Susan Vigilante: Opus Dei 101 (Investigating a “history” class)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Susan Vigilante blogs from Minneapolis at]

So here I am facing another Minnesota winter, looking to expand my mind. Naturally I turn to "The Winter & Spring 2006 Community Education Catalog" of the Eden Prairie, Minnesota public schools, where I see the very first course offering is "Da Vinci Code Historical Seminar."

Did you find the historical events in the 2003 fictional best-seller interesting but too fantastic to believe? Actually, most of the background items cited in the book were tied to events purportedly recorded in history.

I struggled with "purportedly recorded" for a while, but decided to move on. As the rest of the description made clear, the point of this course is to explain how The DaVinci Code, the Dan Brown novel that claims Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a baby and that Opus Dei is a murderous conspiracy charged with protecting the Divine Descendents, is like, you know, historical and stuff.

What really made me pause however was this line: "The Priory of Sion actually existed since 1099, and Opus Dei frightfully exists right here in the U.S.A., today!"

The Priory of Sion — the even older alleged conspiracy to protect the alleged descendents of Jesus Christ — certainly did not exist since 1099 (or ever), being a 1960s fabrication of a convicted French swindler. Asserting in a public-school program — even one for adults — that it actually existed amounts to using the public schools to spread anti-Christian and specifically anti-Catholic propaganda. The line about Opus Dei's very existence in the U.S. being frightening suggests the same, and then some.

Meet the Historian
I'm not a fan of Catholics joining the whiners' club. A few sub-literate paragraphs in a course catalog aren't the end of the world. Ultimately, though, it was the incompetence that prompted me to look into what was going on. The way the course description read, somebody had probably just been asleep at the switch. They'd probably want to know.

I called the school district and asked to speak to the person in charge of community education. I was referred to Ann Coates, the executive director, but was told she was not in. So I tracked down Mr. George Tkach, the teacher of the "Da Vinci Code Historical Seminar" in Eden Prairie's "Adult Academy."

Mr. Tkach (pronounced t'kosh) is a retired Navy officer. Describing himself as a "major fan of art history" who is "deeply interested in the Gnostic Gospels and Coptic Christianity." He also told me he was trained as an engineer.

Mr. Tkach is a nice man, more in the great American autodidact — harmless-eccentric tradition than the not-so-great American white-sheet-wearing tradition. He chatted amiably about the lecture he's planning, though he did want to know if I was Catholic before going into details.

He asked me if I had read the novel. When I told him I had (as much as I could stand, anyway — its' a really lousy book) he seemed relieved.

"That's good," he said. "Some dioceses have outlawed the book, you know. Several bishops have forbidden people to read it."

(Later I called the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, just on the wild chance this might be true. After an astonished "What?" the spokesman there said, "I never heard of such a thing.")...

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More Comments:

Jim Williams - 1/30/2006

I beg to disagree. I am not a Catholic, but Brown's portrayal of the Catholic church as engaged in a millennia-long conspiracy to cover up the "truth" and murder those who know it is offensive to me because it is patently untrue. Furthermore, Brown's Biblical scholarship, use of Gnostic sources, art history, and medieval/renaissance history all have what the prominent, skeptical NT historian Bart Ehrman calls "howlers". The work doesn't encourage useful debate about Christianity; it encourages conspiracy-mongering. Unfortunately, it has made oodles of money; even more sadly, Ron Howard directs the movie.

Tim Matthewson - 1/28/2006

I think that both "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Passion of the Christ" have proven to be beneficial in that they have stimulated discussion about Christianity and drawn out more informed opinions about a pivotal issue in American history.
Those who complain about them appear to be those who don't want people to make up their own minds about such important questions. In the Catholic Church, the laity is supposed to following and donate and keep their mouths shut; that's why the Church created its syllabus of errors and index of prohibited books, taking a stance that is and has been fundamentally opposed to free inquiry and open discussion per se.