The best thing about a basically free and open culture—what I call the Omniculture—is that a wide variety of voices and opinions get aired. Yes, there will be much that any particular individual doesn’t like; that’s guaranteed. But in any such cases you can rest assured that there will also be a chance for the very opposite thought or opinion to be heard.
That’s the case with The Last Templar, a four-hour miniseries which played recently on NBC TV. Starring Mira Sorvino as a brilliant archaeologist and martial arts expert, The Last Templar is a fanciful and indeed frequently silly story about the hunt for an ancient document that could shake the foundations of Christianity if it should come to light.
If that sounds familiar, it’s obviously because of the similarities to The Da Vinci Code, the bestselling novel by Dan Brown and film by Ron Howard. In both Brown’s novel and the Howard movie, the protagonist’s quest leads to the revelation that Christianity as we know it is a sham invented by the Catholic Church to allow a small group of people to have undue power over the world. According to The Da Vinci Code, Jesus Christ did not die on a cross but instead married Mary Magdalene and had a family, and his descendants are alive today.
That’s all taken from a set of arguments presented by three men in England a couple of decades ago, which outlined this amusingly preposterous theory in a couple of suitably paranoid and apocalyptic books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Brown’s story is more of a jeu d’esprit, albeit badly written and boring, but Christians understandably took great offense to its thesis.
The furor will surely resume this spring as we approach the May 15 release of the film version of Angels and Demons, Brown’s prequel to The Da Vinci Code. However, those who find that Brown’s book insults Christianity and spreads lies about their religion should take comfort in the fact that The Last Templar takes a Christian perspective on that story line.
After a long, long narrative that jumps from the United States to Turkey and includes more than enough chase scenes and characters mucking about in old ruins, the protagonist, Tess Chaykin (Sorvino), finds the document everyone has been seeking. It was preserved by the Templars over the centuries and purports to be a lost "gospel" written by Jesus Christ himself, in which he claims to be a mortal human being, not the Son of God as described in the Bible.
Upon finding the document, Tess tries to convince her main antagonist, the sinister weirdo William Vance, that no one can ever know whether what the document says is true anyway: a two-millennium-old hoax is still a falsehood regardless of how old it is. Nonetheless, Vance is intent on getting the document so that he can use it to "prove" that Christianity is a lot of hooey and thereby end all wars, which he posits are caused solely by religion.
Tess, who started out in the story as an atheist who said she believes only what she can see and God isn’t in that category, has just finished fervently praying for the recovery of her new boyfriend, FBI agent Sean Daly, who is lying in a coma after injuries sustained in a shipwreck (part of the quest, you see). Sean has been portrayed throughout the story as a faithful Catholic and has engaged in several very earnest discussions about religion with Tess, who has satirized and insulted him while he has responded with exceeding reasonableness and kindliness.
Tess has fallen in love with him since these exchanges, and in her anguish over his dire condition, which clearly can be cured only by a huge dose of Hollywood sentimentality and wish-fulfillment, she turns to the only source of miracles she knows; God, of course. Having just done so when confronted by Vance’s arguments for atheism, she desperately tries to convince Vance to give up his quest to destroy all faith in God (which is clearly about as likely as convincing Democrats to give up their addiction to tax dollars).
Alas, her entreaties are all in vain, and the elderly Vance tries physically to wrest the document from her hands. They struggle over it atop a windy bluff overlooking the sea, and not at all surprisingly the pages are dislodged from her grasp, caught by the wind, and carried off into the sea below, never to be recovered. "Crap, now we’ll never know!" says Tess’s crestfallen expression.
What’s particularly dizzying about Vance’s arguments, of course, is that they’re ones that have been frequently made by atheists in recent years in attempts to characterize Christianity as not only wrong but in fact nearly as dangerous as the burning of fossil fuels. This gives the miniseries a bit of extra relevance and piquancy.
The notion that a secret document disproves the Bible’s claims about Christ’s divinity is clearly not going to sit well with Christians, of course, even when the claim is made in fictional form—as the furor over Brown’s novel proved.
(Those who don’t wish to know the resolution of The Last Templar should skip the next paragraph.)
There’s a final twist, however. Although Tess and the others never do find out whether the document is authentic and true (and hence must take their religion on faith, as it were), the audience does get to know the answer. In a flashback to the time when the document was originally hidden, during the Crusades, we find that it is indeed fake, and that it was created for the very same reason as motivated Vance’s crazed quest, the idea that destroying the Christian church would end all wars.
Thus The Last Templar takes pretty much the same material as The Da Vinci Code but posits the exact opposite conclusion.
I imagine that quite a few people watched The Last Templar during its initial showings, and that many more will do so over time. In cultural terms, this exchange of views is exactly what Thomas Jefferson said was the great value of freedom of speech ("Notes on Religion," 1776): "Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself. . . . She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men."
It’s also what he meant when he wrote, "truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them" ("A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom," Chapter 82, 1779).
Just as free speech is the best way of organizing a society politically, it’s also the best way for a culture to grow: freely, without "gatekeepers," censors, or other forcible attempts to convey some opinions and ideas and suppress others. Those who worry about what they see as dangers inherent in cultural freedom would do well to ask themselves whethe
r they’d prefer to live in a society where both The Da Vinci Code and The Last Templar are freely available and they are free to decide whether to watch them and tell their friends and relatives what they think, or in a world where these decisions are made by somebody else.
I know what I would choose, and what Jefferson would choose.
The Last Templar can be viewed online by way of NBC’s Last Templar website.