The National Catholic Review
The Perkiomen valley, some 40 miles north of Philadelphia, may initially appear to have little to connect it with The Da Vinci Code. But travel there to the small town of Pennsburg, Pa., and mention St. Sulpice or Opus Dei in the local diner and you are likely to receive a surprising response. Nothing will be said concerning the Rosslyn chapel or even the controversies surrounding a nearby concrete cathedral set against the flowing Pennsylvania-German landscape that houses the National Centre for Padre Pio, Inc. Rather, what you are likely to hear from your informant is an ironic and rhetorical question, Well, Dan Brown is a Schwenkfelder, you know? posed with a typical Pennsylvania-Dutch wink suggesting a conspiracy deeper than any that a new-age Priory of Sion or modern-day Illuminati might fabricate. He’s a Gerhard, you will be told.

People around Pennsburg know their own secrets: Dan Brown’s grandfather was Sherman Gerhard, an energetic secretary for the Society of the Schwenkfeldian Exiles; and his great-grandfather, Elmer Schultz Gerhard, translated the most important Schwenkfelder defense, by Christopher Schultz (1718-89), A Vindication of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (Norristown, Pa., 1942).

Who Are the Schwenkfelders?

Although there is little to indicate how much personal acquaintance the author of The Da Vinci Code might have with his own genealogical and religious ancestry, Dan Brown’s anti-Catholic genes may be deep-rooted. In 1719 a number of Brown’s Silesian ancestors (Silesia was a German-speaking area until it was annexed by Poland in 1945) faced an investigation by a Jesuit mission as a fourth species of religion (the other three were the legally recognized Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed churches), existing under cover of local Lutherans.

The Jesuits were well informed. Brown’s ancestors had their children baptized and their marriages often blessed in Lutheran churches, but they were hardly Lutherans. For well over 150 years they had continued this open conspiracy, committed to the doctrinal positions of the Silesian nobleman, humanist and reformer Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1489-1561). An irenic theologian of the early 16th century, Schwenckfeld consistently refused to allow his followers to found a church, hoping that his middle way (a via media: his use of the term seems to predate Anglican usage) would afford a return to Christian unity, uniting Wittenberg, Zurich, Geneva and Rome, Marburg and Strassburg, the Anabaptists and the revolutionaries. As a result, it is not surprising that Schwenckfeld could seek refuge at one time with the radicals in Strassburg and at others with the Franciscans at Esslingen and the Benedictines at Kempten. It is because of his commitment to a middle waynot because he rejected the long tradition of the universal churchthat he spoke against the use of humanly fabricated confessional statements and creeds.

Schwenckfeld’s Ecumenical Ideals

Schwenckfeld’s ecumenical hopes in this respect were closely tied to his late-medieval eucharistic piety. As 16th-century reform developed, he grew increasingly concerned over the lack of marked improvement in the lives of those receiving the sacrament. By 1525 he concluded that the phrase This is my body was properly understood as My body is this, namely, food, that is, spiritual food on which the faithful Christian by faith feeds and is nourished daily, and that spiritual reception can be enjoyed quite apart from corporal eating.

Moreover, emphasizing the need for Christians to be at peace with their brothers and sisters before proceeding to the sacrament and recognizing that all Christians at the time were warring with one another, he believed that all (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Anabaptist) were in danger of eating and drinking damnation to themselves. They ought therefore to cease the celebration of the Lord’s Supper until some form of visible unity had been granted. He therefore called for a Stillstand (Standing-Still), a cessation of the Lord’s Supper, a practice maintained by Schwenkfelders until the last years of the 19th century, when, in keeping with most of their free church neighbors, they initiated regular celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. The Schwenkfelder Church now numbers some 3,000 adherents in five local southeastern Pennsylvania churches.

Persecution and Flight

By the early 18th century, as a consequence of their own internal revival and the widespread Pietist renewal among German Protestants at large, the Schwenkfelders came to the attention of the royal authorities responsible for maintaining the established religious order in the respective local territories. According to the law, any religious groups other than Lutheran or Reformed in areas designated for these fell under Catholic jurisdiction, and the Jesuits were assigned to examine the matter.

The Jesuit prosecution was rigorously pursued. Schwenkfelders were enumerated and catechized, and the bodies of those who died before complying were refused commitment in consecrated ground and buried beneath the common cattle path, where a monument commemorating them was erected in the late 19th-century and stands to this day. They were not allowed to sell their property, and in 1726 about half the group fled across the border into Saxony and found haven on the estate of the Pietist and protector of the Moravian Brethren, Count von Zinzendorf. The Jesuit missionaries, after some successes and many failures with the remaining Schwenkfelders, eventually left the area.

Compared with other persecutions of the time, the coercion of the Schwenkfelders was relatively limited. Thirty years earlier the Lutheran Silesian, Quirinus Kuhlmann, was burned as a heretic in Moscow, and only two years before the Jesuits arrived, Swiss Anabaptists were sentenced as galley slaves in Berne. Nevertheless, antagonism to Catholic triumphalism can be rightfully seen as deep-set in the Schwenkfelder tradition and, we might suppose, in Brown as well as an inheritor of that tradition. The difficulty is that the Jesuit mission is only one part of the Schwenkfelder story. Traditions are always larger than their supposed points of origin, and even traumatic points within a tradition do not always determine its future. Certainly this is the case with the Schwenkfelders, one of the few movements whose beginnings were the result, in fact, of ecumenical, not sectarian concerns.

New Liberty and Older Anchors

In 1734 the greater number followed the path of a few earlier emigrants from their community and traveled to America, arriving on Sept. 24 of that year at Philadelphia, a date their descendants continue to celebrate annually. The last remaining Schwenkfelder descendant in Europe died in the early 19th century. In America, however, they prospered, alongside other German-speaking radical reformation communities like the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren, Lutheran and Reformed churches, with Roman Catholics, under Jesuit care, only a few miles away. They spoke the same dialect and formed themselves according to the same Pennsylvania-German culture. Whether or not the anti-Catholicism they inherited would have slowly dissipated in this setting is difficult to know. The tragedy is that as they were anglicized, they adopted, along with their second language, the religious bigotries of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothings and similar groups. What saved them from the worst forms of such adopted prejudices, however, were the deeper wells of their spiritual life. Until well after the Revolutionary War they referred to their community as a society and designated themselves only as Confessors of the Glory of Christ. In this they held closely to their founder’s principles.

Dan Brown, New Age Guru

Despite the primarily eucharistic communal concerns of Schwenckfeld’s theology, the solution it proposed for religious divisions in the Reformation era offered rich soil for a flourishing religious individualism. Faced with confessional disputes and polemics, it was reasonable for believers to argue that the daily spiritual eating of Christ’s body by faith could be separated from any visible participation in practical communal acts of love for God and neighbor. Private judgment replaced concrete credal formulations and liturgical actions, and private judgments quickly turned to mere private opinions. From a community’s adoration of the real presence to an individual’s benediction of present reality is a very short step, and an even shorter one to establishing religion and spirituality as binary opposites.

Between Brown the Schwenkfelder and Brown the new-age guru there is little distance, although the distance marks a vicious separation between knowledge and love, a denial of the devout spirituality of Brown’s religious ancestors and, above all, a rejection of the Trinitarian God who exists alone as a community of loving persons, calling all to fullness of being at the end of time, in favor of a grand spirit as the source of natureone known not as a patriarchal ruler, but as an equally authoritative and singular matriarch. The eternal feminine presses us on.

Adolescent Faith and the Market Spirituality

The Da Vinci Code phenomenon, and the faith it promotes in this respect, is not surprising. One may wonder why anyone would accept fictional assertions about history as true, particularly when they are made by a novel’s archvillainbut not if one understands the adolescent nature of such an acceptance. Adolescents inevitably confuse fact and fiction, and Da Vinci Code faith is clearly adolescent (however aged its adherents). What characterizes that faith overall is its need to reject the world of its elders. A teenager cannot simply say goodbye to maternal obligations and walk off into her own life. Teenagers must continually prove that they are right, and if they come upon fashionable, widely held dismissals of parental views, they eagerly accept them. It is their democratic responsibility after all: one cannot argue with the market.

The market rules in another way as well. Whether all human beings are naturally oriented toward the highest good is an open question. There is, however, ample evidence that human beings have regularly developed cultural and religious superstructures to mirror and offer support for their base economic and material pursuits.

What better codification for the pleasure-seeking, rugged individualists spawned in the consumptive rivers of late capitalism than the Da Vinci Code faith? The novel is the story of conspiring organizations, past and present, good or bad, all driven by a will to power and the control of that last remnant of freedom in the modern world: the solitary, strong warrior male, characterized by his knowledge, intelligence, physical endurance and ability to live without communal commitments of any kind, except insofar as they prove useful in momentary flight. Misogynist to the core, the Da Vinci Code faith leaves its adherents, both men and women, with a single model for imitation: a lone hypocritical hero, praising the eternal feminine as he awakes in the solitude of a rented luxury hotel room, far from his native country, with only memories of the preceding day and his one-night stand with his aptly intellectualized Sophia.

The tragedy here is that Brown did not consider more closely the full dimensions of his Schwenkfelder heritage before setting pen to paper: its commitment to learning and its founder’s ecumenical and human concerns.

Peter C. Erb is associate director of the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center in Pennsburg, Pa., and professor of religion and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. He is also visiting professor of Catholic studies at the Un

Comments

Phillip Stroud | 11/4/2008 - 5:56am
Schwenkfelder and Cathlics, are they one and the same
Joseph Arner | 6/8/2006 - 4:48pm
While I very much enjoyed reading Peter Erb’s “The Schwenkfelder Code,” I would have to object to a few of its assertions. I cringed when the author suggested that a faith based on a fictional narrative was adolescent. Since the embrace of historical-critical methods in the field of biblical scholarship, few would disagree that the bible contains “fictional assertions” which do not uphold an historical integrity. The historian Arnold Toynbee suggested however that the genre of fiction was the most truthful way of communicating a description of human relationship. Artistic recreation reaches more of the intangibles of a human story line. The article assumes that fiction, its depictions being historically inaccurate, is a less adequate technique when communicating truths such as the articles of faith. I would argue the contrary: it is more accurate, especially in the discussion of the transcendent, because through art it relays and evokes the emotive elements of relationship. I do not defend Dan Brown’s work, I would agree with much of Erb’s critique (I especially appreciated his point about the contradiction between Brown’s content and formula in one of the final paragraphs), but in the process of this critique he downgrades the power of fiction and the desire of the human to be involved in another’s story. That is not adolescent. That’s simply human. And it can work both ways, which brings me to another final point.

Despite its misgivings, if the reader were to accept the analogy of a matured faith based on church teaching and history versus an immature faith based on the popularity of a piece of fiction, should maturity so flippantly dismiss immaturity or is there not an obligation to listen, as a parent should, and respect the needs of their children? Regarding the Da Vinci experience as adolescent demonstrates a divide between the church and its flock. We are called to bridge this divide. The point is that there is much to be learned from the phenomena surrounding The Da Vinci Code. One lesson being that the world very often does not listen to historically accurate doctrinal explanations. It listens to stories rich in true and human intangibles. It yearns for the truth of fiction and parable, rather than the truth of catechesis and history. And the church faithful should listen and learn before it thinks of itself as so mature, losing its members to trend because it no longer speaks the world’s language.

Geraldine M. Henry | 2/23/2007 - 4:30pm
After reading “Fiction Trumps Fact,” “Saints or Assassins?” and “The Schwenkfelder Code” (6/5), referring to The Da Vinci Code, both novel and movie, and Dan Brown, the book’s author, I unrespectfully have this to say—Duh! It is one of the most thoroughly entertaining novels and, subsequently, movies to appear in years. I have not come across one person who did not understand it was fiction except for nervous clergy and religious writers. I am a faithful Catholic, as are most of my acquaintances, and we have been insulted by the belief of some of our church leaders that we are too impressionable to be exposed to anything, fact or fiction, resembling a different viewpoint. The laity’s faith is not threatened by Dan Brown, his book or the movie, and explanations and denials by the clergy are simply making a mountain out of a mole hill. Let us enjoy this entertainment and “lighten up.”

Joseph Arner | 6/8/2006 - 4:48pm
While I very much enjoyed reading Peter Erb’s “The Schwenkfelder Code,” I would have to object to a few of its assertions. I cringed when the author suggested that a faith based on a fictional narrative was adolescent. Since the embrace of historical-critical methods in the field of biblical scholarship, few would disagree that the bible contains “fictional assertions” which do not uphold an historical integrity. The historian Arnold Toynbee suggested however that the genre of fiction was the most truthful way of communicating a description of human relationship. Artistic recreation reaches more of the intangibles of a human story line. The article assumes that fiction, its depictions being historically inaccurate, is a less adequate technique when communicating truths such as the articles of faith. I would argue the contrary: it is more accurate, especially in the discussion of the transcendent, because through art it relays and evokes the emotive elements of relationship. I do not defend Dan Brown’s work, I would agree with much of Erb’s critique (I especially appreciated his point about the contradiction between Brown’s content and formula in one of the final paragraphs), but in the process of this critique he downgrades the power of fiction and the desire of the human to be involved in another’s story. That is not adolescent. That’s simply human. And it can work both ways, which brings me to another final point.

Despite its misgivings, if the reader were to accept the analogy of a matured faith based on church teaching and history versus an immature faith based on the popularity of a piece of fiction, should maturity so flippantly dismiss immaturity or is there not an obligation to listen, as a parent should, and respect the needs of their children? Regarding the Da Vinci experience as adolescent demonstrates a divide between the church and its flock. We are called to bridge this divide. The point is that there is much to be learned from the phenomena surrounding The Da Vinci Code. One lesson being that the world very often does not listen to historically accurate doctrinal explanations. It listens to stories rich in true and human intangibles. It yearns for the truth of fiction and parable, rather than the truth of catechesis and history. And the church faithful should listen and learn before it thinks of itself as so mature, losing its members to trend because it no longer speaks the world’s language.