Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fiction on Fiction

Ross Douthat unravels the mystery of Dan Brown and his novels about the Catholic Church and the mysteries of writing a thriller based on the secrets behind the basilicas.

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.

Having read The DaVinci Code and agreeing with Dorothy Parker’s sentiment about another book — “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force” — I find it interesting that so many people would read Mr. Brown’s books as if they are revealing some Cosmic Truth about the stories in the bible and the possible lineal descendants of the main character, Jesus Christ. As Mr. Douthat says, they must be seeking and finding some validation of their own faith, Catholic or not.

But it seems to escape them that it is a work of fiction about a work of fiction. It’s as if someone published a novel about a Tolkien scholar finding clues that lead him on the trail to the discovery that the One Ring was not really destroyed in Mount Doom but was returned to the Shire and kept safe by the descendants of Sam Gamgee who now live in quiet seclusion in a small village in Wales. But for the fact that the estate of Professor Tolkien diligent protects their copyrights, it’s just as plausible and possible as anything cooked up by Mr. Brown, and it would probably sell, too. (Knowing the dedication and zeal of some Tolkienists, I have no doubt that someone has already done so. They just can’t get a mainstream publisher to touch it.)

Religion doesn’t rely on historical facts. There’s little physical evidence that anything depicted in the Old Testament ever took place; it’s a mish-mosh collection of myths, fables, parables and poetry put together four hundred years ago by a committee of priests and scholars with their own agenda. But you don’t have to be a fact-checker to learn something from the intensely human stories that attempt to make a connection with the divine. In that way it is like any other work of fiction; it’s not about what happens in it that matters as much as what it reveals about our humanity and our human-ness. The fact that a great number of people believe it is a historical record and can, in their charmingly odd bible-nerd way, point to coincidence and serendipity to prove their case (just like the folks who think we were visited by a real Starship Enterprise in 4 B.C.) doesn’t take away from the fact that you really don’t need to know whether or not Jesus Christ’s family is still around to believe with his teachings — love one another as you love yourself.

In a way, I wish there was proof that Jesus’s family was still around. They could probably sue the hell out of Pat Robertson and all the rest of the con artists and charlatans that have co-opted and perverted his message.