Having finished this rather dopey book, I have only one question: Why would so many people want to believe it? I admit, I’ve sometimes felt it was unfair for Jesus to be given a human body but never have a girlfriend. And millions of men probably jumped for joy when they read that we were meant to access God through sex rather than church attendance. But, because Dan Brown taps into popular anxieties about the hierarchy, authority and secrecy of the Catholic Church, it’s easy to miss how elitist and exclusionary his vision is, compared to orthodox Christianity.
“I don’t need the church to mediate my encounter with God.” Whether you’re a Protestant clinging to sola scriptura or an ordinary American individualist who resents having your spirituality crammed into pre-set rituals and doctrines, this sentiment should be very familiar. It sounds so democratic, right? But the church and the sacraments are open to all comers. What does Dan Brown put in its place? Heterosexual intercourse. Bad news if you’re gay, underage, physically incapacitated, or the pimply kid standing by the punchbowl all night at the senior prom. We want so much to believe in transcendence through pleasure, to skip the disciplines that help us endure pleasure’s fading.
Another conceit of the book is that Christ was not divine, just a human prophet who had a real wife and a royal bloodline that continues to this day. That’s an interesting story, but as irrelevant to my life as Zeus and Hera. The Bible says Christ’s bride is the Church, that is, all of us. Through him, our souls can be as intimate with God as Dan Brown’s Jesus was with Mary Magdalene. Why would anyone prefer a story about a royal family that we worship from afar? If Jesus wasn’t divine, what makes his kids better than the rest of us? (Does God drive a SmartCar with a bumper sticker saying “My son is an honor student at Galilee Elementary School”?)
Finally, I don’t get why so many people find relativism more comforting than sincere belief. Brown’s fictional hero, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (another reason I never give to the Harvard College Fund), explains thus his decision not to publicize evidence that the gospels are a fraud:
“Sophie, every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith — acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove….The Bible represents a fundamental guidepost for millions of people on the planet, in much the same way the Koran, Torah, and Pali Canon offer guidance to people of other religions. If you and I could dig up documentation that contradicted the holy stories of Islamic belief, Judaic belief, Buddhist belief, pagan belief, should we do that? Should we wave a flag and tell the Buddhists that we have proof that Buddha did not come from a lotus blossom? Or that Jesus was not born of a literal virgin birth? Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical.” (pp.369-70, paperback edition)
My husband’s a Buddhist, and I don’t think the lotus blossom legend plays a big role in their activities over at the sangha. On the other hand, if there were proof that no one had ever achieved enlightenment by meditating, and the stories to the contrary were a plot to get Tibetans to sit still while the Chinese took over their country, I’m sure he would want to know.
Again, what seems like liberal openness is the worst kind of elitism. The world is divided into “those people” who need their illusions, and “our kind of people” who know better. Because “we” don’t believe that religious ideas have real-world consequences, we don’t mind that billions of people are misled about the nature of ultimate reality. (This is what my minister believes, BTW, which is why I’m blogging this morning instead of going to church. “Resistance is futile!”)
Someone, please explain to me the appeal of this kind of thinking. Is it that you want the warm feeling and pageantry of church membership but can’t manage to agree with the doctrines? Are you afraid of dividing the human race between true and false believers (a line that relativism merely redraws, not eliminates)? Do you actively disagree with Christianity and want to appropriate its cultural capital for other ends? As for me, I’d rather live in a world that God loved enough to die for, instead of a world where most people have to swallow comforting lies in order to avoid eating a bullet.