Angels and Demons, in movie theaters now, is the latest movie based on Dan Brown’s books. The first, of course, was The DaVinci Code, which was, to put it mildly, fairly popular.
Angels and Demons is in the same vein as the first book, focusing on a dark secret within the Catholic church that symbologist Robert Langdon desperately tries to uncover as he races through a series of thrilling events. It’s captivating reading, sweeping you up into fascinating history and hidden conspiracies.
It’s also seductively wrong, as Ross Douthat writes in today’s New York Times. He nails the problem with the book and with religion today:
In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.
Yep. Religion is great, as long as it doesn’t have to do with sin and blood and righteousness. The same do-it-yourself mentality that works well on home repairs isn’t so effective when it comes to your eternal fate:
polls … reveal the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away. The same trend is at work within organized faiths as well, where both liberal and conservative believers often encounter a God who’s too busy validating their particular version of the American Dream to raise a peep about, say, how much money they’re making or how many times they’ve been married.
Here’s the crux of the issue — a 21st century Jesus who fits neatly into your life, or the Jesus portrayed in the Gospel accounts:
These are Dan Brown’s kind of readers. Piggybacking on the fascination with lost gospels and alternative Christianities, he serves up a Jesus who’s a thoroughly modern sort of messiah — sexy, worldly, and Goddess-worshiping, with a wife and kids, a house in the Galilean suburbs, and no delusions about his own divinity.
But the success of this message — which also shows up in the work of Brown’s many thriller-writing imitators — can’t be separated from its dishonesty. The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of Christ that Brown is peddling — they’re far, far weirder than that — nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account.
The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.
For millions of readers, Brown’s novels have helped smooth over the tension between ancient Christianity and modern American faith. But the tension endures. You can have Jesus or Dan Brown. But you can’t have both.