Riding the coattails of two widely popular and controversial media portrayals, local and national discussion about the historic role of women in the Christian faith tradition has burgeoned in recent months.

Dan Brown's best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code" and Mel Gibson's excruciating film "The Passion of the Christ" have put a new spotlight on both Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary who gave birth to Jesus Christ. Add the exploration of the "sacred feminine" embodied in these women now under discussion among female biblical scholars through the lens of ancient extrabiblical texts, and the broad-based societal anger over orchestrated priestly sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Mix them all together, and you have an expanded discussion that began four decades ago about women's spirituality and how historical depictions of faithful women influence modern religious worship — and how both men and women are exploring the divine in new ways.

Locally, there have been a series of discussions about such issues this summer, including several sessions at the annual Sunstone Symposium devoted to the topic of feminine spirituality. Margaret Starbird, whose early books on Mary Magdalene were cited as providing fodder for "The Da Vinci Code," told scores of Sunstone participants on Thursday that Brown's book brings truth regarding the "myth of the sacred marriage" between Jesus and Mary to light.

The legend that they were married and had a child was "kept alive by an underground stream of art and artifacts in Western Europe" over the centuries, she said. Terming the supposed union "the most important secret of the Middle Ages," Starbird said the marriage represents God in the form of "male and female symbiosis" that goes beyond mere sexuality.

As concern grew over her role as "apostle to the apostles," the one that Jesus loved more than his male apostles, early church leaders set out to suppress her role and voice in Christian tradition, Starbird said.

Ancient texts discovered and translated within the past century — including the "Gnostic gospels" named after Christ's disciples including Thomas, Philip and Mary — have rekindled debate not only about Mary's relationship with Christ and her life after his death, but whether he told her information before his crucifixion that had been withheld from his apostles. Much of the book's conjecture about Mary comes from such noncanonical texts, including the "Gospel of Mary."

Current liberal scholarly discussion about such questions is presented in "The Da Vinci Code" as factual information, shared during the quest by the book's protagonists to find Magdalene's remains and the documents that accompany them. Those documents — which Brown tells readers were retrieved from the Holy of Holies in ruins of the ancient Jewish temple by a real secret society known as the Knights Templar — purportedly show how the early Christian church subverted the role of women.

He makes sweeping statements about an early Christian conspiracy to burn 5 million women as witches throughout Europe and another to cast Mary as a prostitute. There is some truth in both characterizations, but scholars dispute the details. More than a dozen books have been penned in an attempt to separate fact from fiction in "The Da Vinci Code."

Starbird said her research and books document — through mathematical and geometric models — the pivotal role Mary Magdalene played during the time of Christ, yet most in her own Catholic faith don't accept her findings, though she has felt driven to share them with a wider audience.

She remembers praying about 18 months ago, telling God that she was getting too old to effectively spread the message about Mary Magdalene and asking for "another vessel to carry the message out into the mainstream" of public discussion. She said she didn't know Dan Brown, and only found out months later via e-mail from curious friends that he had used her books as a reference in writing the novel.

Maxine Hanks, who said she was excommunicated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints several years ago for her feminist writings, said "The Da Vinci Code" contains "mythic and mystical truths" about the reality of the divine feminine that go beyond determining what parts of the novel are fact or fiction. She believes those who read it will find themselves on their own "quest for hidden wisdom" that is sparked by the fictional search for the Holy Grail.

While many Christian traditions have struggled in the past half century with the changing role of their own female membership — and whether to ordain women — at least one major faith tradition has elevated a historic female figure to the status of near divinity.

Mary, mother of Jesus, is such a central figure in Catholic worship that she has been given the title "queen of heaven," and many consider her a "co-redeemer" with Christ in his mission to bridge the gap between God and humanity, though there has been no papal pronouncement formalizing that status. Prayer, procession, music, devotions and special Masses are devoted to her worldwide, and many of the most famous cathedrals and basilicas in the world are devoted to her special place within the faith.

Some within the church have sought to expand that focus on the "divine feminine" in recent years by sponsoring special celebrations of "the Feast of St. Mary of Magdala" during July in parishes, convents, Catholic schools, retreat houses, private homes and small faith communities. Sponsored by a group of Catholics called FutureChurch, the celebrations "make available contemporary biblical scholarship about Jesus' inclusive practice and provide a venue for Catholic women to serve in visible liturgical roles," according to a press release.

FutureChurch director Sr. Christine Schenk said the move is a way to continue lifting up women in public roles within the faith.

"A number of bishops wouldn't allow women's feet to be washed last Holy Thursday," she said. "This is especially ironic when we remember the prominent role Mary of Magdala and the other women played in accompanying Jesus through crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection while the male disciples fled to Galilee. The Mary of Magdala celebrations help heal some of the effects of such absurdity."

Some believe there was an conspiracy among early Christian hierarchy to downplay the role of women at the time of Christ, particularly Mary Magdalene, whose reputation over the centuries grew to include the inference that she had been prostitute.

Most biblical scholars now agree she was a strong leader, a close companion of Jesus and the first to witness the Resurrection. FutureChurch and other scholars of early Christian women maintain she is likely one of the most misunderstood of all of the figures in the Gospels.

Another group sponsoring working with FutureChurch to sponsor the seminars on Mary is Call to Action. Spokeswoman Linda Pieczynski said she believes "it is especially important for Catholics to celebrate this great woman of faith at a time when it is so clear that church needs the nurturing witness of women. If women and mothers had been integrated into our church's decision-making structures we would not be facing the cover-up of clergy sex abuse that we face today."

While Catholic leaders have not embraced the move among Protestant faiths in recent decades to ordain women, the centrality of and worship that includes Mary provides a female presence that is celebrated. In fact, the assumption of Mary will be celebrated by Catholics this Sunday. It marks the advent of Mary's body and soul being taken into heaven and her coronation as the queen of heaven. In some European cities, the journey is symbolized by carrying her statue through town, as huge candles are lighted in a procession and the blessing of herbs is performed.

Such focus on the "divine feminine" is absent for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to one speaker at Sunstone.

Francis Nelson Henderson wondered aloud whether "LDS women have the self-esteem required to reclaim themselves and their power" in a church that maintains a male-only priesthood and focuses on male divinity. He said God's power "originates inside each one of us" and decried the prescribed roles that he believes LDS leaders have defined for women in the church. "The courage to define oneself is the very essence of Christianity."

"Mary of Nazareth was far from being a timid and submissive woman," he said. "She didn't hesitate to see that God upholds the humble. She was a woman of strength."

Attorney Paul Tinker said the prescription of female roles isn't peculiar to "Mormon culture" or even "to modern times." He believes Latter-day Saints, above any other Christians, have "the potential solution for all of this" discussion about the loss of the divine feminine in Christianity over the ages. "We have this whole concept of a mother in heaven, but we can't talk about it. We have the answer and at the same time, it's taken away from us."

New Age forms of worship that focus on spiritual rituals practiced independently from organized religion have taken root among many Christians in recent years, as people have expanded their personal search for a relationship with the divine. The use of tarot cards and participation in Indian sweat-lodge ceremonies and yoga are among the avenues explored by four LDS women who shared their search for the divine at Sunstone this week.

Doe Daughtrey, a doctoral student in religious studies at Arizona State University, said she hasn't had any conflict with her LDS leaders over her use of tarot cards, possibly because "they don't know anything about it." Her husband was concerned about the cards early on because he thought she had chosen pagan goddess images. But "over the years, he's become very comfortable seeing all my stuff all over the house."

"Mormonism has a very wide history of divination," she said, noting her faith "seems particularly congruent with several forms of divination because we're all told to seek revelation for ourselves."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com