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August 04, 2004
Speaking of books

I have some time to kill. Can't leave the office yet unless I want to be an hour early for the FairVoteColorado meeting (I'm doing some election/polling place volunteering this year.), so I might as well blog, right?

Of course, I knew the country's latest ”bestseller" was The Da Vinci Code because no one could help knowing it. The book was everywhere. But I don't read contemporary literature, so I had no idea what it was about.

Reading this confused me more than it enlightened me.

The modern world is a terrifying place. Small wonder adults are taking refuge in fantastical and mystical novels

I mean, it enlightened me in part. Now I know the book is ostensibly an alternative history sort of thriller where the Catholic Church spends a couple of thousand years pretending Jesus wasn't married, Mary Magdalene was a 'hoor, and sex scandals have nothing to do with the Catholic Church.

No, wait...that last one was part of a different part of the discussion of the book.

Apparently, seeking escapism from the horrors of reality, people are turning to this particular book because they believe any evil of the church after the sex abuse scandals, because Nixon was too a crook, and because there were no WMD in Iraq.

Well, sort of. There's also something (a subplot?) about how the church spent a couple of thousand years organizing repression of women and women are reading the book because it venerates "goddess worship" although I could be confusing a couple of different things.

I dunno. So far I'm failing to find the escapism from today's Real World Problems in the plot as described.

It's also, to stop mocking for just a moment, described as an engaging and absorbing puzzle piece that challenges the reader as they go. Seems to me there should be enough to explain the book's popularity right there.

That millions of Americans are ready to accept the notion of a murderous Catholic monk taking orders from a corrupt bishop should sound the alarm in Catholicism's upper reaches.

Actually, I think that if millions of Americans are willing to accept the premise of evil priests, that's an impressive sign that they actually know more about history than I've been suspecting.

I mean, a murderous monk? Is Freeland under the impression that there's some kind of impossibility being described? Corrupt bishop? History is full of examples. Corrupt boss issuing orders to ethically challenged underling? It's a standard "thriller" plot. Catholic Church embroiled in accusations of murder, fraud, and other scandal? Over and over and over.

Catholic intellectuals are more troubled by the credulousness of those Christians who admit the book has challenged their beliefs. What does that say about the quality of church education? Amy Welborn, author of Decoding Da Vinci, says: "Most churches have done a terrible job in the last 40 years of teaching people the basics of the faith."

No system of belief worth having should be scared of close examination.

Plus which, the Catholic Church could give the Bush Administration lessons in cover-ups, obfuscation, and sleight-of-hand. It's a notoriously secretive organization.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit I have a beef with the Catholic Church. As I understand it, they're sitting on thousands of historical documents, books, pamphlets, scrolls, and paintings) in their archives and no one but a selected band of scholars are allowed to look at even a fraction of what they have. While not professing any interest in religion, I feel certain there's material there of wide interest to a lot of the world.)

(Heck, forget the rest of the world. I want to see what they have. Anyone read fifteen or twenty dead languages and want to try to break into the Vatican with me?)

I didn't really have anything to say about the book or the review. I mean, I told you I was just killing time.

Now I have to go look at my face to make certain I'm fit to be seen in public* and then hit the road.

(* Let's hope I am. I am the kind of woman who carries a comb and tinted lipgloss. I don't carry a suitcase-sized handbag with a full make-up counter in it and I long ago gave up pretending I'm one of those women who can spend two minutes in a public restroom and come out looking like a supermodel. This is my face, okay? Deal with it.)

Posted by AnneZook at 05:20 PM


I don't know about the 'engaging' bit: seemed like series of crossword puzzles, with some pretty standard thriller reversals to me. The history was interesting, but the writing was annoyingly conventional. And, for the purposes of escapist entertainment, we'll take any conspiracy theory, no matter how obscure or absurd, with the standard 'suspension of disbelief' for the purposes of a few hundred adventurous pages.

Let's face it, there's not much in there, in terms of problematizing beloved institutions, that wasn't in a couple dozen X-Files episodes. It's entertaining, and more interesting than average, but that's not saying much, in the end, for me.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at August 4, 2004 07:51 PM

If the book isn't escapist (though I'd say it was) then at the very least it is simplistic. Its alternate view of history drew heavily from the work of Elaine Pagels, and even at one point mentions one of her books. But Pagels is serious scholarship, whereas this book is fluff - a quick moving thriller with a little history thrown in. If you want to get a sense of the early Church, and how much the Catholic Church has tried to distort that early history, then I strongly suggest reading anything by Pagels - much of her stuff is absolutely fascinating. To quote the blurb from the book I'm linking to:

At the center of Beyond Belief is what Pagels identifies as a textual battle between The Gospel of Thomas (rediscovered in Egypt in 1945) and The Gospel of John. While these gospels have many superficial similarities, Pagels demonstrates that John, unlike Thomas, declares that Jesus is equivalent to "God the Father" as identified in the Old Testament. Thomas, in contrast, shares with other supposed secret teachings a belief that Jesus is not God but, rather, is a teacher who seeks to uncover the divine light in all human beings. Pagels then shows how the Gospel of John was used by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon and others to define orthodoxy during the second and third centuries. The secret teachings were literally driven underground, disappearing until the Twentieth Century. As Pagels argues this process "not only impoverished the churches that remained but also impoverished those [Irenaeus] expelled."

But despite how this sounds, I found Pagels description of Irenaeus quite sympathetic. Irenaeus saw nearly all of his friends murdered by the Romans for being Christian and he came to the conclusion, Pagels makes it sound almost inevitable, that if the Christian community was going to survive, it would have to organize. Thereupon, Irenaeus set out to organize what would later become known as the Catholic Church.

So the DaVinci Code is escapist/simplistic at least to the extent that it removes much of the nuance and complexity that's in Pagels work. Which is fine, so long as people remember that the DaVinci Code is mere entertainment, and not to be taken seriously as history.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at August 5, 2004 06:39 AM

Though I'm not religious, I'm sympathetic to Amy Welborn's complaint that Christian teaching and Christian theology are in serious decline and have been badly done for at least the last 40 years. I believe there is connection between the failures of the mainline religions and the rise of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist churches teach a stripped down, simplified, un-complicated theology in which a few passages are given supreme weigh (Jesus died on the cross for you) and in which the complex issues of theology (can good works get you into heaven?) are ignored. And, I've often thought, fundamentalist churches have grown at least in part because mainstream churches have done such a bad job of explaining why the more complicated issues matter.

And whether one is Christian or not, I'm sure we can all agree that one of striking things about America today is how many people still describe themselves as Christian, whereas so few people can explain even the basic tenets of Christian faith. And I know (because I read her weblog on a regular basis) that this is the heart of Amy Welborn's complaint.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at August 5, 2004 06:48 AM

I don't have much opinion on the whole relgion thing at this point, but I wanted to mention that I took a class called, "The Bible As Literature" many years ago in high school and I was amazed at how much my early-life 'religious teaching' had ignored.

Posted by: Anne at August 6, 2004 03:48 PM

My wife had a similar experience: after being raised Missouri Synod Lutheran (a very conservative sect, if you're not familiar with Lutheran varieties) and drifting away from it, her HS class in "Bible as Literature" was a great intellectual moment.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at August 6, 2004 04:02 PM