Beyond Da Vinci (Or the Beginning and End of My Days of Piety)

Last week, I finally got around to finishing Da Vinci Code. I must confess to having been “pressured” by people around me who read Dan Brown’s novel. From what I gathered the novel was not the usual pulp one sees stacked up in Booksale outlets. Of course, it’s a bestseller, which would alarm most high-brow English majors (i.e., for the literati elite, I imagine Brown would be right up there with Sidney Sheldon or that Koontz author). But it’s also about Christ and institutional Christianity (or rather, against it?). To my mind, any author brave enough to take on a subject as contentious as Christ’s life or a target as daunting as religion is worth reading. (Which is why, I suppose, I was compelled to watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ despite my instinctive anti-populism)

I am not one to be easily cajoled into following trends and riding on bandwagons, getting hooked on the E-heads, for example, three albums into their career, or being able to appreciate basketball only after barely passing high school P.E. I derive a small amount of pride from the fact that I have not read a single sentence of a Harry Potter novel, or a Paolo Coelho book, despite their popularity among yuppies as evidenced by their constant presence in “favorite books” lists in Friendster.

What won me over, I suppose, was my fascination with religions. Once upon a time, I was this pious Catholic kid straight out of a Dominican-run school who devoutly attended masses (sometimes more than once a week). It was my first year in UP when I hooked up with fellow freshies who reguarly haunted (as in they looked like haunted houses) “study centers” run by the local Opus Dei chapters. It was with this crowd that my dormmates and I trooped to Luneta (ala Woodstock) on January 1995 to catch a minute glimpse of “Il Papa,” or “Juan Pablo Segundo”, to our local parish priest in the province.

Though I was not fully indoctrinated in Opus Dei life, I saw enough to make me disdain it. The conservatism itself — numeraries were forbidden to come into contact with people of the opposite sex — is enough to turn off any pimpled-faced adolescent with hormones shooting through dorm roofs. Not to mention its elitism (I know of rich friends who were more “actively” courted by numeraries than kids like me). Even from the eyes of a freshman straight from the boondocks, I could sense, however vaguely, that such an organization was not so much about devotion to a faith than a gathering of powerful, influential people who think they had a monopoly of how to practice Catholicism. It was nothing more than a cult, or worse, a collegiate fraternity out to recruit spoiled brats with parents highly-placed in society. Kids from working class backgrounds (like Brown’s Silas) get to do the dirty work for the frat or the cult, in exchange for the privilege of rubbing elbows with powerful people.

Looking back at my short stint in Opus Dei centers made me realize how social classes operate even in, or especially in, organized religions. Institutionalized Christianity has become a conduit for perpatration of a status quo, however lopsided it may be to favor the empowered. The liberationist interpration of the Bible (i.e. Christianity as a movement to liberate people from oppression) has now been so thoroughly marginalized within the Church that when we think of Catholicism we imagine the grandoise St. Peter’s Church, not some tiny shanty of a chapel in Latin America, or even Negros. When we conjure the face of a Christian we conjure the image of a Mike Velarde, or Cory Aquino, or Cardinal Sin. Or some bejewelled bishop in an altar adorned with gold-plated sacramentals. Certainly, not a Mother Teresa or an Archbishop Romero dying after being shot by a right-wing gunman. Or a Luis Jalandoni, leaving the comforts of his parish to integrate with sacadas and striking workers.

Of course, there is not much of that type of Christianity even in Dan Brown’s novel. Mary Magdalene as the inheritor of the Church of Christ (instead of Peter, whom Constantine and his sexist bunch preferred) may bode well with ecofeminists, but it still leaves the question “What kind of Church Christ wanted to build?” unanswered. Indeed, as Magdalene’s unceremonious fall from Christianism’s grace was dictated by feudalism, so is the prevalent elitism (and conservatism) of the today’s Church being shaped by social forces outside it.

Even my beliefs were very much shaped by the events (political and eceonomic, as well as personal) that transpired during the 90s. Sure, I had UP to thank for my liberalism (much of it cultivated through years of haunting the stacks of Main Library). But beyond the informal education that the university offered was a brewing social unrest that seethed from outside the arcane shades of Diliman. Though not exactly the First Quarter Storm or the Paris uprising of ’68, something in the air during the 90s (the smell of radical revival, perhaps) roused me from the despondency of regimented living. Confronted by the terrible and beautiful realities of life (poverty, oppression, resistance), being a devout massgoer no longer held meaning to me as it did when I was this precocious child in the province. The “sanctified” youthful rebellion of January ’95 (camping out like Hippies sans sex, drugs and rock n’ roll seemed rebellious enough at that time) began to look silly and futile.

Like the proverbial caveman, I ran to the light outside and never looked back at my cave. Or (dare I say) like the Dan Brown protagonist falling to his knees as the realization of truth dawned upon him.


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