The movie treatment of his novel, “Angels and Demons,” is cleaning up at the box office this week. The sequel to “The DaVinci Code,” due out in November, might buoy the publishing industry through the recession. And if you want to understand the state of American religion, you need to understand why so many people love Dan Brown.
It isn’t just that he knows how to keep the pages turning. That’s what it takes to sell a million novels. But if you want to sell a 100 million, you need to preach as well as entertain — to present a fiction that can be read as fact, and that promises to unlock the secrets of history, the universe and God along the way.
Brown is explicit about this mission. He isn’t a serious novelist, but he’s a deadly serious writer: His thrilling plots, he’s said, are there to make the books’ didacticism go down easy, so that readers don’t realize till the end “how much they are learning along the way.” He’s working in the same genre as Harlan Coben and James Patterson, but his real competitors are ideologues like Ayn Rand, and spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. He’s writing thrillers, but he’s selling a theology.
Brown’s message has been called anti-Catholic, but that’s only part of the story. True, his depiction of the Roman Church’s past constitutes a greatest hits of anti-Catholicism, with slurs invented by 19th-century Protestants jostling for space alongside libels fabricated by 20th-century Wiccans. (If he targeted Judaism or Islam this way, one suspects that no publisher would touch him.)
But Brown doesn’t have the soul of a true-believing Enemy of the Faith. Deep down, he has a fondness for the ordinary, well-meaning sort of Catholic, his libels against their ancestors notwithstanding. He’s even sympathetic to the religious yearnings of his Catholic villains — including, yes, the murderous albino monks.
This explains why both “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” end with a big anti-Catholic reveal (Jesus had kids with Mary Magdalene! That terrorist plot against the Vatican was actually launched by an archconservative priest!) followed by a big cover-up. A small elect (Tom Hanks and company, in the movies) gets to know what really happened, but the mass of believers remain in the dark, lest their spiritual questing be derailed by disillusionment and scandal. Having dismissed Catholicism’s truth claims and demonized its most sincere defenders, Brown pats believers on the head and bids them go on fingering their rosary beads.
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.
The polls that show more Americans abandoning organized religion don’t suggest a dramatic uptick in atheism: They 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.
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.