Da Vinci answers Church's prayers

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Blockbuster phenomenon triggers wave of enthusiasm for philosophy and RE. Graeme Paton reports.

It has been denounced as an attempt to defile the sanctity of Christ and sparked protests, boycotts, and even hunger strikes among Christian groups across the globe.

But The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's best-selling novel and now a Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Hanks, has not been vilified by everyone in the UK's religious communities.

Teachers this week reported a growing interest among children in religious education and philosophy on the back of publicity surrounding the film's release.

The so-called "Da Vinci Code effect" has prompted the Roman Catholic church to issue guidance to its 2,500 schools in England and Wales to help teachers to answer questions sparked by the film.

It is the latest fillip for RE, which is the fastest-growing subject in the country. Last year, 16,859 students took A-level religious studies, and 141,037 pupils took a GCSE in the subject.

Canon Simon Bloxam-Rose, chaplain of Millfield, the private boarding school in Somerset, said: "To think that it is in any way undermining the Church is nonsense - we have nothing to fear from The Da Vinci Code.

"From an educational point of view, the knock-on interest in religion has been amazing, I'm being stopped all the time by students who want to ask questions about Grail legends and Mary Magdalene.

"I could have a sizeable addition to my workload from students who want to take up religious studies and philosophy at sixth-form, and we should be thanking, not denouncing, Dan Brown for that."

The novel is based on the fictional premise that the Church has, for centuries, concealed the fact that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who bore him a child. It also portrays Opus Dei - the Roman Catholic sect which listed Ruth Kelly, the former education secretary, among its members - as a sinister cult prepared to kill to keep the secret safe.

Its release as a film this month has prompted worldwide protests. In South Korea, a Christian group applied for an injunction to block screenings.

Religious leaders in India said they would hold hunger strikes, and in Thailand government censors were urged to cut the film's final 15 minutes and display messages before and after the screening saying that the content is fictional.

The Reverend Dr John Gay, the Church of England's spokesman on RE, said: "I am of the belief that there is no such thing as bad publicity. It would be unwise for any RE teacher to dismiss something which is capable of provoking so much discussion about religious themes among young people."

The Catholic Education Service last week wrote to primary and secondary school teachers, including an article which explains some of the film's finer points.

Father Joseph Quigley, its RE adviser, said: "The film's release doesn't warrant specific lessons in The Da Vinci Code, but teachers need to be confident about fielding questions thrown up by it. It worries me a little that people may not appreciate that it is fiction."

The Catholic Agency to Support Evangelisation has set up a website. It features a quiz, a "Catholic response to the story" and Da Vinci Code articles to build on the film's popularity.

Caroline McGrath, head ofRE at Trinity school, a Catholic comprehensive school in Nottingham, said: "We have used The Da Vinci Code to provoke discussion but have had to reiterate that it is only fiction."

Terry Sanderson, vice-president of the National Secular Society, said: "It is stimulating interest in conspiracy theories rather than conventional religion.

"It has opened up the supposedly eternal truths of religion to fundamental questioning: one far-fetched story is just as good as another.

"Children will reach the conclusion that the Bible is as much a ripping yarn as Harry Potter or His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman."

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

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