Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Secretive Spirituality of Dan Brown (Dialogue Column 10.6.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter.

When Dan Brown’s novel, The Lost Symbol, hit bookstores, I was quick to pick up a copy. I had read and enjoyed two of his previous books: The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, although I was more than a bit skeptical about his research concerning the history of Christianity. I had high hopes. Brown is not a writer of great literature; his work is meant for a mass audience, but he does have a knack for ending chapters in such a way as to leave the reader unable to resist plunging on ahead to the next one. Also, after the hullabaloo about The Da Vinci Code’s depiction of a secret and alternative history of Christianity, there were a ton of opportunities to get people who would not normally talk about such things thinking about the Bible and how we got it, the reasons some early Christian writings did not make it into the canon, Christianity’s role in the oppression of women and so on. I was hopeful that Brown’s new book would not only be a fun read but also a tool to provoke thought about religious belief.
I was disappointed on both counts.

Dan Brown’s new book is so boring that I could barely finish it. It felt like a poorly written college term paper where the student had done a lot of research and couldn’t help but stick it all in, even if it wasn’t relevant. Even after the climax of the book when the bad guy is vanquished there is still something like 60 pages to go filled with mind-numbing speculation about the universal consciousness of humanity, the merging of science and religion, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. Ugh!

The plot of this novel centers around the Freemasons and their influence upon American history. Although there were some interesting tidbits about architecture in Washington, D.C. (did you know Darth Vader is carved in bas-relief on the exterior of the Washington Cathedral?), I liked the story the first two times I saw it in the movie National Treasure I and its sequel. At least when Nicholas Cage was running around D.C. solving mysteries left by the founding fathers there were car chases and explosions to keep me awake. I don’t know much about Masonic rituals (from what I’ve read Brown keeps things more or less accurate), but where Brown goes off the deep end is in his seemingly endless ruminations upon humanity’s ability to gain god-like wisdom.

Whether it’s Brown’s lead character, the Harvard professor Robert Langdon, or the tattoo-covered sadomasochistic bad guy or some other character in the book, each of them spends a lot of time speaking or thinking about the “ancient mysteries,” which are secret knowledge possessed by one or all of the great ancient civilizations (Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, Greece, etc.) but hidden through the ages until the present time. This secret knowledge is spoken of in the sacred texts of all religions and has been carefully guarded by secret societies until humanity was ready to embrace it.

If this sounds familiar, it is probably because it is the same idea peddled in hundreds—probably thousands—of books generally labeled “New Age” or “Metaphyisical” found in your local book store. It seems that Brown read most of them as “research” for his latest novel. Each claims to possess the secret knowledge that will unleash the human potential hidden in our brains and/or souls and bring about a new age of universal harmony and peace, and of course this knowledge is available to you if you will only buy the book, series of audio recordings or lectures on DVD. In Brown’s novel, it is the Freemasons who have the secret knowledge and they are waiting for the right moment to spring it on the world.

At least in The Da Vinci Code, Brown’s abuse of historical information and basic Biblical knowledge could spark discussion about why men have used religion to control women and other worthwhile topics; his misuse of scripture served a higher purpose. In The Lost Symbol, his prooftexting of Hebrew and Christian scriptures (and I assume Hindu, Islamic and the texts of other religions) could spark no worthwhile discussion at all. The worldview of his characters closely resembles that of early pseudo-Christian movements generally labeled as Gnostics. Centuries ago, they too argued that the Bible was just a set of symbols that only the enlightened could decipher and only they could shed the limitations of their earthly bodies. Such a view denies the very obvious commands of Jesus to love God and neighbor which are offered as the keys to spiritual fulfillment. The ancient Gnostics, Brown’s characters and perhaps even the browsers of the New Age section at book stores alike seek a spiritual knowledge available to only the elite. I’d rather have the love of a God who makes it available freely to all of humanity.

Grace and Peace,

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