From Secrets of the Code Reviews the Critiques,
Finds "Secrets of the Code" To Be the Best

The owner of a Catholic bookstore sounded fairly desperate in an emailed message regarding the impact of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: "We are getting bombarded daily by people who are buying into the garbage in this book…We even had an elderly aunt talking about Opus Dei tonight and yelling at us that the book is true or it couldn't be printed." Anyone who thinks the current spate of Da Vinci-related books is overkill need only read that comment and others like it from Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel's book (see below) to appreciate the need for responses to Brown. The bookseller's email summed up the problem with Brown's book: People believe his conclusions about the church and Christianity, and they're hopping mad about it. They feel they've been duped, and they're holding the church accountable for the deception.

At last count, there were 15 books responding to THE DA VINCI CODE (hereafter referred to as DVC) either on the market or in the works. I've been reviewing books for 30 years, and I cannot recall any book --- certainly not any novel --- prompting such a torrent of responses. With so many so-called Da Vinci debunkers on the market, decided it was time to provide an overview of some that have released so you could better determine which ones might appeal to you.

Following are brief reviews of 11 Da Vinci-related titles --- and my choice of the best book to start with. Because most cover the same general territory, I focused on the varying perspectives of the authors, differences in the structure of the books, and significant distinctions in content where applicable. They're arranged alphabetically by title (with the exception of my "best pick").

BREAKING THE DA VINCI CODE: Answers to the Questions Everyone's Asking by Darrell L. Bock (Thomas Nelson). Bock, a New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, divides his material into eight chapters, each addressing a different "code," such as who Mary Magdalene really was, if Jesus was married, the relevance of Gnostic writings, and how the New Testament was assembled. In each chapter, he "breaks" the code as presented in DVC by dismantling Brown's research and thus his conclusions. He writes that his purpose is to "bring to the surface the code underneath and behind" the DVC: revisionist history designed to discredit the very foundations of orthodox Christian belief. The book ends with "Code 8: The Real Jesus Code." (188 pp., including a bibliography and glossary)

CRACKING DA VINCI'S CODE: You've Read the Fiction, Now Read the Facts by James L. Garlow and Peter Jones (Victor/Cook). Garlow is pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego; Jones is a New Testament professor at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, Calif. Arranged topically --- the sacred feminine, revisionist history, the canon of scripture and the like --- this book shows how the different elements of DVC create fractures in what the authors called the "divine arc." In fact, each chapter opens with an illustration of the increasingly fractured divine arc resting atop a circle. I have no idea what the divine arc is supposed to represent (well, other than the obvious, something having to do with God). Or the circle, for that matter. Maybe it's some kind of CRACKING DA VINCI'S CODE code, but whatever it is, I didn't get it. Another thing --- most chapters open with a vignette from the life of a college student named Carrie who buys into DVC thinking until she is exposed to the truth that Brown has ignored. I found I enjoyed the book a whole lot more by skipping the Carrie stuff. [Note to Boomers and other people of great wisdom: Jones was a boyhood friend of John Lennon. Not that I think that should influence you in any way whatsoever. Honest.] (252 pp., including a readers' guide and foldout of The Last Supper)

THE DA VINCI CODE: FACT OR FICTION? A Critique of the Novel by Dan Brown, by Hank Hanegraaff and Paul Maier (Tyndale). A slim volume that packs a lot of intriguing material into a few pages. Hanegraaff, radio's "Bible Answer Man," and Maier, an ancient history professor at Western Michigan University, are among the few DVC debunkers who rightly take Doubleday to task for publishing a book containing the shoddy research that Brown takes such pride in. Given all the errors, Maier writes, it "makes one wonder whether Brown's manuscript ever underwent editorial scrutiny or fact-checking" --- adding in the Afterword, "were this book an automobile or appliance, the manufacturer would doubtless be forced to issue a full recall." Regardless of whether you agree with Brown's conclusions, it's clear that his history is largely fanciful, which means he and his publisher have violated a long-held if unspoken agreement with the reader: Fiction that purports to present historical facts should be researched as carefully as a nonfiction book would be. (82 pp., including a bibliography)

THE DA VINCI DECEPTION: Credible Answers to the Questions Millions Are Asking about Jesus, the Bible, and The Da Vinci Code by Erwin W. Lutzer (Tyndale). Lutzer, a theologian and pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, restricts his focus to the "scurrilous remarks made against Jesus and the Bible" in DVC. Theology is his field, and he provides page after page of insight into DVC errors from that perspective. Regarding the whole Priory of Sion–Opus Dei story line, he writes: "As history, it is a house of cards that can be toppled by the slightest breath of truth." I'm with Lutzer on this suggestion: Let's call Brown's bluff and challenge him to produce some solid evidence for his conclusions, as well as the thousands of documents that he claims disprove Christianity. (122 pp.)

DA VINCI DECODED: The Truth Behind the New York Times #1 Bestseller by Martin Lunn (The Disinformation Company). Lunn is a "recognized expert in the Davidic bloodline" --- or so his book states. I Googled him to try to find out more, but all I learned was that he wrote this book. It seems that he relied on the same sources Brown did but reached a few conclusions that differ from his. Lunn certainly appears to be thorough --- he even examines details about Paris, London, and Rosslyn Chapel that appear in DVC --- but frankly, I have no clue how trustworthy he is, in part because I had a hard time keeping my eyes open through this one. It reads just like all those textbooks I tried to avoid in college. As to the trustworthiness of the researcher and thus the research --- who knows? (182 pp., including a glossary, bibliography, and 16 pages of photos)

THE DA VINCI HOAX: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code by Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel (Ignatius Press). Olson, editor of Envoy magazine and a Catholic author with an evangelical background, and Miesel, a journalist with master's degrees in biochemistry and medieval history, provide a wealth of richly detailed historical and theological information in their extensive volume. Chapters are arranged topically and thoroughly cover the subject under discussion, whether it's Gnosticism or the Knights Templar or Leonardo's art. More than the other titles, this book looks at the cultural and religious factors that have combined to contribute to the success of DVC. (375 pp., including a bibliography and images of Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and Saint John the Baptist)

DE-CODING DA VINCI: The Facts Behind the Fiction of The Da Vinci Code by Amy Welborn (Our Sunday Visitor). Welborn, a writer for Our Sunday Visitor who has a master's degree in church history, arranges her chapters topically but with a nice twist at the end of each one: Instead of a long bibliography at the back of the book, she offers suggestions for further reading on the subject of that chapter, along with relevant review and discussion questions. She writes in an engaging, wry style that makes Brown-as-historian look pretty ridiculous. She's a Catholic writer, but only one chapter is exclusively Catholic, and that one is clearly identified. (124 pp., including numerous sidebars containing fact-filled tidbits)

FACT AND FICTION IN THE DA VINCI CODE by Steven Kellmeyer (Bridegroom Press). Kellmeyer, who is Bridegroom Press but has other writings to his credit, organizes his user-friendly book according to the order in which the details he's debunking appear in DVC, along with the corresponding chapter and page numbers. Because he writes from a decidedly Catholic perspective, he points out errors that non-Catholic writers miss, such as problems relating to the character of Silas, a supposed monk. Provides a decent overview of the problems in Brown's book. [Note to professional editors: This is a self-published book that needed your services. Not a lot, mind you; it comes so close to getting it right. But if you plan to read this, be prepared to stand up and pledge allegiance to The Chicago Manual of Style. It will make you realize why we need such a thing, in case you ever doubted it.] (96 pages)

THE GOSPEL CODE: Novel Claims about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci by Ben Witherington III (InterVarsity Press). Rather than addressing the contemporary errors in DVC, Witherington, New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, concentrates on Brown's mishandling of facts that apply to foundational truths about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the canon of Scripture, and the belief system of the early church. His is the book that seems to make the fewest references to DVC itself; his interest is clearly in setting the historical and theological record straight without giving a whole lot of ink to either Brown or DVC. Worth reading for the chapter titles alone, but definitely one to read if you want more theology and less Da Vinci. (204 pp., including glossary and bibliography)

THE TRUTH BEHIND THE DA VINCI CODE: A Challenging Response to the Bestselling Novel by Richard Abanes (Harvest House). Yet another short book that contains a lot of information, including, in this case, details about Leonardo's writings and belief system that I don't recall reading anywhere else. Abanes, who really is a recognized expert (see Martin Lunn's dubious credentials) on cults and religions, arranges his highly readable text topically by chapter and according to the specific error within the chapter. It's well-organized and accessible, and yes, there really is a code embedded in the introduction. Abanes correctly identifies the problem with DVC as not a Christian issue: "The most flagrant aspect … is not that Dan Brown disagrees with Christianity but that he utterly warps it in order to disagree with it --- to the point of completely rewriting a vast number of historical events. And making the matter worse has been Brown's willingness to pass off his distortions as ‘facts' with which innumerable scholars and historians agree." Amen. (96 pp., including several images of The Last Supper)

After reading 11 debunkers, I consider Dan Burstein's SECRETS OF THE CODE: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code (CDS Books) to be the best of the lot, even though it's technically not a debunker and for reasons that may not appeal to some readers. Most of the other books I read were written from either a Catholic or evangelical Christian perspective; this one is a compilation of writings from people all along the DVC spectrum. Contributors run the gamut from Elaine Pagels, the Princeton professor who has done more than anyone else to bring Gnostic writings to the American reading public, to Collin Hansen, whose essay originally ran in Christian History, a magazine owned by the evangelical Christianity Today Inc.

Burstein, founder of Millennium Technology Ventures in New York, has a background in journalism, and his skills as a journalist are evident throughout this book. One of the most fascinating entries is a 30-page contribution from veteran journalist David A. Shugarts, who responds to a list of questions frequently asked by readers of DVC. He addresses plot holes and problems with major errors and lesser-known mistakes like Brown's descriptions of guns, planes, and Langdon's comings and goings in and around Paris, as well as Brown's timeline for the plot.

Nearly 50 people contributed essays, interviews, and articles to Burstein's book. Among them are Time religion writer David Van Biema and Newsweek religion writer Kenneth L. Woodward; LOST CHRISTIANITIES author Bart D. Ehrman; Susan Haskins and Margaret Starbird, authors of numerous volumes on Mary Magdalene; Jesuit priest and "America" associate editor James Martin; and Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, co-authors of HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL, the book Brown bases much of his research on. If you want a clear understanding of the thinking of both the debunkers and the devotees of DVC, this is the one to read. Its 374 pages include a guide to the characters in the book, glossary, web resources, and background information on each contributor.

There you have it --- Da Vinci debunkers in a nutshell. I'd go with Burstein first; Abanes for a quick and thorough read; and either Witherington or Olson/Miesel for a more theologically rich read. But really, other than the Lunn book, I don't think you'll be terribly disappointed in any of the books above. And no matter what your opinion of The Da Vinci Code, you'll get a fairly decent education in verifiable church history by reading even one or two Da Vinci debunkers, something Dan Brown sorely needs.