It was reported quite widely that Rowan Williams had referred to the Da Vinci Code in his sermon on Easter Sunday. Ive seen quite a few comments that imply that he didnt provide a proper rebuttal of it or that he was somehow trying to close down discussion of the topic. Having read the full text of the sermon (http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/sermons_speeches/060416a.htm) and an article he wrote for the Mail on Sunday (http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/sermons_speeches/060416.htm), I think his critics have got this wrong and he actually made some very important points.
A sermon isnt really the place to point out the problem with Dan Browns theories; for one thing, a sermon isnt long enough. There have been whole books published, pointing out the vast numbers of errors in his account. Anyone knowledgeable about early Christianity or early medieval history or art history (or probably several other topics) could easily tell you just how ludicrous his book (and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) are. If people believe what they read in Dan Brown, its not for want of scholars trying to correct them.
So Rowan Williams was considering the question: why do people choose to believe these ideas even when they’re not from anyone with any authority? His answer (implicitly): Because its not by someone with any authority. The conspiracy theory view of history means that anyone in authority (which gets interpreted to mean anyone from a parish priest to a lowly academic) must be covering things up and trying to hide The Real Story!! The archbishop, therefore, points out a simple fact. When the gospel stories were written, Christians werent in authority, they were a persecuted minority. Indeed, becoming Christians lessened any power they might have: it put them outside any previous religious tradition, including Judaism.
In the rest of his sermon, Rowan Williams goes on to talk about other Christians who have voluntarily accepted this powerlessness, even to the extent of being martyrs today. In his newspaper article, however, he engages with the Gospel of Judas (the newly discovered gnostic work). Again, his point is a simple one: look at the Jesus of the New Testament and the Jesus of this gospel and judge for yourself. (So much for the claim that hes trying to stop discussion and discourage us from reading such things).
I think this is one of the best arguments that Christians have (see http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060213fa_fact2 for similar comments about Mary Magdalene in the Bible and the Gnostic gospels). If people actually read some of the key works of gnosticism (much easier than previously, since theyre on the web , see e.g. http://www.gnosis.org/library.html) they may well be much less impressed by them. After reading Dan Brown I went and looked at the Gospel of Thomas and thought: all the good bits I knew already. If it was a source for the New Testament gospels, as has sometimes been claimed, then they either had a lot of other sources or they were some of the most marvellous writers ever known. The Gospel of Thomas isnt a book worth dying for – or living for. If someone finds some truly inspirational passages in all the gnostic writings, then Id be interested to hear about it.
But in one sense, Im missing the point by saying that. The whole point once of Gnosticism was to learn the secret knowledge (gnosis) of God so that one could come to the Truth. The interest in gnosticism now, however, isnt to find a knowledge of God, its to debunk it. The Gnostic gospels, the Dead Sea scrolls etc arent of interest to most people because they might provide a real truth to live by, but as a handy excuse for why they neednt take Christianity seriously. They dont want to know, they just want to know better than us poor benighted Christians. Ill stick to my gospel: at least it doesnt require me to believe in the holiness of the Merovingians.