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Saturday, May 20, 2006

UU 'Da Vinci' watch: Dogma bites soundbite.

In a gaffe that won't even be apparent to many religious liberals, UU sexologist and minister Debra Haffner talks with the Chicago Sun-Times about The Da Vinci Code and gets her Catholic doctrines mixed up. Can you spot the error? Here's part of Cathleen Falsani's interview of Haffner:

The idea of Jesus being sexual — having sexual thoughts, feelings, urges, or (God forbid!) actually having sex with his wife — really freaks a lot of people out.


If we are to believe, as most Christians do, that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, then by definition it means that Jesus also was fully sexual.

So why the collective flip out?

"In the Christian tradition, we have a religion that's based on a virgin birth that has followed an immaculate conception with a celibate hero God," Haffner said.

Well, there's that.

"There is built into the story an erotophobic emphasis. But that came later," she said. "For example, the immaculate conception idea is [from the] third century. It's not in the original story and it's not scriptural. . . . We only tell part of the story. What's happened is that because of people's own fears of talking about sexuality, that erotophobia gets carried forward."

A reminder: Immaculate conception is the distinctively Roman Catholic doctrine, popularized in the fifteenth century and declared church doctrine in 1854, that Mary herself was conceived by her two mortal parents without the taint of original sin. It's Mary who is immaculately conceived. The incarnation is the much more universally held Christian doctrine that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human; it is usually linked to the belief that Jesus was conceived without a human father. "Yawn!," I hear many of you saying — and the distinction clearly went over Falsani's head and her editors' heads, too.

Now, obviously, Haffner was aiming for a good soundbite — from conception to birth! — and, sure, I'd agree that on one level the doctrines of the virgin birth and the immaculate conception are rooted in or preserved through anxieties about sexuality.

But it's important, when attempting to articulate a liberal religious perspective in a public forum, not to seem unaware of what your opponents actually believe.

("'Da Vinci Code' about God and sex — mostly sex," Cathleen Falsani, Chicago Sun-Times 5.19.06)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 20 May 2006 at 3:45 PM

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Jeff Wilson:

May 20, 2006 03:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

Yup, spotted it right away. I used to make this same mistake myself, it's only since I started grad school in religious studies that this error has been corrected in my own misconceptions. I have to say, none of the Catholic kids I happened to know growing up realized that it refered to Mary's birth either.

I saw The DaVinci Code last night. Every showing was sold out. I think the New York Times review was more or less on target (first saw it courtesy of ChaliceChick's pointer), though I enjoyed it overall. My friends did too. We agreed that the main problem was that it went on too long, the action slowed down in the last 45 minutes, and the logic (such as it was) began to really unravel. Plus, it had about four different endings, kind of like the Return of the King.


May 20, 2006 04:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

So, for those of us who never did know Catholic theology, what was it she got wrong?


May 20, 2006 04:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

She used "immaculate conception" to refer to the doctrine of the incarnation. They are two distinct doctrines. Immaculate conception refers to the conception of Mary; incarnation refers to the conception of Jesus.


May 20, 2006 05:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

Pretty common mistake. Even lots of Catholics don't get it. It's much more common than a UU Minister being interviewed in a major paper. Congrats, Debra!

Jeff Wilson:

May 20, 2006 09:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Strange coincidence: I just finished grading the first paper assignment for my Liberal Traditions in American Religious History class, and a student made this very mistake. She happens to be Mormon, not sure how many Catholics she's known.

Chris T.:

May 20, 2006 09:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have to admit, I'm not very impressed with Rev. Haffner's response to this whole thing. I'm not sure what she means about the "immaculate conception" (which I'll read to mean Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit and Mary rather than Joseph and Mary) being a third-century invention. I'm also not sure why Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit is "erotophobic," and the actual Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic-only doctrine; the Protestants who are angry about the movie don't hold that doctrine.

I find Brown's book rather negative for different reasons, though. Why must Mary Magdalene have a sexual relationship with Jesus to validate her critical role as First Apostle and the foundation of the apostolic church? That runs afoul of the very positive work done by feminist scholars in the past century to reclaim Mary Magdalene as a central figure in the Christian story. Rev. Haffner seems to be playing a game of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" rather than thinking out the theological ramifications of Brown's mildly entertaining but rather dim-witted little book.


May 21, 2006 05:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris T -- She's a sexologist -- You know, to a hammer everything looks like a nail....


May 22, 2006 12:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

My beef with the premise is not the heterodoxy or the paganism/occultism or any of the other usual religious objections. It's not even the spurios history. It's the idea that Leonardo would have led a secret cult that was devoted to the feminine principle in divinity, and that celebrated that principle through a ceremony in which its leaders engaged in ritual heterosexual coitus.

Hello? We're talking about Leonardo, not Lothario. It's easier to imagine that Jesus "did it" than that Leonardo did!

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