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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Word War Won't Crack This Code

Covering religion is something the American media do badly, and reporting on controversies involving religious ideas is one of the things they do worst of all.

That deficiency probably has helped turn the weekend's release of the film based on Dan Brown's better-than-best-selling novel, "The Da Vinci Code," into even more of a trial than it needed to be -- albeit a very temporary one, given the movie's reviews. To have real legs, a story employing the adjective "controversial" needs conflict.

One side has to do or say harsh things to the other; the other needs to respond in kind -- maybe even escalate the stakes -- and, bingo, you've got one of those sequences that fill white space and dead air with stories and commentaries on stories and stories about commentaries on stories and commentaries on . . . Well, you get the point, because you've been there before.

The problem with "Da Vinci Code" as controversy is that the outraged side refuses to play ball. The primary victims of the foolishness committed in the book and continued on screen are the Catholic Church and Opus Dei, a deeply conservative and rather unwholesomely secretive organization of mainly lay believers given to education, hard work and a couple of creepy spiritual practices. Brown and his film confreres have produced a cartoon that depicts the church as deceitful, corrupt and conspiratorial, and Opus as murderous, corrupt and conspiratorial. These are moral, though thankfully not legal, slanders -- at least not yet, though you never know what the desperate Congress will do.

The U.S. media, always mindful of the pathos to be wrung from a good auto-da-fe, have zealously circled the globe searching for outraged Catholics. So far, the best they have are a Nigerian cardinal in the Vatican curia, who grumbled that somebody, somewhere ought to take legal action, the urging of a boycott in China, a ban in Manila, and a couple of Indian Catholics who threatened to set themselves on fire outside a theater, when the film opens there. (They didn't; apparently, somebody reminded them that the church they're defending inconveniently forbids suicide.) For its part, Opus Dei convened a team of "crisis managers" under the direction of its "global communications director," Juan Manuel Mora, and charged them -- according to The Wall Street Journal -- with converting the film's release into "a marketing opportunity." They overhauled the organization's Web site, www.opusdei.org, which last year received 3 million hits, as opposed to 674,000 the year before Brown's book came out.

The collective Catholic response to the book and film probably were best summed up by a bemused Jesuit theologian who responded to an earnest radio interviewer's long and suggestive question this way: "I don't mean to sound obtuse, but are you asking me whether a novel is true?"

Meanwhile, U.S. media attempts to deputize the usual evangelical Protestant firebrands into one of those reliably copy-worthy, anti-blasphemy posses also have been generally fruitless. You can almost hear frustrated assignment editors and producers muttering to themselves: What's the matter with these guys? Don't they care that this cockamamie movie says Jesus had sex with Mary Magdalene? Can't they see this is another battle in the war against Christmas? Didn't they learn anything from those Muslims?

Actually, there is an interesting story about religion in America here, but it isn't one that lends itself to the standard-issue, good-guys-and-bad guys, talk-show formulation.

So far, "The Da Vinci Code" has sold 60.5 million copies, 21.7 million of them in the United States. We're frequently reminded that America is the most religious country in the developed world, with churchgoing rates unrecorded in any other Western nation for decades. Moreover, militantly assertive Christianity has become a political force demanding to be heard from the corridors of Capitol Hill to the local school board.

So, who's buying this book? Are there really that many secular humanists who don't care whether their prose has pronouns with antecedents?

Actually, the attitudes that make Americans so "religious" are the same ones that have made them such a ready market for the "Da Vinci" flimflam. The United States is suffused with religious sentiments and impulses, but Americans are abysmally -- even willfully -- short on religious knowledge. All the periodic hand-wringing over the country's crisis of faith or creeping secularism notwithstanding, the problem with Americans is not that they don't believe anything; it's that so many think they can believe anything -- and that believing one thing doesn't preclude belief in another.

You can't go to a dinner party nowadays without encountering somebody who describes himself as "spiritual" -- whatever that means. (Tell the truth: Haven't you ever wanted to throttle somebody who tells you how they made over their yoga studio to include a "meditation altar" with crystals, Buddha and Virgin of Guadalupe icon?) Americans are religious because they've come to treat belief as an adjunct to the consumer society, sort of like the potato chip aisle in the local grocery.

In such an inner landscape, why not entertain the possibility that Jesus scored? After all, it could have happened.

Here's the other point on which the "Da Vinci" phenomenon does tell us something interesting about ourselves. One of the curious things about Brown's scam is that he insists that his story is based on fact, insisting in the face of all credible evidence that several other book-length frauds are true and that patently unreliable ancient manuscripts are trustworthy and, more important, say things that they don't.

Brown's claims for his book and, by extension, the film adaptation, belong to a strong new current in American life -- the culture of assertion, which increasingly pushes logical argument out of our public conversation. According to this schema, things are true because I believe they are true and you have to respect that, because it's what I believe. Thus, the same sensibility most likely to take offense at this film -- that of the religious assertionists -- is the same one that makes things like creationism an issue in our schools and the demands of biblical literalism a force in our politics. Brown and his foolishness are, in fact, a part of this same culture of assertion and not of some wider secular one.

Kevin Phillips, the Republican Party strategist who devised its Southern strategy in 1968, has written a great deal recently about the culture of assertion's infiltration of his party's politics. "Besides providing critical support for invading Iraq -- widely anathematized by preachers as a second Babylon," he wrote last month, "the Republican coalition has also seeded half a dozen controversies in the realm of science. These include Bible-based disbelief in Darwinian theories of evolution, dismissal of global warming, disagreement with geological explanations for fossil-fuel depletion, religious rejection of population planning, derogation of women's rights and opposition to stem cell research. ... No (other) world power in modern memory has become captive of the sort of biblical inerrancy that dismisses modern knowledge and science."

Not to mention the demands of classical logic.

The bottom line is that faith-based credulity and religious ignorance have sent Dan Brown and, despite the bad reviews, probably Sony Pictures laughing all the way to the bank. Unfortunately, when it comes to the way those same qualities act on our politics and national life, the joke is on all of us.

Tim Rutten is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this comment first appeared.