The Bookshelf is a much too lightly used feature here at The Manofesto, and that’s my fault. I could blame my job, blame my puppy, blame being involved with church, blame television, etc. But the truth is it is 100% purely me being lazy. That needs to change.
Books are an integral part of my life. I love to read. Reading opens up whole new worlds to a person, taking them on a ride as far as the imagination can travel. Books also educate and inform. I am involved with a ProLiteracy organization mostly because I feel compassion toward those who cannot read, who don’t have the privilege of experiencing the pleasure of losing themselves in a good book. Illiteracy is a damning indictment of both our educational system and the shortcomings of parents, but that’s a whole other can of worms to be opened some other time. My purpose du jour is to review two books that I just recently finished reading, Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and The DaVinci Code.
It took me a long time to finally read these books. I am a Christian, and knowing the basic gist of The DaVinci Code (the second book but the one that caught fire first and became a national topic of debate) and how many fellow Christians felt about its contents I was hesitant to read it. Three things changed my thought process. First, a hardcover copy of DaVinci was available at a ProLiteracy book sale I was working…..for $1, a deal I couldn’t pass up. Secondly, an acquaintance who happens to be a fine, God-fearing, Christian woman mentioned in conversation (a conversation about books…a rare treat but one I always enjoy) that a pastor had told her that Christians should not avoid the book at all and actually needed to read it. Right about that time the Angels & Demons movie was coming out and I became aware of what that book (the first book but the second movie…oh that wacky Opie Cunningham) was about, The Illuminati…..a subject that had always interested me to a degree. The movies were the clinching factor I will admit. I’m a Tom Hanks fan and knew I’d eventually catch the movies on HBO or rent them. So…I picked up a paperback copy of Angels & Demons and decided to read the books in their proper order before that occurred. After reading the books I did see The DaVinci Code on HBO and it was okay.
Any examination of these two books needs to be done from two perspectives…..the literary view and the religious view. An analysis of the book for what it is…a book, a work of fiction…seems the easier of the two tasks, so I shall climb that mountain first.
Warning…..spoilers lay ahead for anyone who hasn’t read these two books or seen the movies. Don’t say I didn’t give you fair notice.
As far as modern popular fiction goes, I’ll give Dan Brown his due. These stories are well written, move at a brisk and exciting pace and tell an absorbing story. I enjoyed Angels & Demons far more than I did The DaVinci Code, and I think there are two reasons for that. First of all, DaVinci had become extremely popular and raised such a ruckus amongst church folks that it was impossible to be as consumed by the story as I likely would have been had I not known the “shocking twist”. I already knew the big reveal was that The Holy Grail isn’t a cup as commonly believed, but a human being, the heroine of the story that turns out to be the only living descendant of Jesus Christ, who according to the storyline married Mary Magdalene and fathered a daughter. With the ultimate ending ruined I was simply left with enjoying the path traveled to arrive at that destination, a trip that was certainly not unexciting. However, that brings me to my second issue…..I had already read Angels & Demons. That story involved The Illuminati threatening to blow up The Vatican during a Papal Enclave, and was fresh, unpredictable, and a great read…a real page turner. The problem is that Brown takes the same basic template used for Angels & Demons and uses it for The DaVinci Code…..comparable characters, similar time frame, very familiar general outline of events. So even if I’d not heard about The DaVinci Code ad nauseum for months before I’d read it I would have probably figured it all out anyway. Many authors have created a memorable main character (as Brown has here with Professor Robert Langdon) and written multi-volume series starring that character. That isn’t a problem at all if done right. But the fact is that DaVinci is just a repetitive sequel to the much superior Angels & Demons. It’s like watching Vegas Vacation or The Godfather III…..it’s not terrible in and of itself, but it’s been done before and been done better. I read somewhere that Brown has about a dozen more Robert Langdon novels planned. If that is true he’s going to have to find fresh territory for his guy to trapse through, otherwise we’re going to tire of him very quickly and move on to something original.
Now for the deeper and more disturbing scrutiny, that of looking at these novels through the prism of God.
I’m a Christian, but I’m far from a prude. I’m not easily offended but I do have my beliefs and convictions. This has a tendency to put me in the crosshairs of both fellow Christians, who I am sure think I’m not quite hardcore enough, and the non-believer/atheist/agnostic types who I am sure subconsciously brand me a Bible Thumper or a Jesus Freak. I’ve reached a point in my life where I realize I cannot please everyone and have pretty much stopped trying. That being said, I do try to please God and live every day more Christ-like than the day before, so as I grow older and stronger in my faith I am assuming I will tick off fellow Christians less and annoy the heathens more.
The author, Dan Brown, claims to be a Christian. That would probably be mildly surprising news to anyone who has read these novels. The books both show a disdain for the church (specifically The Catholic Church) and paint religion as the bad guy. In Angels & Demons the underlying story is the battle between science and religion, with religion being painted as the bad guy desperate to hold onto its power. A pope, dead as the story begins, is revealed to have fathered a child. That child, who grew up to hold a very important position within The Vatican, is revealed to be a crazed murderer. The scientists are the good guys. In The DaVinci Code the church is written as the mastermind of the most massive cover-up in history. In this universe Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute…..that is a lie fabricated to downplay her importance. Instead, Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus but the church covered that up and put a little creative spin on the life of Jesus Christ, fabricating his divinity for the sake of power.
Dan Brown’s beef could very well be with The Catholic Church explicitly. If so that wouldn’t be a huge mountain to overcome. I know a lot of believers who have issues with the church…..church politics, church hypocrisy, church legalism. I myself differentiate between faith and religion. My difficulty is that Brown takes whatever issues he may have a bit too far, especially in DaVinci. In recent times we’ve seen a lot of clergy fall from grace…..TV evangelists who cheat on their wives, priests being accused of sexual misconduct, ministers being exposed as money grubbing charlatans. That’s why I don’t have a huge problem with Angels & Demons…..it simply presents a priest as being something other than what he is believed to be, something we’ve seen occur in real life far too many times. However, in DaVinci the very foundation of the entire faith is called into question. One guy isn’t discovered to be a bad seed…..the whole enchilada is made out to be one giant lie. That’s quite problematic. I am a person who believes The Bible to be the foolproof Word of God. Something as significant as Jesus being married likely would have been mentioned. I’ve read arguments that say that if Jesus was married that would do nothing to take away his divinity. I’ll admit that’s a fascinating hypothesis, but one that doesn’t hold water when it’s pondered thoughtfully. If He was married then why isn’t it in The Bible? And if it was in The Bible but men who craved power took it out, why would they do that if the marriage itself wouldn’t discount the divinity of Christ? It’s a circular argument that makes no sense either way. The only thing that makes sense is what we’ve always known and believed. It makes sense otherwise we wouldn’t believe it. Granted, faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen…..but that doesn’t mean we’re all a bunch of dopes who’ll believe anything. There’s a reason we believe in God, believe in salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ…..but don’t believe (after a certain age) in Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy, and The Easter Bunny.
I suppose if I was put on the spot I would highly recommend Angels & Demons, but would be far more hesitant to give an enthusiastic thumbs up to The DaVinci Code. The first is an engrossing read that doesn’t necessarily rank up there with actual literature (think Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, etc.) but is a lot better than the cookie cutter romances and action-adventure rubbish you see in the paperback section at WalMart. The latter is not only a stylistic rehash, but also really rocks the boat on the faith front. If you have a strong foundation and aren’t easily swayed then I’d say tread cautiously. If you are a young Christian still trying to find that firm footing and really understand what you believe then I would say run in the other direction. It’s akin to watching professional wrestling…..it may not be high quality entertainment for anyone, but atleast a reasonably intelligent adult can enjoy it as the fictional soap opera that it is while it may become too real to a child or a less-than-bright grown-up. Ultimately it’s a personal decision. I don’t regret my time spent reading Angels & Demons at all, while I’m glad I only paid a buck for The DaVinci Code and don’t put it on any kind of pedestal as either a great work of literature or some sort of Satanic tool of evil.