The world today is too big; too full of sheer human inertia. I don’t think any of us can comprehend the magnitude of cultural currents as we drop pebbles just to watch the water ripple. We think ourselves educated, well-read, perhaps a little hungry for exploration but for the most part masters of our own little worlds and the way things are. And every once in a while we are lucky enough to get enough of a peek out of our own paradigms to realize that we don’t know anything. This happens culturally; this happens spiritually. And when it happens, the results are usually exhilarating and terrifying.
As missionaries in Japan, we didn’t meet many Christians. But we met a lot of savvy, educated people. And a lot of them had seen The DaVinci Code. It was an odd development halfway through my mission when casual street contacts evolved from “Oh, you’re Christians! My daughters go to Christian school!” into “Oh, you’re Christians! I know all about Christianity. I watched The DaVinci Code.”
It made me want to pound my head against the pavement every time I heard it. Some will praise Dan Brown for opening a discourse; for “getting people talking” about religion and art and things that they hadn’t talked about before. But there is a large oversight in just about everything the Anglophone world produces; we forget that we export it. Sure, maybe mature, educated Americans need to talk about religion. (I’m not sure that an anti-Christian pseudo-intellectual rampage is the way to go about opening a discourse, but that’s for another, slightly more vitrolic conversation that is inconsistent with the nice person I’m trying to become) But mature, educated people of other cultures who are unfamiliar with the backstory, the centuries of cultural context, and the basic religious tenets involved are NOT prepared to sit as unbiased observers when presented with such inflammatory art. The only thing The DaVinci Code accomplished in the East was to muddy the waters and cloud cross-cultural understanding.
Which brings me to why I’m hesitant to recommend to you the following book.
Not that The Dynasty of the Holy Grail is in any way comparable to The DaVinci Code. One is an academic labor of love; one is pulp fiction. But the underlying dread I feel at the thought of unleashing their premises on an unprepared world is similar. I have come to a resolution, however, that allows me to proceed. I will share this with you a bit later.
Dr. Vern Swanson has been researching the premise of this book for nearly 30 years. He is an art historian, director of the Springville Museum of Art, and part of the nucleus of the very very small avant-garde Mormon art scene. He is fully qualified to draw many of the conclusions he draws. He follows up his conjectures with extensive references, though his conjectures could be construed as so heretical and utterly outside of our paradigms as to make any kind of bibliography moot. But in all fairness, the Joseph Smith history has no bibliography at all.
The thought of Christ being married rocked the Christian world. Dr. Swanson gets over that in the first chapter. He then proceeds to drag you on to this wild ride. Christ wasn’t merely married – we get to use the P word. Joseph Smith isn’t just a nice guy who found an old book, he is the literal direct descendant of Jesus Christ. Oh, and by the way, the Virgin Mary was from England.
There are enough paradigm shifts in this book to equal a carriage return. I found it an extremely shocking work, but perhaps that’s because it shocks in the only way our dulled postmodern neurons can be shocked anymore – with pure, bold honesty.
The book is very academic, which is refreshing in a world where academia rarely takes Mormonism seriously and, I hate to say it, vice versa. It’s speculative, of course, and I have a hard time deciding whether it’s history or art history or scriptural commentary. That is perhaps the most refreshing attribute – however extreme the premises, the text is very well-supported scripturally. In fact, it makes me a little hesitant to read Isaiah in a room by myself.
However one interprets the revolutionary sentiments set forth in this book, it does set itself apart from much of Mormon academia in one very admirable way. By way of contrast, I mention a book I found at my public library a few weeks ago, a loosely edited, incongruent and a bit spiteful collection of essays on Mormon feminism called Women and Authority. Do Mormon academics have valid things to say to the world? Both works attempt to prove so. But while the feminist writers led by Maxine Hanks attempt to do so with outrage and condescension, Swanson writes honestly, humbly, and from his heart. The contrast is even more evident in the way Swanson treats the holiest of controversies as compared to the tactics of New York Times Bestseller Dan Brown. Swanson is, for all his human and academic flaws, a man in whom there is no guile.
Which is where I need to insert the disclaimer that you please don’t petition your local Barnes & Noble to stock this book. The last chapter of Dynasty addresses the Sacred Silence that surrounds the issue of Christ’s marriage within church official policy and doctrine. The modern prophets and historical Christian leaders have not “covered up” this tantalizing conspiracy throughout the ages; Swanson proves relatively convincingly that the grail knights and the fictional Priory of Sion and the Freemasons are quite innocent of covering up something they understood absolutely nothing about. Rather; those who have searched the scriptures (and who, reading the Joseph Smith Translation’s rendering of John 20’s “touch me not!” injunction could fail to wonder?) and studied out mysteries for themselves have come to know sacred truths and also come to know when these things need to be “kept” and “pondered in [their] heart[s].” These things touch upon the sublime and the beautiful, and they need to be treasured and kept safe in an arid library where seeking minds can, in due time, find them. They do not need to be flying off of conveyor belts at discount prices.
But, and it is Swanson’s final conclusion that persuades me, as well, to speak openly of these things, those who want to defame and sully have already opened the discourse for us. And perhaps it behooves a few of us, and I’m grateful we have some qualified and dignified scholars willing to try, to speak clearly and honestly of things that have such profound eternal import.
If it interests you, please purchase and read (and email Dr. Swanson your edits and comments; it’s still a first draft) Dynasty of the Holy Grail: Mormonism’s Sacred Bloodline. Disagree with it if you will. But please don’t start writing the screenplay or calling publishing houses in Tokyo.