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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 21, 2006

COMMENTARY
'Code' is fiction, not a religious gospel

By Paul K. Harral

Simon of Cyrene (Jarreth Merz) helps Jesus (Jim Caviezel) carry his cross in Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion of the Christ." The movie, though powerful, did not lead to religious conversions.

Newmarket Films

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Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou star in "The Da Vinci Code," based on the Dan Brown novel that has triggered protest and fueled tourism.

Columbia Pictures

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A few years ago, my wife and I had a short, unplanned layover in Paris. She had been there before. I had not and wanted to make the most of the roughly 20 hours we had.

We were very efficient. We rode the train from the airport to a hotel, laid our hands on the Eiffel Tower, visited the Arc de Triomphe, walked along the Champs Elysees, had dinner in a real French restaurant, dropped by Notre Dame and walked along the Seine.

It was mostly drive-by tourism.

But we were determined to see and be photographed at the pyramid outside the Musee du Louvre. We had just read "The Da Vinci Code," and that structure figures prominently in the book.

The book is fiction not a modern gospel; not even good history. But from the way some of my fellow Christians are reacting, you'd think author Dan Brown is Satan incarnate, and that "The Da Vinci Code" will lead both believers and unbelievers astray, turn them to apostasy and condemn them to everlasting fire.

Consider two recent news releases reaching my desk:

One group plans 1,000 prayer vigils outside theaters nationwide when the movie opens. And Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, has granted an imprimatur declaring a literary work free of errors in Roman Catholic doctrine to the book "The Da Vinci Deception: 100 Questions and Answers About the Facts and Fiction of 'The Da Vinci Code.' "

I do understand the concern, having been greatly influenced by the silver screen. I can't count the hours spent awaiting contact by aliens after seeing "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." And that "Raiders of the Lost Ark" thing? Always wondered what had happened to the Ark of the Covenant. Didn't know Nazis were involved. Thanks to Harrison Ford, now I know.

Consider the immediate impact that "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's study of the last hours of Jesus' life, had on believers and unbelievers.

The Barna Group, a California research firm that describes itself as aiming "to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States," studied that question in a survey.

The study surveyed 1,618 randomly selected adults about the movie's impact. Of that number, 646 had seen "The Passion." Barna says this means that projections have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

"Overall, one out of every 10 viewers of 'The Passion' (10 percent) indicated that they had changed some aspect of both their religious beliefs and practices in response to the movie," the Barna report said.

But how did the movie do as an evangelistic tool? According to the report, "less than one-tenth of 1 percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film's content."

"Equally surprising was the lack of impact on people's determination to engage in evangelism," the report said. "Less than one-half of 1 percent of the audience said they were motivated to be more active in sharing their faith in Christ with others as a result of having seen the movie."

George Barna, who directed the project, is quoted in the report as noting that change comes from repeated media exposure not a one-time viewing.

"The Passion" was well-received and stopped many people long enough to cause them to rethink some of their basic assumptions about life, he said. "But within hours, those same individuals were exposed to competing messages that began to diminish the effect of what they had seen in Gibson's movie. That does not negate the power of the movie or the value of the message it sent, but it does remind us that a single effort that is not adequately reinforced is not likely to make a lasting impression."

Frankly, having seen "The Passion" and having read the book on which it is based, and having read "The Da Vinci Code," basis of the Tom Hanks movie, I'll just note that "Da Vinci" is no New Testament.

My church has reserved an auditorium for a special viewing of "The Da Vinci Code," and the pastor will lead a discussion afterward exactly as we did after "The Passion" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

It's a teachable moment and an opportunity to witness.

Hanks noted just that in an interview with "Entertainment Weekly"

"I think the movie may end up helping churches do their job," he said. "You know, if they put up a sign saying: This Wednesday we're discussing the gospel, 12 people show up. But if the sign says: This Wednesday we're discussing 'The Da Vinci Code,' 800 people show up."

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures must be loving it. Money can't buy the kind of publicity that the Christian community is generating.

Me, I expect to enjoy it. I've enjoyed every Tom Hanks movie I've ever seen.

There's this great line in "Volunteers" delivered by Hanks' character, Lawrence Bourne III: "It's not that I can't help these people. It's just I don't want to."

Maybe I'll get at least one good line from "The Da Vinci Code." But that's all I'm expecting.

If a powerful movie such as "The Passion of the Christ" doesn't lead to conversions, there's no reason to expect the opposite from "The Da Vinci Code."

Remember, it is fiction.

Scripture is not.

Paul K. Harral is vice president and editorial-page editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.