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The gospel according to Dan Brown

Twenty-seven isn't a huge number, but it's nearly two times the normal turnout for the Gulfport library's monthly book group. The seats at the long tables have been filled. Latecomers take their coffee and sugar-sprinkled cookies to a row of chairs in back.

There are a few men, but mostly women, retirees with spectacles and short silver hair. Library director Kitty Smith, in a corner chair, lays the groundwork for a cordial discussion.

The Da Vinci Code, she says, held her interest. It's a page-turner, full of adventure, she adds carefully, a book people can discuss _ "no matter your religious beliefs."

But it's impossible to talk about Dan Brown's New York Times bestseller without delving into religion.

The tale is about a Harvard symbologist who deciphers a series of codes revealing long-held religious secrets about Jesus _ that he was married to Mary Magdalene, that she was a powerful force in the early church, that the patriarchal Catholic Church erased her prominence from history.

The book is classified as fiction, but the issues it raises are very real. For years theologians have studied the role of Mary Magdalene, the majority of them dismissing the idea that Jesus had sex, let alone a wife or child.

With more than 5.5-million copies in print, The Da Vinci Code is steadily ingratiating itself into pop culture. Bold displays of it in bookstores and grocery stores attract fans who hold it up as evidence of corruption for religiosity's sake, some giving it kudos for tackling women's lib issues.

Others call the book heretical. College professors study its claims. A debate once relegated to divinity school lecture halls reaches the masses: folks like Pearl, Eunice and Jack in Gulfport. And ministers who would otherwise be oblivious find themselves skimming the scenes of a murder, an albino monk and a romance, just so they can answer parishioners' questions.

"It has touched something," said Duncan Ferguson, a professor and director of the Center for Spiritual Life at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. "Those issues seem to resonate with what contemporary people are thinking and feeling."

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Brown spent a year researching organizations and historical documents before he began to write. His characters are fictional, but the paintings, locations, documents and organizations in the book do exist.

According to his Web site, www.danbrown.com, he became interested in issues raised in The Da Vinci Code while doing research for previous novels.

"I chose this topic for personal reasons _ primarily as an exploration of my own faith and my own ideas about religion," he wrote on the site.

In the Web site's Q&A, Brown responds to the question: "Some of the history in this novel contradicts what I learned in school. What should I believe?"

"Since the beginning of recorded time, history has been written by the "winners' (those societies and belief systems that conquered and survived)," he writes. "Despite an obvious bias in this accounting method, we still measure the "historical accuracy' of a given concept by examining how well it concurs with our existing historical record. Many historians now believe (as do I) that in gauging the historical accuracy of a given concept, we should first ask ourselves a far deeper question: How historically accurate is history itself?"

Most historians shake their heads at The Da Vinci Code, saying the questions raised have little basis in fact, although the book implies they do.

Three things about the book click with readers, said Karen L. King, professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard University. First, "the conspiracy theory of the book, I think, resonates with the people's sense that they want to know the church," she said.

For instance, many Catholics maintained for more than 1,000 years that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or a promiscuous woman, before the characterization was formally denounced in the 1960s, King said. The mixed opinions on Mary Magdalene have piqued interest in the ancient woman and, for some, add to the possibility that her role was much greater than church hierarchy admits even now.

Second, Mary Magdalene's role in the book gives rise to the idea of a larger role for women in the church. And, also, the idea that Jesus and Mary were married "seems to sanctify heterosexual marriage," in other words it gives the marital bed the same sacredness once set aside for celibacy.

But are these things true?

"No," says King, whose book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala was released in November. King was also interviewed in the ABC News special Jesus, Mary and DaVinci, a documentary that explored issues raised in the book.

"There's no historical evidence that Jesus and Mary were married," King said.

She also disputed another issue raised in the book: That the person sitting to Jesus' right in Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper _ the person thought to be the apostle John _ is actually Mary Magdalene. Theorists have raised that question before, but historians firmly hold that it is a young John, she said.

Certainly, Mary was close to Jesus. King even goes further than some theologians, saying she may have been an apostle in the early church. But not Jesus' wife, nor the mother of his child, she said.

Other scholars and clergy have reacted similarly to the book.

"Should I take it seriously?" Eckerd College students have asked Ferguson.

"The novel overplays its hand because that's what good novels do," he tells them. "It gets you excited. But there's not much historical evidence that Jesus was married."

James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries who specializes in apologetics and lives in Phoenix, called the book "an old ploy," part of an increasingly popular movement intended to debunk Christian beliefs about Jesus.

Priests have fielded questions from congregants. The Rev. Bob Schneider at Espiritu Santo in Safety Harbor perused the book in the airport so he could answer their questions more thoroughly. He has read theological writings about Mary Magdalene's role in the church. About two dozen members have asked him Da Vinci Code questions in recent months. He reassures them of Jesus' bachelorhood.

After turning through the book, Schneider said he better understood the interest. "It's written so well and so convincingly."

And some are convinced. Donna Simonzi, a reader and an interfaith minister in Zephyrhills, said she loves The Da Vinci Code. "It's more exposure of the church," the former Catholic said. "I do believe that there's a bit of truth in gest."

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Linda Morris, perhaps the youngest in the Gulfport group at 39, raises her hand. "My boyfriend is Jewish," she says. She's Protestant, and they read The Da Vinci Code together. It has made them question their faiths.

"There's so many things we take as is," she says. "But you read someone who's done a lot of research . . . You read this book and you're like, "Whaaaat?' "

"Keep in mind it's fiction," Smith, the library director, says.

"But with fact," Morris says.

"It changes your views on religion quite a bit," Robert Stephen chimes in. "It shows that man can change the way you write stuff. . . . Was Jesus who he claimed to be?"

Across the room, Jack Burton nods. He has always wondered whether Jesus and Mary were a couple. But what interested him even more was the group Opus Dei, portrayed in the novel as a powerful group associated with the Catholic Church. A main character, the albino monk, inflicts pain on himself as absolution for murdering four men at the behest of Opus Dei's leadership.

Burton had never heard of them before. "I'm really concerned about this group," he says. Is it as powerful as portrayed in the book?

Morris looks around bewildered. "I thought that was fiction."

But others have read up on Opus Dei. Its Web site, www.opusdei.org, describes the 80,000-member organization as "a personal prelature of the Catholic Church" founded in 1928 with offices in New York.

(Opus Dei posted a response to the book on its Web site: "Notwithstanding the book's marketing promotion and its pretension to authentic scholarship, the truth is that the novel distorts the historical record about Christianity and the Catholic Church and gives a wholly unrealistic portrayal of the members of Opus Dei and how they live.")

Rikki Lewis questions whether there's more to Brown's books than good storytelling. She also read Angels & Demons _ another Brown thriller entwining science, religion and the Vatican, she tells the group. Having read both, "I said, "Whoa, this guy has something against the Catholic Church.' "

Meanwhile, Stephen passes around two books with color pictures of da Vinci's The Last Supper.

Morris looks at the picture. That's definitely a woman sitting to Jesus' right, she says to herself.

Eunice Shatz, 72, not shy about speaking her mind, keeps the discussion going. Brown's depiction of the church's power was what fascinated her _ the feminist issues, the way women were treated.

"Power and the institutions that have it become so compelling because those people who want to hold onto it do what they can to hold onto it," she says.

Pearl Fellman, 87, has her hand up. "To me, I thought it was a lot like a Western," she says. "They were always escaping, and another adventure."

It would make sense that Jesus were married, Fellman says. "As a Jewish man, Jesus was expected to be married."

"It's interesting how we tend to see what we expect to see," says Shatz, getting back into the discussion. "We never really get the possibility of something else until someone introduces the possibility."

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