Dan Brown Vs. History
Ross Douthat is one of my favorite columnists. He is one of the few conservative pundits who can envision a realistic template for a new Republican party that is more responsive to voters’ needs, while retaining its conservative principles. He is unapologetically and rationally pro-life, and orthodox member of the Catholic Church. He’s always a joy to read, and I was extremely happy to see that the New York Times had exhibited some rare good judgment and put him on its editorial page.
His latest column is interesting—it is unassailably correct, as far as it goes, but I can’t help but feel it is missing a part of a larger picture. The column examines the Dan Brown phenomenon, which has produced two monster bestsellers (The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons), and two hit movies.
Brown’s books are, apparently (I haven’t read them), thrillers that revolve around conspiracy theories, but you already knew that, given that almost everyone must have had some contact with the books. Brown acknowledges that his plots are fiction; the conspiracies, he maintains, are based on fact.
The theory in Angels and Demons involves the Illuminati, which in the Brownverse is apparently a secret organization dedicated to fighting religion (which is supposed to hate science) so that science can spread, although the real villain is an archconservative cardinal. The Da Vinci Code’s hook is the idea that Leonardo Da Vinci found out that Mary Magdalene and Jesus had a son, and that that knowledge is only revealed in a code based on Leonardo da Vinci’s works. Both ideas are wholly and obviously false, and no one with any taste or discrimination takes the books seriously. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of people who lack either, and both books have become huge bestsellers, meaning that millions of people are being few what amounts to anti-Catholic propaganda.
Douthat argues that Brown’s themes advocate a sort of do-it-yourself, nondemanding religion; the sort of spirituality practiced by those people who say that they’re spiritual, but not religious,” which is true. Douthat also argues that Brown’s books incite these kinds of beliefs, which is more debatable.
There are two sorts of people who read Brown’s books for their theology or history—people wishing for “comfort reading” in books that confirm what they already know (in much the same way especially hawkish conservatives watch Red Dawn for footage of Communists being massacred), and people who are intellectual lost causes who will believe anything they hear.
Brown isn’t driving either sort from traditional Christianity. The first kind would leave anyway—they boost Brown’s sales figures but in these cases he is simply preaching to the converted. The second sort would fall for conspiracy theories regardless of what Brown writes—if anything, if is fortunate that they fall for such easily and widely debunked ones.
Dan Brown’s works are indicators of American society’s attitudes towards religion—but they don’t shape it much. If they aren’t doing religion much good, they aren’t doing it very much in the way of real harm either. They attract only the already converted and the historically illiterate.
Brown’s books do as much or more damage, I think, to real history and art as they do religion. Of all the fascinating things to be found in the world of art, the Brown’s readers (and there are a lot of them) only learn about inane conspiracy theories.
And Brown’s writings are anti-intellectual as well—they ask readers to unquestioningly swallow ideas that ten minutes on Wikipedia would utterly debunk. The books are utterly irrational—yet Brown attempts to persuade his readers that the work done by legitimate historians is flawed, while the stuff dreamed up by conspiracy theorists is hard fact.
Dan Brown’s books might lead some people away from traditional Christianity—but they almost certainly lead many more away from legitimate history. The study of history might not be as important as the study of God—but it is still worth condemning Dan Brown’s abuses on this front.