Code Breaker

Countering a popular novel lets a Dallas theologian spread The Word

Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, who fled to France with their child and founded a secret royal dynasty after he died on the cross. Since 33 A.D., church fathers have tried to cover this up because they must rid the world of the sacred feminine or, in other words, pagan goddess worship. Folks in a sexy secret society called the Priory of Sion know the truth. If they can find the Holy Grail, which may or may not be a goblet, they can release the proof. But the Vatican is hunting down and killing those with this Gnostic knowledge. Wrapped in a murder mystery, that's essentially the conspiracy plot of the wildly popular book The Da Vinci Code. An intellectual but rugged male scholar and a gorgeous female French cryptographer must decipher clues left inside art by Leonardo Da Vinci to find the killers.

The novel by Dan Brown has remained on The New York Times best-seller list for more than 55 weeks. Despite pedestrian writing, clues astute readers can decipher long before the protagonists and a muddled ending, the book has prompted serious examination of Brown's premise in Newsweek, Time and various other media outlets. It's sold an estimated 5 million copies.

Now comes Dr. Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, with his book Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to Questions Everybody is Asking.

Christian scholars everywhere will be slapping their foreheads, saying, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Bock has written more than a dozen books about the Gospels, mostly geared toward other scholars and pastors. Sales of Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism in the Final Examination of Jesus: A Philological-Historical Study of the Key Jewish Themes Impacting Mark 14:61-64 topped out at 1,000. His best seller so far, with an estimated 20,000 sold, has been Luke: New International Version Application Commentary, published in 1996. But the first printing of Breaking the Da Vinci Coderan 75,000 copies, and Bock wrote the book in a week.

Bock's take on Brown's book: "The story is as good as the history is bad."

It's a leap, from publishing highly technical research for a theological audience to riffing on a sensationalistic best seller for the general public. But since 1988, Bock has made an effort to "engage" the culture instead of condemn it, as many conservative Christian authors do. He's a switch-hitter who writes for mainstream op-ed pages and the eclectic religious Web site beliefnet.com, as well as Christianity Today, where he's a corresponding editor. In the process, Bock has become a source for journalists nationally who tackle religious subjects.

He has Peter Jennings to thank for it.

Bald, with a full beard and a monk's fringe of salt-and-pepper hair, Bock appears to be the epitome of the ivory tower scholar, except for the raucous laugh. Bock never intended to be a religious scholar. He's a sports nut who wanted to broadcast games and interview athletes.

A religious conversion in college sent Bock in another direction. He studied in Scotland and Germany and is internationally known for his textual analysis on the books of Luke and Acts.

Bock's first piece for the lay audience came in 1988 on the release of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1992, he wrote an article on the Republican National Convention, pointing out that despite the close identification of Republicans with Christianity, the party's principles often don't match up to the faith. Bock took those opportunities as they came along, not really seeking them out.

But in 2001, as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, Bock gave a speech that was a call to arms. He told the scholars that they were talking to each other and ignoring the broader world. Interest in religious topics in the mainstream press has exploded since the '80s. They had to get back in the game.

"Theologians are trained to work for and in the church," Bock says. "They don't think about how to connect and engage the culture."

What prompted that speech was The Search for Jesus, an ABC special with Peter Jennings that aired in mid-2000.

"It was problematic from the get-go," Bock says. "The day it came out, I wrote the president of ABC News." Bock says it featured liberal scholars who viewed Jesus as a political dissident who actually said little of what is attributed to him in the New Testament and almost certainly did not rise from the dead. There was no attempt, Bock says, to present both sides of those arguments.

Bock didn't get a reply, but the ABC special taught him a lesson in the promotion of religious ideas. "The fact that the Jesus Seminar caught on so fast took me by surprise," Bock says. "They were so good at marketing and getting their message out."

He worked on a rebuttal documentary with broadcaster John Ankerberg that aired on Christian stations. "My frustration was that it wasn't on the History Channel or prime-time TV," Bock says. "It was talking in-house."

Then Dallas Theological Seminary engaged a public relations firm to raise the school's profile.

"They helped me create media contacts," Bock says. "I found that once you got your foot in the door and the media people came to respect what you were offering, then you got on the list of people to call."

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