Talk about using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. Thirteen different books respond to the Da Vinci Code, three of them authored by Catholics. Certainly that is sufficient to refute Dan Brown, right? Unfortunately, while all of us have easily refuted Dan Brown’s erroneous statements, all of us – including, I am sad to say, myself – missed the point. Good heavens! This is all rather embarrassing.
I didn’t realize how badly off the mark we all were until I read Angels and Demons some weeks after my own refutation of The Da Vinci Code released. As you may know, Code is not Mr. Brown’s first book. He has written three earlier novels, Digital Fortress, Deception Point and Angels and Demons, plus a book of poetry, Matter. These all sold well enough, but none of them had sales approaching that of Code. All of them began to sell after Code took off, of course, riding the Code-tails of success, as it were. That is why I began reading them.
“What is sauce for the goose is certainly sauce for the gander,” thought I to myself thought I, “Given how well my counter-Code book is selling, perhaps there is something that needs refuting in Dan’s earlier work.” So, I began reading those earlier works with an eye towards writing refutations of those as well. Instead, I was brought up short.
Like everyone else, I had assumed that the anti-Christian, particularly the anti-Catholic, tone of Code is its main selling point. That isn’t true. It can’t be. After all, Angels and Demons is at least as anti-Catholic as Code (more so in some ways), but its sales were nowhere near the same, even though it came out in June 2001, just months before the sex abuse scandal began to break. And, lest you begin to protest, the books are nearly identical.
The two novels share a main character (Robert Langdon) and a conspiracy theory plot, have the same fast-paced style and pacing, draw similarly one-dimensional characterizations, even mimic dialogue. Indeed, one could lift entire chunks of dialogue from one book and drop them into the other without affecting the plot line of either story. In nearly every respect, the two books are interchangeable. But Code sold like hotcakes while Angels and Demons was barely a blip on the radar screen by comparison. Indeed, even at its best, Angels and Demons has never approached Code’s sales. Why? The difference in their stories lies only in this: Code spends a fair bit of time talking about sex, Angels and Demons does not.
Now, this statement must be qualified. Angels and Demons has quite a bit of sex in it, as does most of Dan Brown’s work. But it is not the sex itself, rather it is Dan Brown’s treatment of the sex that is dramatically different. Code is not successful because of its decadence. Quite the reverse. Code is successful because it is theologically accurate and is, therefore, counter-cultural. Let me explain.
In Angels and Demons we see various beautiful, half-dressed women under threat of physical violation at various points in the novel. The most beautiful of the bevy is saved only at the last minute by the dashing hero, Robert Langdon. Having rescued her, Langdon then physically violates her (with her consent, of course) at the end of the book and completes the male fantasy. It is a typical bodice-ripper plot-line and it sold as well as most such books do: moderately so, but nothing to write home about.
Now, turn to The Da Vinci Code. The number of beautiful women in the book is reduced to one. Langdon, of course, beds her in the novel’s final chapters, but he does so only after having protested for the whole of the book – and despite several instances of strong male opposition - that sex is sacred, sex is holy and women should be treated like goddesses. Now, why should that make the difference in sales? Because 70% to 80% of book-buyers in the United States are women and women are tired of the male version of sex: sex as fast food and women as inflatable dolls.
In short, The Da Vinci Code phenomenon actually proves what the Holy Father has been saying for the last thirty years. Dan Brown is, in his own way, preaching the Theology of the Body and he’s getting better response than any Catholic has yet received.
Surprised? Study the differences. Angels and Demons spends most of its time asserting that Catholics find faith and reason diametrically opposed. There are no flashback sequences, the whole plot takes place entirely in Rome. Its watchword is “Galileo’s persecution.” It’s anti-Catholic group is the Illuminati. It’s recurring reference is to the ambigram, a specific way of encoding a written word so that it appears to be right-side up no matter which way you look at it.
The Da Vinci Code, in contrast, spends most of its time extolling pagan goddess worship and the sacredness of sex. It’s watchword is Heiros Gamos: “the once hallowed act of Hieros Gamos – the natural sexual union between man and woman through which each became spiritually whole.” Its anti-Catholic group is pagan goddess worshippers. Its recurring reference is to “the chalice and the blade.” But, there’s more. It has flashback sequences that center on the relationship between a little girl and her grandfather (her parents having been killed in a car crash). The main mystery of the novel is not the murder that opens the novel, rather, it concerns the true identity of the little girl and why she ran away from her beloved grandfather. The answer? She is descended from Jesus and Mary Magdelene. She ran away because she saw her grandfather having sacred ritual sex in front of an admiring crowd of worshippers.
Dan Brown “debunks” Christ’s divinity only as a means to an end. The pivotal monologue sequence that lies out the novel’s thesis begins with the idea that Jesus is not divine and Brown really spends very little time on this assertion. It is just one stone in the foundation that builds towards an entirely different argument: Mary Magdelene’s sexual union with Christ is an encounter with the divine. God had sex.
That is the heart of the novel. Every one of us silly Christians who focused on debunking the novel focused our energy on debunking the fact that Dan Brown denies Jesus’ divinity. As a result, all of us, whether Catholic Christian or simply Christian, concentrates on his error-filled history.
But none of the historical “facts” he brings forward are the issue. Sex is the issue. Sex is holy. Dan Brown proves that sex is holy by asserting that Jesus had sex. Brown wants to demonstrate the divinity of sex. He knows most readers will walk away from the novel believing that Christ is God, no matter what foolish things he says in the novel. He wants to use our attachment to Christ’s divinity in order to connect Christ’s divinity to sex. If God had sex, then it must be divine.
This is why all of us debunkers have missed the mark. By hammering home Christ’s divinity, we merely hammer home Dan Brown’s argument. Our refutations of the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus will always be an argument from silence, since history doesn’t speak of it at all. Thus, our arguments will always allow people to believe that He really did have sex with “that woman.”
Dan Brown is a product of American culture, and America is Protestant. Protestantism is, in turn, the product of two ideas: (1) faith is opposed to and superior to reason and (2) the body is totally corrupt. The first concept lay at the heart of the Enlightenment. Voltaire, Rousseau and the rest fought the idea that faith is superior to reason with such vigor that they embraced exactly the opposite conclusion. While they agreed on the opposition of faith and reason, they insisted that reason is superior to faith. Thus, members of today’s society, whether non-Catholic Christian, agnostic or atheist all oppose Catholic teaching by agreeing that faith is opposed to reason. Angels and Demons plays on that sentiment.
The culture is agreed on the terms of the fight, even if both sides in the fight, Protestant and atheist, are completely wrong. Because Catholic theology is on the fringe of American culture, Catholics can shout until we are blue in the face that both faith and reason are necessary. No one will listen, because no one else believes it. Angels and Demons plays off this fact by putting Protestant theology about the opposition between faith and reason into the mouths of Catholic characters. Let the Catholics protest. Both sides agree they are disingenuous.
Dan Brown uses the perceived insincerity of Catholic Faith to drive Code. Since Christians believe the flesh is corrupt, they believe sex is dirty. Sex, after all, produces more bodies, more evil flesh. This is the Gnostic element that all of us Code debunkers latched onto. Now, Gnosticism is indeed the heresy at the root of this, but we lost the fight because we didn’t scout the terrain sufficiently.
You see, American society is Gnostic, but it is Gnostic in a fundamentally new way. The earliest Gnostics and their spiritual descendants, the Protestants, saw the body as a prison, an impediment to the light of divinity. Today’s Gnostics view the body as a prison only if it is not fully under the control of the mind, specifically under the control of the will.
For the new Gnostics, the body can be a means to attain divine life but only if we can attain total control over it. Now, God is the source of life and the neo-Gnostics understand this, so total control over procreation lies at the heart of neo-Gnosticism. Having sex when, where and how we want, with exactly the consequences we want: that is logically central. God controls life, therefore if we control life, control it right down to the finest detail, we must be God. The body is the instrument by which we demonstrate total control to ourselves and those around us.
This understanding explains everything we see in society: the new eugenics, in vitro fertilization, genetic manipulation, abortion, euthanasia. In the 1800’s, industry drove our understanding of what it meant to be God. If we controlled industrial output, we could transform the earth into a garden paradise. Today, the new advances in biology have transformed the goal: now we mean to control our bodies the way we formerly meant to control the environment.
Dan Brown’s novel constantly contrasts “outdated” Christian understanding of male-female relations and the problems it generates with neo-Gnostic understanding of male-female relations and how to attain divinity. That is the whole focus his attack on Opus Dei. He means to show that orthodox Christianity, especially orthodox Catholicism, distorts male-female relations and thereby distorts man’s understanding of himself.
Or take my most significant blunder: the comment by Fache, the French murder investigator on the sex abuse scandal. Very early in the novel, he makes a single reference to the scandal. Out of the thirteen Code refutations, mine was the only one to address the logical inconsistencies the remark created. However, while I dealt adequately with the bare facts surrounding the comment, I completely missed the point. I saw it simply as an essentially opportunistic attack on Catholicism that was irrelevant to the plot.
It is an attack on Catholicism, but it is not at all opportunistic. That single remark is critically relevant to the storyline. It is not just an attack on Catholicism, it is the opening salvo of his entire argument: Christians are wrong about sex. Sadly, he is perfectly correct. Most Christians are wrong about sex.
Atheists see the Protestant argument – sex is dirty, the body is corrupt – and they dismiss it as erroneous. They are right to do so. 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.
Unfortunately for atheists, their solution is not compelling. You see, men and women both get distorted understandings of the world, but when we do, we do so in different ways. The way a man distorts the world is this: he embraces just the facts of a situation and fails to understand the human element, the element of the sacred and the mysterious. This is why atheism tends to be a male phenomenon.
When we encounter a society that equates sex with fast food, that treats women as objects, we have stumbled upon an essentially atheistic (male) error. Women might embrace this way of thinking, of course, but men are much more likely to. Women, by and large, understand that atheism’s response to sex cannot be true. Because women embrace the relational, they know instinctively that sex is holy, that women are to be treated as goddesses for they are made in the image and likeness of God.
Dan Brown may have execrable theology in most respects, but he recognizes this much. This is why Code is a record-breaking best-seller. In proclaiming the sacredness of sexual union he answers a cultural need which Protestant theology created and Hugh Hefner’s atheism cannot answer. 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. Likewise, Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt provide the (male) atheistic response to Christian heresies like “sex is dirty,” but this response also fails to answer.
So, Dan Brown serves up the non-Christian female answer: pagan goddess worship. The irony is that he inadvertently latches onto the male version of pagan goddess worship. That is, he emphasizes “the chalice and the blade,” Wiccan symbols developed by the civil servant and adulterer Gerald Gardner in the late 1930’s. Gardner (and Brown) said the chalice represented the woman’s womb, and the blade the man’s member. In Wiccan ritual, the blade is plunged into the cup (or, alternatively, ritual sex is had on the altar). How many women really like to think of their partner’s organ as a razor-sharp blade? Is it “goddess-friendly” to plunge symbolic knives between a woman’s legs and into her womb?
Reason says no, but reason is not at work here. The central message overrides the symbols. He insists sex is holy, sacred and women are goddesses. Thus, even though he ends both Angels and Demons and Digital Fortress with fornication and the possibility of marriage, he can end Code with the promise of fornication and no marriage at all. Langdon has but to kneel before the bones of the quasi-goddess, Mary Magdelene, and the fornication becomes holy.
To a population of women who have been chemically and surgically sterilized, who are bombarded with “women’s magazines” explaining how to be better sex toys for the pleasure of any passing man, for women who are relentlessly used and abused by the culture, Dan Brown is fresh air. It does not matter what happened in Nicaea, in the Inquisition, in the sex scandal. Brown got this much right: sex is holy. The rest must be fairly close to right as well. In denying the niggling little facts of history and refusing to address the big picture, the Catholics are just being disingenuous again.
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 Dan Brown is, in his own way, proclaiming 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, sacramental marriage. He helps our culture accept this by placing this message in the context of non-Christian “feminine” religion. He knows that if he placed it in a Christian context, or heaven-forbid, a Catholic context, no one would ever believe it.
We might not like the facts, but there they are. Dan Brown 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.