leadership that should have been in the Bible. Again, that s a matter of getting historical dates and facts straight, Sister Judy said.

Jesus Decoded will be available for broadcast by NBC affiliates on May 21 but Sister Judy said as of this week, many have not decided when or whether to broadcast the documentary.

Mr. Grubb of Lourdes College said the verso page in The Da Vinci Code states that it is a work of fiction, and includes the standard disclaimer that names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and the incidents either are the product of the author s imagination or are used fictitiously.

A few pages later in the novel, a headline Fact is followed by the statement that all descriptions of artworks, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

Readers should realize that the fiction disclaimer supersedes the Fact headline, Mr. Grubb said.

Everything in this book is fiction, even the part called fact, Mr. Grubb said.

I don t find the book to be evil, even though there is sort of an anti-Catholic cast to it. It s a fun read and exciting. But a lot of people I run into have been confused.

He said Mr. Brown s writing has the implication that the author is saying, I know the truth, and now you know the truth.

Readers don t want to look stupid so they go along with him, Mr. Grubb said.

Meanwhile, art and religious history scholars are screaming in unison that The Da Vinci Code is a fabrication.

As for the book s attacks on the Catholic Church, I think we re the easiest target, Mr. Grubb said. To be Catholic is to hang onto all of this history of the eastern and western churches from the earliest moments until today. There s such a treasure trove there and if you re of the Oliver Stone conspiracy mindset, there s plenty of material.

Many churches and religious groups are looking to take advantage of the popularity of The Da Vinci Code and be proactive in sharing their faith, rather than defensively attacking the conspiracy theories.

It is a teachable moment, Mr. Grubb said. On the other hand, people who don t like organized religion and who don t like the Catholic Church in particular are going to say, See? There probably isn t anything that can be done about that.

Information on Jesus Decoded is available online at www.jesusdecoded.com. Geoffrey Grubb will speak on Uncoding Da Vinci at 6 p.m May 18 at the Ground Round Grill and Bar, 551 Dussel Dr., Maumee, as part of the Toledo Catholic Diocese s Theology on Tap series. Information: 419-244-6711 ext. 605.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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