Cracking the Code

Joseph Kelly read "The Da Vinci Code" in summer 2003 to see if its claims about early Christianity were credible. Now, the chair of John Carroll University's religion department is a leading lecturer about what's true (and what's not) between the covers o

Dr. Joseph Kelly and his wife were planting begonias in their front garden one Sunday in July 2003 when a former student of his drove up. She needed help. People in her church, where she's the religious education director, kept asking about "The Da Vinci Code." And she didn't have the answers.

Was the book's story about Jesus and Mary Magdalene true? they'd ask.

Kelly had seen the novel on The New York Times' best-seller list, but didn't know anything about it.

So he read the novel while he was on an Alaskan cruise. He liked the story and, as an expert on early Christianity, he was naturally drawn to the middle of the novel, where two characters tell a wild alternative history of the Christian church.

"I just marked down where I thought he was right and wrong," Kelly says.

When he returned home, Kelly gave a lecture about the book at his church. It seemed like no big deal. As chair of the religion department at John Carroll University, he's been lecturing for more than 30 years. He often talks to church groups about biblical history and Christian art, and reviews books on religion for The Plain Dealer. So it was easy to write a brief essay about "The Da Vinci Code" for the paper and give his talk again at a Cleveland Heights church and at libraries in Chesterland and Bainbridge.

Then, in January 2004, he gave his "Da Vinci" lecture near Chardon: 600 people showed up. NewsChannel 5 covered the talk. The library's marketing director passed word to other Cleveland-area libraries: Something unusual was happening.

"My phone began ringing all the time," Kelly says. He delivered his lecture 17 times in April 2004 alone. His talk in Rocky River was moved from the library to the 400-seat civic center and the crowd still filled the room. When it grew to 450, the fire marshal barred the door.

A library staffer asked Kelly if he'd repeat the talk another night. Sure, he said. Another 450 people turned out for his second appearance.

Now, Kelly estimates, he's spoken to 13,000 people about the best seller in about 70 lectures throughout Ohio and in Milwaukee, Detroit, New York City, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and Charleston, W. Va.

"It's amazing," he says. "That book never quits."

There are 9.7 million copies of "The Da Vinci Code" in print. If you haven't read it, you've probably heard your friends or in-laws chattering about it. The novel — a mix of suspense, code-breaking intrigue, art history, breathless chases through Paris and London, cliffhanger chapter endings and a seductive conspiracy theory about the Catholic Church — has dominated the hardcover fiction best-seller lists since it was published almost two years ago. Filming starts this spring on a movie version starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou of "Amélie." Fans use the novel as a tour guide to London, a church in Scotland and especially Paris, where they visit the Louvre museum to see the Leonardo da Vinci artworks that the novel depicts as full of secret symbols.

In Cleveland, the big "Da Vinci Code" events are lectures. Kelly's talks are the largest draw, though other scholars have gotten into the act, such as art historian Jennifer Finkel, who focuses on da Vinci's paintings, and the Rev. Gerald Bednar, a theology professor at St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, who speaks to Catholic parishes about the book and religious history.

Suddenly, Kelly, 59, is speaking to a vast new audience eager to hear about subjects he's studied his whole career, such as the history of early Christianity and the books that didn't make it into the Bible.

"I've been teaching this stuff for 25 years," he tells his audiences. Until last year, "no one cared!" They laugh, because they're fascinated by the novel's mysteries. They're curious about long-dead popes and French kings, fourth-century religious councils and medieval art.

Kelly debunks many of "The Da Vinci Code's" tales, including claims that author Dan Brown labels "fact" in a preface. But his audiences are left with a surprise: Kelly, a respected Catholic scholar, is sympathetic to the book's themes, such as its celebration of the "sacred feminine" and its claim that the early church repressed women and downplayed their role in Jesus' ministry.

Even Brown has noticed. Last May, after the library marketing director in Geauga County tipped off Brown's publisher about the lectures, Kelly got a package in the mail from Doubleday. Inside, he found a copy of "The Da Vinci Code," inscribed by Brown: "Thank you so much for understanding why I wrote this book."

In early February, at a one-night community-education class of about 70 at Mayfield High School, Kelly stands next to a projector, wearing a dark, serious suit and thick glasses that make him seem fragile, yet dignified. He talks extremely fast, but very clearly, with a trace of an accent from his native Brooklyn.

Right away, he signals he's not going to tear "The Da Vinci Code" apart. He says a man who called himself a "traditional Roman Catholic" once phoned him to ask if he shouldn't read it, because he'd heard it was blasphemous. "A lot of people have been very, very silly about [the book]," Kelly says, "not remembering it's a work of fiction."

The thriller follows an American professor and a French code-breaking expert as they search for the murderer of the Louvre's curator. The chase becomes a hunt for the Holy Grail — which isn't really a chalice, but the body of Jesus' disciple Mary Magdalene. Jesus, according to characters in the book, was secretly married to Mary, who fled to France after the crucifixion, pregnant with his child, to start a royal family that intermarried with French kings.

Kelly debunks the conspiracy theory, which Brown took from "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," an allegedly nonfictional 1980s best seller based on forged documents found in the French national library. "It's just full of nonsense," Kelly says. The "Priory of Sion," which Brown claims was founded in 1099 to protect Mary and Jesus' secret, was just part of the fabrication. The Knights Templar, who supposedly guarded the Holy Grail, were really protectors and bankers for Christian pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem between the Crusades.

Jokes, weird facts, enthusiasm and an art-filled PowerPoint presentation pepper Kelly's swing through history. He flashes a picture of Clovis, the swarthy fifth-century king of France. "He looks like a thug and he was," Kelly declares. Clovis and his family (descendants of Jesus, the novel says) spent their time "drinking, gambling, creating illegitimate children, hunting, stuff like that."

Why, Kelly asks next, is the novel so popular? Because it's more than a good thriller, he says; Brown's previous book, "Angels and Demons," also featured a suspenseful plot involving secret societies and a dramatic European setting. Kelly thinks the real reason "The Da Vinci Code" has taken off is its theme: "There's a lot of stress on the role of the feminine in religion and the symbolism of religion."

Since the 19th century, Kelly explains, people have realized that religious belief evolves, and they've looked at the Bible not just as God's word but also as a book written by men, influenced by their time in history.

"We are all, in some sense, prisoners of the age in which we live," Kelly says. Feminist scholarship, he adds, asks how that affected the Bible and suggests that a bias crept in because the New Testament's writers were all men.

Tonight's audience includes about twice as many women as men. And perhaps one reason the book speaks to people goes deeper: Its themes seem to appeal to people who've either drifted away from religious belief or churchgoers struggling with some aspect of organized religion. "The Da Vinci Code" gives them a sense — though it's filtered through fiction — that the missing something that keeps them from fully connecting with religion might be missing from the church itself.

Kelly talks for a while about the goddess worship mentioned in "The Da Vinci Code," then contrasts it with Christianity's historic attitudes toward women. After Jesus' crucifixion, "there were women apostles, deacons, teachers and prophets," many of them mentioned in the New Testament's earliest books, he says. Jesus' followers thought the world was about to end, so they didn't conform to Roman society, which kept women from power.

"But the world didn't end. [So] Christians had to live with Rome." Soon, Kelly says, came New Testament books such as 1 Timothy, which said women could not teach religion or have any authority over men. "There was a suppression of women. Brown did not make that up," Kelly adds.

He points to Mary Magdalene, the first witness to Jesus' resurrection, who appears 12 times in the Bible, always in a positive light. No, he says, she and Jesus weren't married, or else she would have been known as "Mary, the wife of Jesus," not "Mary, from the town of Magdala." But early medieval church fathers mixed her up with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears, and she became a prostitute in legends. Today, Catholic leaders quietly acknowledge that Mary wasn't a prostitute, but they haven't done much to correct the mistake, Kelly argues. Brown, he says, "has completely rehabilitated Mary Magdalene."

"The Da Vinci Code" turns to the Apocrypha, books left out of the Bible, to show Mary Magdalene's importance. Kelly, who's studied the Apocrypha, says Brown exaggerated certain facts about the books, but some of them, written by unorthodox Christian sects, do depict Mary Magdalene as one of Jesus' most important disciples.

"What [Brown] did was let people know the origins of Christianity are much more complicated than they've been told," Kelly says.

"Why do right-wing Catholics hate the book?" he asks at the lecture's end. It holds out the promise, he says, that "for 2,000 years, it could've been different"; men and women could've been equal.

The next morning, Kelly's teaching his class at John Carroll, "History of the Idea of Evil." In this familiar role, he's more casual.

The class of 20 is reading Athanasius of Alexandria's biography of St. Anthony, a fourth-century monk. It's also the first demonology in Christian history, with "demons on every page, grunting and squealing," Kelly says. His jokes make a book or a scene from 1,600 years ago spring to life. Back then, he explains, Alexandria was full of "filthy monks who never washed" — and he imitates the monks' guttural chant.

Kelly doesn't look like the sort of guy who'd teach demonologies or crack monk jokes. It's easy to imagine him as a '50s altar boy, then an obedient Catholic confidently defending Vatican doctrine.

Born in 1945, he was the third of four sons of an office worker for the Hearst media company and a telephone operator. He grew up in a neighborhood where everyone was Irish, Jewish, Italian or Polish.

"Social life revolved around the local parish," he wrote in a 1994 Plain Dealer essay. "The parish priest was the most educated person, ... the Legion of Decency protected our young minds from dirty movies (as we called them), and no one questioned authority."

But in 1963, just as the Second Vatican Council was modernizing the church, Kelly headed to Boston College. One of his theology professors shocked and thrilled him when he "urged the class not to accept anything merely on authority, to question always and to feel free to challenge him." Kelly joined a campus group engaged in civil-rights activism and worked as a math tutor in a ghetto. "There was no returning to what I had grown up with," he wrote.

Paintings of St. Anthony's temptation by Paul Cézanne, Salvador Dali and others appear in Kelly's PowerPoint presentation. In one, Satan, hulking and soot-black, stands next to a beautiful naked woman trying to tempt the celibate saint.

Why so many demons, Kelly asks, in a book about a monk? The students struggle with their answers, so Kelly says he wonders if it's the influence of "this monastic life that puts such an emphasis on perfection that even the smallest temptation becomes a threat.

"The devil's always tempting in the form of beautiful young women. But the average man walking down the street, seeing an ad for a Jennifer Lopez movie, [will think], Oh, she's pretty, and keep walking. It's not going to occur to him that this is a demon trying to drag him down to hell!"

When Kelly came to John Carroll in 1972, he was doing scholarly work on the early Middle Ages. He can read early medieval handwriting and has been the first to translate or transcribe some medieval texts. "It's very, very technical work," he says. He edited a medieval commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke for his Ph.D. thesis and has often written about other early medieval texts.

It bothers him that most professors don't reach a wide audience. So he's taken on bigger subjects in his books lately, while teaching interesting, wide-ranging classes, including an entire course on demons.

"He's a very engaging teacher," says David McDonald, a junior and history major. "[It's] the inflection of his voice. He's a natural, good storyteller and he's a brilliant guy and has a lot of useful things to say."

Kelly shows a painting of Satan as a terrifying, red demon with white horns, yellow eyes and upturned fangs. Before the class can fixate on it, Kelly reminds them it's based on legend. "The Bible provides no description of Satan at all," he points out.

"He tempts people to do evil. He does not cause evil," Kelly adds. It's an important point: Evil is a human trait. "People don't sin because of him. People make their own decisions."

If Satan exists, he creates a dilemma for people of faith, Kelly says. He's a fallen angel under divine control — so how can a good God let him be evil?

"Little children ask, 'Why doesn't God just kill Satan?' It's a very good question. The problem of evil is really a problem with God," he says.

Just like that, Kelly's confronted students with one of religion's eternal debates, one they'll have the whole semester, then their whole lives, to ponder. His book "Responding to Evil," a reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, also wrestles with the problem: How a good God can allow evil? He seems most sympathetic to mainstream Christianity's best answer: God gave us the gift of free will, knowing we won't always choose good.

Kelly downplays the book out of humility: Who is he, he still wonders, to tell people how to respond to evil? He's prouder of "The Origins of Christmas," his 10th and newest book, which taps his expertise in early Christianity. For instance, he says Dec. 25 first became Christmas in Rome in 336, when it was also the shortest day of the year and the Roman sun god's feast day. Thanks to Kelly, the symbolism of candlelit midnight Masses on Christmas Eve suddenly deepens: Much as pagans believed the sun god's birth on the winter solstice brought brighter days, so Jesus' birth brings light to a dark world.

That nimble search for sacred and secular answers to religion's questions is the kind of thinking Kelly encourages in his students, his readers and his audiences.

"One of great things about the 'Da Vinci Code' lectures is it's a chance for me to show people that you can study religion objectively." Too often, he says, "People learn to study other traditions critically — never their own."

It's appropriate, he's careful to say, for pastors' sermons, church Bible study and Sunday school to teach people their church's doctrine. But his work promotes the sort of thinking taught in classes such as John Carroll's required introduction to religion. "If you take a good class on the Bible, in the first week or so, you learn how to approach Genesis the way modern scholars do": reading it critically and objectively, understanding it as symbolic.

"He's a good Catholic layman, he's devout," says Kelly's best friend on John Carroll's faculty, Episcopal priest and fellow religion professor David Mason, "but he's a liberal Catholic layman."

Kelly has decorated his office door with one of those printouts, circulated after the 2004 election, that recast the Democratic blue states as part of Canada. There's also a New York Times opinion piece by liberal Catholic Gary Wills, "The Day the Enlightenment Went Out," that casts President Bush's victory as a political triumph of fundamentalist Christians.

Some of Kelly's writings in The Plain Dealer, says Mason, "have occasionally called forth some ire from more conservative Catholics in the area." In 1994, the paper quoted him criticizing Pope John Paul II's declaration that women would never be Catholic priests. A letter to the paper questioned how a supporter of women's ordination could rightfully chair a Catholic university's religion department.

The issue struck one of Kelly's core values. One reason he's sympathetic to "The Da Vinci Code," despite its distortions of history, is that he tries to achieve the book's balance and equality between men and women in his own life. His wife, Ellen Kelly, has taught English at Shaker Heights High School for 20 years. "As soon as she got that job, I knew I'd never leave," he says. He can't see himself as the "great man" whose wife has to "follow 10 steps behind."

So he responded to the letter-writer with a long, thoughtful essay about his journey from the strict Catholicism of his youth to the questioning spirit that the Second Vatican Council inspired. "American Catholics have left the dependent, yes-to-authority immigrant mentality behind, and they just cannot go back," he wrote.

Kelly's new popularity hasn't changed him much. It's just given him a more hectic schedule, made him more recognized around town and brought him extra money. Libraries typically pay him $200 for a lecture, which puts his "Code"-related income for the past two years at about $14,000. He and his wife used some of it to help pay for another cruise, to St. Petersburg in Russia.

"I'm going to be the first to buy [Brown's] new book," Kelly says. If Brown touches on early Christianity again in his next novel (which has no release date yet), Kelly may have a new lecture to present. Meanwhile, he's got his students to teach, his kids and grandkids to visit in Columbus, and at least two books to write, sequels to "The Origins of Christmas" that will trace the holiday's history to the present.

"If Dan Brown's books don't keep me busy anymore, I'll just keep writing, doing what I'm doing," he says. Then again, Columbia Pictures' "Da Vinci Code" movie is on the way in 2006. "My students keep telling me, 'As soon as the movie is out, you'll be hot all over again.' "

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