America's Christians launch assault on The Da Vinci Code
The staggering success of The Da Vinci Code, the quasi-historical thriller which claims that Jesus was a mere mortal and Christianity a sexist conspiracy to exclude women from positions of power, has spread panic among the clergy who fear that people will literally take what they read as Gospel.
Dan Brown's pacy rewriting of sacred history has sold more than six million copies and topped the New York Times bestseller list for over a year.
Fighting back, Christian pastors, priests and theologians across America are releasing a series of books to debunk the central claims of The Da Vinci Code. These include the suggestion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children, whose descendants now live in France.
Throughout April and May, no fewer than 10 book-length "rebuttals" of the novel's biblical claims will appear, nearly all brought out by Christian publishers such as Tyndale House.
Seminars at churches across America will aim to reassure churchgoers of the authenticity of the four biblical Gospels. The Rev James Garlow, a San Diego pastor, is the co-author of one riposte, Cracking Da Vinci's Code.
"When the book came out, I thought it would have very little effect," he said. "But I was wrong. People who are perhaps weak in the background to Christian faith have been asking me, 'Is what is in this book correct?'
"I'm not in the least bit intimidated or fearful of this book. In a year, when The Da Vinci Code is forgotten, the Bible will still be the most popular book in the United States. But what is at stake here is truth."
The plot of The Da Vinci Code revolves around a Parisian policewoman and a Harvard professor who uncover a centuries-old church conspiracy - once presided over by Leonardo Da Vinci - to conceal evidence of the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. The novel also asserts that Mary Magdalene was appointed the leader of the early Christian movement, in an early feminist move that was then ruthlessly suppressed.
Throughout the book, fictional "scholars" cite apparently genuine research demonstrating that Jesus was not considered a divinity until the fourth century AD. According to Mr Garlow, contemporary New Testament accounts dating from the first century AD prove this conjecture to be "dead wrong".
Mr Brown's growing legion of critics claim that he has not played fair with his sources. His emphasis on gnostic texts and the so-called "lost teachings" of Christ, found in later works such as the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas, are to be fiercely repudiated.
Amy Welborn, the author of De-Coding Da Vinci, believes that the novel is wilfully deceptive. "Dan Brown presents many assertions about history, religion and art," said Ms Welborn. "He presents them as truth, not as part of his fictional world."
Mr Brown is refusing to give interviews as he works on another book. On his website, he says: "Each reader must make the choice whether to agree or disagree with the characters' viewpoints. My hope was that the ideas in the novel would serve as a springboard for people to discuss the important topics of faith, religion, and history."
On that, at least, Mr Garlow can agree. "Hopefully he's done us all a great favour," he said. "There has been a revival of discussion over Jesus's divinity and the accuracy of the New Testament. If people can be encouraged to do some thorough research now, it is bound to lead to a more confident faith."