Read all about it! ...sifting secrets of 'The Da Vinci Code'

At dawn, somewhere between Calais and Cannes, I woke up in what the French call a couchette, a train compartment with six bunks. Badly rested, I went in search of coffee. When I discovered this was a train without food, my disappointment, which I did not keep to myself, reached a porter in first class.

At this time, France and America got along. When the porter heard that an American woman, about to see the Côte d'Azur for the first time, longed to see it with a café au lait, he invited me to first class: an empty compartment, a private window and a petit déjeuner.

Some destinations disappoint. The South of France surpassed my expectations. There were fields of pink-red poppies, hill towns that rise like myths, olive tree groves, a sapphire sea - and all this witnessed with café au lait in hand. After that first inebriating visit, on hearing the legend that Mary Magdalene lived her last years in France, I thought: of course, along with Apollo, Aphrodite and the whole divine clique.

After Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" was published, I was eager to read that tale of Magdalene mystery. The Robert Ludlum-like plot carries one through a series of revelations concerning the lost Gnostic Gospels, the Holy Grail and Mary Magdalene's role in the Christian church and her legendary final years in France. Most startling, "The DVC" claims Jesus and Mary were married and began a holy bloodline.

Even allowing for fictional license, the way Brown's novel presents theory as researched fact is a very large stretch. However, the revelations in "The DVC" are a beguiling Pandora's box of early Christian beliefs, locked up for centuries.

Now, for the convenience of those who want to investigate this Pandora's box and separate fact from wishful thinking, Dan Burstein's "Secrets of the Code" offers help. An award-winning journalist and author of six books on global economics, including "Road Warriors," he has collected articles and interviews by world-renowned theologians, scientist, philosphers, historians, and art historians and written his own summaries on what in "The DVC" is good research, and what is mist and mystery.

Burstein read Dan Brown's novel in one night. "I was as intellectually challenged as I had been by any book I had read in a long time. I wanted to know what was true and what was not.... As soon as my local bookstore opened, I was there, sipping latte and rummaging through scores of books that had been mentioned or alluded to in 'The Da Vinci Code.'"

After reading through hundreds of dollars worth of books and materials, and after talking with friends about their reactions, he thought of bringing excerpts together in a single volume so others could sample them. He discovered books referred to in "The DVC" and listed on Brown's web site were selling well, and decided an unauthorized reader's guide might be welcome. He was right. "Secrets of the Code," has been a New York Times bestseller for weeks.

Burstein's material addresses questions such as: Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute, and if she was not, why did the church say she was? Did she and Jesus marry? Did she go to France; and did she play a greater role in Christianity than has been taught? He includes material on what the Gnostic Gospels offer Christian history and philosophy, and why they were suppressed. There is also material on Leonardo Da Vinci, plus the Knights Templar, the Priory of Zion and Opus Dei.

Among the most solid pieces of research included by Burstein are those by Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University and author of "The Gnostic Gospels" and the bestselling "Beyond Belief." She orients the Gnostic Gospels in Christian history and theology.

Perhaps the most valuable item in the Pandora's box Dan Brown throws open are those gospels, sacred books from early Christianity discovered in 1945 in a cave near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. They rewrite early Christian history and reopen an old struggle between what is heretical and what is not. They point to the question: is the notion of heresy even relevant to a spiritual path?

If, as the revised story goes, those in political power consolidated the Christian faith several centuries after the crucifixion and suppressed the ideas that threatened their control, this seems to be not Christianity but tyranny. As Tolstoy wrote, long before the lost gospels were found: "The church is an assembly of men asserting that they are in possession of the indisputable truth. Heresy is the opinion of people who do not recognize the in-disputableness of the church truth."

Among the more theoretical pieces Burstein includes are those on a holy bloodline. "The DVC" cites several books as historical evidence for its theories, such as "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," which Burstein says "is gen-erally considered to be an occult stew of myth, legend and outright hoax, mixed in with some very intriguing historical details."

Burstein's essays at the start of each section are among the most interesting part of his collection. He welcomes the dialogue, the church retreats, the gatherings of experts, the flurry of articles, the discussions on philosophy, religion and history, that Brown's novel has stirred up.

For my part, the new discoveries are exciting. I would like to believe that Mary Magdalene lived in France. But although a holy bloodline theory may have an electric glow, in the end do not religious values come down to character, not heritage? Our democracy values ideals like that of American revolutionary writer and thinker Thomas Paine, "that virtue and humility are not hereditary."

Research on whether or not Mary Magdalene lived in France is, I suspect, only beginning. But, although "The Da Vinci Code" is good fiction, if the legend is true I think her influence may live less in intellectualized theories and odd goddess rites than in a book like "Entre Nous, or How to Find Your Inner French Girl."

I like to imagine the Magdalene as a poised and practical lady, who, since Jesus asked his followers to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him, insisted that the table setting be elegant, the bread substantial and tasty, and the wine incomparable.

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