But many people seem to share my hunch that neither a formulaic religious approach nor a materialistic secular approach has it all nailed down. Think of all the people who in recent years have read (or seen) The Da Vinci Code--not just as a popular page-turner but as an experience in shared frustration with the status-quo, male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up-prone organized Christian religion. Why is the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown's book more interesting, more attractive, and more intriguing to these people than the standard version of Jesus they hear about in churches? Why would they be disappointed to hear that Brown's version of Jesus has been largely discredited as fanciful and inaccurate, leaving only the church's conventional version? Is it possible that even though Brown's fictional version misleads in many ways, it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church's conventional versions of Jesus may not do him justice?
Brian McLaren, the secret message of jesus, p. X
I suppose one may really wonder if he truly expects this "sympathy for the devil" approach to really lead anywhere good.
For example, he asks why people may prefer Brown's fictional Jesus to the real one. But a follow-up may be asked, why should they not? For one thing, fiction is often on the surface more interesting than real life. One reason for that is because fictional character, even historical fiction ones, do things that, likely, a real person cannot do--go on long journeys to throw rings into volcanoes, fly to the stars, descend to the depths of the earth, take shotguns to zombies, and so on. Considering the large amount of fiction out there, in reading and viewing materials (and as one who reads and views fiction a lot, I'm not prepared to condemn it, but it is an observation), I would say that people are likely disposed to seeing fiction as interesting, especially as compared to the supposed mundaneness of their own lives.
But there is more to this than that, I think, especially as it relates to Jesus. If we could go back to Jesus' day, or maybe a bit after, say a few years after His resurrection, and told people the types of things about Jesus which Brown writes about--Jesus didn't really die, he was secretly married, and so on--who would be the people who would most likely believe those tales? While there would likely be scattering over several circles, I think it safe to say that those who would be most against Him and His Church would be the ones most likely to buy into the stories. Remember, they were the ones who started the tradition of remaking His history to their own ends, with bribing the guards at His tomb to say that He hadn't really resurrected, but to instead say that His body had been stolen.
Anything, then, that would have lessened the impact of the real Jesus would have been welcomed by them.
And, so, we come to today. Who would most welcome these revisions of Jesus' life? Look at the peope who even now say that the Gospels are mostly fake history, or those who say that Jesus' death would be an example of "divine child abuse" if it really happened. Look at those who really have bought into the Gnostic things Brown delves into. Look at those who say truncate Jesus' life, saying that the real Jesus has largely been lost in this early-church-created fiction of Jesus as Christ. Dan Brown is far from the only person out there playing shenanigans with Jesus' life. The only reason he's gotten so much press is that he's likely been the most popular one, and his work, being a work of fiction, has been most accessible to people.
But the fact that some (even many) people prefer a fictional Jesus to the real one doesn't invalidate in itself the message of Jesus that the church has given to the world. The church has been far from perfect, yes, but as well, it has been far from the blight that many, included McLaren, have at times tried to spin it as (the fact that Brown focus' on the Catholic church, a large but rather controversial section of the church with many very questionable teachings and practices, makes the debate tricky). The real Jesus is hard, He demands things, and even unpleasant things.
He tells people to repent of their sins, and they may not want to, especially of sins they enjoy. They would rather grasp for any straw that lets them think that their sin isn't really sinful, or that those who say it is sin have their own problems and shouldn't judge.
He tells people to take up their cross and follow Him, and they would rather not do that. Better to put on a show, change the standards to fit ones own desires, than take up an instrument of death and really follow Him.
Little about the real Jesus would appeal to fallen man. They may like the miracles, and can find ways to make the parables fit their own ends with a little creative reinterpretation or deconstruction, but when all else fails, they'll turn to the fictionalized versions to fill in the gaps.
So, Brown's popularity is not really a signal against the church, but only another example of how people would trade the truth of God for a lie.