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Thursday, May 13, 2004

Dan Brown and His Books of Renown

Before he wrote The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown wrote another novel, Angels and Demons. Anyone who has read the two will immediately notice the similarities: both are conspiracy novels, both describe nefarious Catholic bishops, in both the protagonists make the same points, sometimes even in the same words. So why was the first book a moderately successful also-ran while the second turned into a runaway best-seller?

There isn’t terribly much difference between them. While the stories are tightly plotted, the characters are one-dimensional, the “facts” presented are preposterous and the writing is relatively banal. Both have been compared to the Doc Savage novels of days gone by, with every character black or white, good or evil – exactly the kind of thing our shades-of-grey culture rejects. So why would one languish while the other took off? After all, Angels and Demons hit the best-seller lists only by riding the “code-tales” of the latest book, so to speak.

The difference in their relative successes lies only in this: the latest book spends a fair bit of time talking about sex, the first does not. We might write it off to our sex-drenched culture and leave it at that, but this would be a mistake. The Code phenomenon actually proves what the Holy Father has been saying for the last thirty years. In a perverse way, Dan Brown is preaching the Theology of the Body and he’s getting better response than any Catholic has yet. This is how he does it.

As has been noted elsewhere, the Catholic Church has always taught the indissoluble unity of faith and reason, the necessary goodness of creation and of the human body. Luther’s protests changed all that. He made reason the enemy of faith, insisting “reason is the whore of the devil.” Likewise, he put soul and body in artificial opposition to one another, insisting that man was totally corrupt, that every good deed, no matter how laudable, was sin if done without faith.

He denied that marriage was a sacrament, insisting instead that it was merely God’s way of dealing with our lust. Sex was sinful, evil, dirty, and marriage made sex legal in name only. God permitted the legal fiction only so that we could slake our evil lusts without fearing loss of heaven.

Now, as we saw previously, the Enlightenment’s defense of reason was the answer to Luther’s attack on reason. Unfortunately, the Enlightenment so adamantly opposed Luther’s “faith alone” theology that it went overboard in the other direction: it insisted that faith was useless.

Luther and Voltaire battled over the wishbone of the soul, finally tearing it in two, separating faith and reason and setting the two in opposition to one another. Dan Brown recognizes this in Angels and Demons. He provides several long passages in which he advances the erroneous idea that faith and reason have always been at odds. In fact, they always worked together, at least until Luther and Voltaire set them to fighting. But that was last century’s battle.

Two hundred years of deeply Protestant American culture has finally produced its own backlash in America against a different aspect of Lutheran theology. For centuries, Protestant pastors have thundered about the evils of the flesh, refused to recognize the goodness of the body, built revival after revival on a rejection of God’s creation, the gift He gives us in our own flesh and bone. Agnostics and atheists, having successfully set reason in opposition to religious faith, entered into battle again. But this time the battle is over the flesh.

Just as the original Voltaire insisted on the goodness of reason, today’s volunteer Voltaires insist on the goodness of the flesh. The appetites of the flesh are not evil, as Protestant theology insists they are. Those appetites are good. In fact, they are so good, that they trump the appetites of the soul. For atheists, the soul is just a fiction of religion, a way of casting mud upon the goodness of the body.

There is a great irony here. The atheists are right. The flesh is good, there is nothing sinful about the properly ordered appetites of the body, including the desire for sexual union between persons of the opposite sex. In that respect, atheistic reason has reached an understanding of God’s design that is much more accurate than Protestant theology.

But this is where the atheists fall down: because they deny the existence of man’s spiritual soul, they necessarily deny the needs of man’s spiritual soul. They attempt to prove the non-existence of the spiritual soul by cleaving ever more closely to the desires of the flesh. “If only fleshly desires can be slaked,” they think, “ultimate happiness will be ours and these cloddish Christians debunked! It’s a win-win situation!”

Dan Brown may have execrable theology in most respects, but he recognizes this much: the atheists are wrong. The soul exists, its needs must be met and these needs can be met only through contact with the holy. Likewise, he knows what Protestant theologians do not: sex is a good and proper thing. He had to meld the two ideas together. He did. He wrote The Da Vinci Code.

This is why Code is a record-breaking best-seller. In proclaiming the sacredness of sexual union – which is a centerpiece of the novel – he answers a cultural need which Protestant theology created and Penthouse, Playboy and Hustler cannot touch. By putting this same Protestant theology in the mouths of Catholic bishops, he simultaneously condemns all the twisted Christian theology that has roiled the waters of human culture for the last five hundred years.

Why does Dan Brown pick on the Catholic Church? Simple. He was raised a non-Catholic Christian, the kind of Christian who is taught that every heresy of Christianity finds it source in Rome and the Pope. He knew the “Christian” teaching on sex was wrong, so he must naturally have assumed that this twisted teaching originated in Rome, where it spread to infect other Christian churches. From Protestant preachers pounding the pulpit to gay priests cruising for teens, our culture has seen every manifestation of deformed Christian sexual theology there is to see. Given the set of facts Dan Brown had to work with, anyone who is unfamiliar with adult Catholic Faith (including many adult Catholics), would draw his conclusions.

There are many ironies in his novel, but the greatest is this: when it comes to announcing to the world that sex is holy, Dan Brown stands together with Pope John Paul II and the whole college of bishops throughout the history of Christendom. Mr. Brown gets everything else wrong, but this much he gets right.

And, in the final analysis, it is enough. Despite the enormous flaws of his novel (and every Catholic needs to know how to discuss those) he is, in his own way, preparing the world for the proclamation of the Theology of the Body, if only because he tells everyone that sex is, indeed, holy, that there is such a thing as Hieros Gamos – sacred marriage, sacramental marriage. He helps our culture accept this by placing this message in the context of non-Christian religion. He instinctively knew that if he placed it in a Christian context, no one would ever believe it.

We might not like the facts, but there they are. A very confused Christian is getting a core aspect of papal theology into everyone’s lap, and he’s doing it primarily by denying that it is Christian. He has prepared the way to talk about the Theology of the Body. Now it’s our turn to follow up.


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