When Linda McCormick finally got around to reading The Da Vinci Code - having heard about the plot, she resisted the blockbuster thriller for a time as sacrilegious - the Cockeysville woman found it to be a breezy read.
The novel by Dan Brown, which hinges on alleged efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to cover up a supposed marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, did not shake McCormick's Christian faith.
But the claims it makes - about the early church, for example, and the process by which the Bible was compiled, and when it was that Christians began believing in the divinity of Jesus - did leave her with some questions.
"I was hoping to look at it from a biblical perspective," said McCormick, a member of Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium. "I'm not a theologian, but I like to learn what I can about my faith."
Which is why she spent Saturday evening with several dozen other Christians at the evangelical church, discussing Gnosticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the ancient codices found at Nag Hammadi.
With the Ron Howard film of the novel expected to dominate the box office this weekend, churches across the country are leading outreach sessions and holding discussions to tell what they say is the real story.
Some Christians, such as a group that gathered Sunday outside Regal Cinemas in Hunt Valley, already are protesting a film they are calling blasphemous. But in the latest expression of the growing Christian engagement with popular culture, many others are seizing the moment to spread the Gospel message.
"We're calling it the Da Vinci opportunity," said the Rev. Mike Donohue, who led the discussion at Grace Fellowship. Brown, Donohue said, "was able to raise interest in the first three centuries of church history where frankly there hadn't been much interest before."
"I think a lot of his arguments are not great arguments," he said. "I don't embrace them. I don't think they stand up historically or theologically. But he told a great story and got people interested, and for that I give him credit."
Not everyone is so appreciative. The 2003 novel, which has sold more than 40 million copies, depicts a church intent on keeping the supposed progeny of Jesus a secret. Some Vatican leaders have urged a boycott; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has assembled a Web site called "Jesus Decoded" to address the claims.
"It is an opportunity to raise these questions with Catholics, and to have them discuss them, and to give them good solid information about Christ and the origins of Christianity," said Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, a spokesman for the conference.
"Still, it would be better not to have to do it in the situation of correcting a good deal of misinformation," he said. "We're taking advantage of the situation, but it's not the optimum way to proclaim the Gospel."
At Hunt Valley, where The Da Vinci Code is scheduled to open Friday, two dozen Catholics held signs Sunday that read "Defend Our Lord!" and prayed the Rosary.
"The Lord is being blasphemed in such a horrendous way," said Allwyn Albuquerque of Baltimore, who said he had read excerpts from the book but had no plans to see the movie: "I'm horrified that the divinity of our Lord is questioned."
The Rev. Mark Adams, the pastor of Redland Baptist Church in Rockville, sees The Da Vinci Code "as an attack on our faith in many, many ways." But he doesn't plan to discourage his congregation from seeing the movie. Instead, he has been leading a series of study sessions based on Discussing the Da Vinci Code, a new book and DVD by Lee Strobel and Garry Poole, and was planning a sermon on the subject for Sunday.
"I think that this is a chance where God will take something that man meant for wrong and use it in a great way," Adams said. "A lot of people are going to be talking about, well, who was Jesus Christ, and how do you become one of his followers, and what is the church really like, and why do they think the Bible is authoritative?"
In what has been seen as a shrewd piece of marketing, Da Vinci Code film producer Sony Pictures Entertainment has encouraged such debate. Sony has joined with Grace Hill Media - the public relations firm that helped to promote The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to religious audiences - to solicit critiques of The Da Vinci Code by Christian leaders.
Bishops' conference spokesman Maniscalco, conservative commentator Chuck Colson, Breaking the Da Vinci Code author Darrell L. Bock and several others have contributed to the new Web site Sony has dubbed "The Da Vinci Dialogue."