Dan Brown Rushes In Where Angels (and Demons) Fear to Tread


The astounding success of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s fourth novel, first published in the spring of 2003, is well known. The numbers are incredible: Over 60 million copies of the controversial novel have sold worldwide, in over 40 languages, with millions of copies of Brown’s previous three novels following fast in the wake of its success. A major motion picture was released in May 2006, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard. It grossed over $240 million in the United States and nearly $760 million worldwide, making it the 26th most profitable movie of all time, ahead of such films as Forrest Gump, The Sixth Sense, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Brown, Howard, and Hanks are now back, this time with the sequel (actually a prequel) to The Da Vinci Code. Angels & Demons, based on Brown’s second novel, which was published in 2000, opens in theaters on May 15 and is expected to be one of the top-grossing films of the year. It also figures to be controversial. The film features the return of Robert Langdon, the Harvard "symbologist" who revealed the alleged fact that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had descendents. It focuses on the Catholic Church and the election of a (fictional) pope, and pontificates—so to speak—on the relationship between science and religion.

Despite The Da Vinci Code movie’s worldwide commercial success, it was generally panned by critics, who complained that the movie was clumsy, plodding, and confusing. Some understood this was because the movie followed the book so faithfully. Apparently the producers came to the same realization. "I think we may have been too reverential toward it," producer Brian Grazer told USA Today in October 2008. "We got all the facts of the book right, but the movie was a little long and stagey." He promised that Angels & Demons will be different. "Langdon doesn’t stop and give a speech," Grazer said, "When he speaks, he’s in motion."

Code’s Rough Draft

If that’s the case, it’s due to the efforts of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, especially since the main components of the two Langdon novels are almost identical. Dan Burstein, a fan of Brown’s novels and co-editor of Secrets of Angels & Demons (CDS Books 2004), wrote that Angels & Demons "struck me as a virtual rough draft for The Da Vinci Code . . . Structurally, of course, the plots and characters of the two novels are kissing cousins" (2).

He is correct. Both novels open in a major European city with the murder of a powerful, mysterious man in possession of sensitive information. The assassins in both are strange, tormented characters who belong to a secret, supposedly ancient organization. In each novel, Langdon is aided by beautiful, brainy women whose father/grandfather was the murder victim. Both books involve the Catholic Church, clandestine societies, famous art, secret documents, and hidden clues leading to earthshaking revelations. Each novel take place over the course of 24 hours.

Angels & Demons opens with Langdon being woken by an early morning phone call. Leonardo Vetra, a priest and scientist, has been murdered in Geneva. He had been researching antimatter for European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and his boss, CERN director Maximilian Kohler, wants Langdon’s help. The murderer branded Vetra’s chest with a symbol: the word "Illuminati" written as an ambigram (a word that can be read from several different directions). Langdon meets Vetra’s adopted daughter Vittoria, who also works for CERN in the research of antimatter. They discover that this secret society, the Illuminati, stole enough antimatter to make a substantial bomb.

Langdon and Vittoria soon learn the canister of antimatter is in the Vatican. The pope has recently died and a papal conclave is in session. Cardinal Saverio Mortati, the senior cardinal in the conclave and Dean of the College of Cardinals, discovers that the four cardinals considered to be the best papal material have been kidnapped. Langdon (who is described as an art history professor who writes books on "religious symbology") uses his knowledge of the Illuminati to uncover and follow clues located throughout Rome that might lead to the bomb and the missing cardinals. Vittoria is kidnapped, the four cardinals are eventually found dead, and Langdon must race against time—the antimatter is set to explode within hours—to apprehend the murderer and save the lady scientist.

Camerlengo Carlo Ventresca, the ultra-conservative papal chamberlain, helps Langdon discover the canister of antimatter, hidden in the catacombs beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, and detonate it safely. Ventresca subsequently attempts to kill Langdon; he, in fact, had murdered the recently deceased pope and had arranged for the kidnappings and murders of the four cardinals. The Illuminati had not been involved in any way, but were a decoy for Ventresca, who is revealed to be not only a fanatical enemy of science, but also the son of the late pope—by artificial insemination no less.

Fatuous Fiction or Food for Thought?

As in The Da Vinci Code, Brown uses implausible narrative and thin characters to tackle complex, controversial topics. These include the relationship between faith and reason, religion and science, introduced early in the novel. As with The Da Vinci Code, which clumsily attempted to tell the "real story" of Jesus, the early Church, and the Bible, it’s hard to take this novel seriously. Brown makes a lot of mistakes and his characters say many silly things with a pomposity that makes you wonder: Is this just a spoof?

Yet both Brown and many of his readers take his research and theories seriously. Angels & Demons carries an Author’s Note that states: "References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture are entirely factual (as are their exact location). They can still be seen today. The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual." In an interview posted on his Web site, Brown states, "My goal is always to make the character’s [sic] and plot be so engaging that readers don’t realize how much they are learning along the way."

Burstein believes that offended theologians and annoyed academics need to look at "the Dan Brown phenomenon" differently. Brown’s novel, he argues, offers ordinary people a chance to engage in a vital discussion about various issues. He writes,

We are torn between the impulses toward faith and spirituality on the one hand and science and technology on the other. The more logical and technological our society becomes, the more some of us crave spirituality and a return to past values. . . . And the more globalized and materialistic our cultures become, the more small groups seem attracted to the most illogical, untenable, extremist, and dangerous religious dogmas. (Secrets, 3)

There’s little doubt that Burstein, like Brown, thinks traditional, orthodox Christianity—especially Catholicism—is illogical and dangerous. He suggests that an emphasis on facts and objective truth can obscure what Brown’s work is all about:

But like much else, the point in Dan Brown’s work is not the facts (no matter how many times he asserts that everything is factual). The point is to understand his use of myth and metaphor, his uncanny ability to suggest intriguing alternative explanations for historical events, and his talent for mining ideas and symbols that have been hiding in plain sight for years—and infuse them with new thought-provoking interpretations. (Secrets, 5)

The problem is that Burstein, like Brown, wants to have it both ways: Readers are encouraged to accept Brown as a serious (but accessible) guide to historical events and belief systems, but are also told anyone upset with Brown’s claims is too literal-minded, uptight, and resistant to new ways of thinking. Yet, in the end, Brown puts forth claims and insinuates notions that are often historical and factual in nature. Setting aside myth and metaphor for a moment, how good is his research?

Slander and Stereotyping

Angels & Demons contains numerous errors relating to art, landmarks, maps, names, dates, and technology (see "Brown Fumbles Facts," page 10). Some of these reveal an obvious dislike, even mocking animosity, toward the Catholic Church.

The author spends two pages (ch. 84), for example, on false statements and salacious intimations about The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, a famous sculpture by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) located in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The sculpture, readers are told, "had been moved from its original location inside the Vatican" not long after its unveiling, "banished" to "some obscure chapel." That is false. The sculpture was commissioned by Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro for the Cornaro Chapel.

"Pope Urban VIII had rejected The Ecstasy of St. Teresa as too sexually explicit for the Vatican." That is also false. Bernini didn’t begin working on it until three years after Urban died in 1644; he completed it in 1652. Further, Langdon deems the sculpture—which depicts St. Teresa of Avila in spiritual ecstasy, based on a description in her autobiography—as pornographic, as it supposedly depicts the saint "on her back in the throes of a toe-curling orgasm." Going from bad to worse, Langdon interprets St. Teresa’s description of her mystical experience as "a metaphor for some serious sex."

This crude dialogue is easily matched by the audacious dismissal of historical fact in the service of Catholic-bashing. Kohler and Langdon agree, in an early conversation, that "[o]utspoken scientists like Copernicus . . . [were] murdered by the Church for revealing scientific truths. Religion has always persecuted science" (ch. 9). This is not just false; it is libelous. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a canon at the Cathedral in Cracow, a loyal son of the Church who died after a stroke at the age of 70.

"Unfortunately, Brown is reinforcing a stereotype," stated Owen Gingerich, Senior Astronomer Emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and an expert on Copernicus, in an interview with the editors of Secrets of Angels & Demons. "Copernicus was a servant of the Catholic Church. He dedicated his book to the pope, and never suffered any personal reproach or persecution." Gingerich added: "In truth, it is extremely difficult to document anyone put to death as a heretic for introducing scientific ideas" (81).

Galileo, Again

Brown takes the prevailing mythology of Galileo as martyr for science and fictionalizes it even further. Langdon describes a dramatic clash between "the world’s first scientific think tank, calling themselves the enlightened ones" and the ruthless, tyrannical, and violent Catholic Church. Galileo is said to have been a key player in the "think tank"—that is, the Illuminati—and is described as "a pacifist" who was "almost executed by the church for proclaiming that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of the solar system" (ch. 9).

This is utter rot. The Illuminati had no interest in scientific research. And Galileo had no interest in the Illuminati, since they didn’t exist until well over a century after his death. Yes, both Galileo and many of his critics among Church leadership made mistakes, acted unbecomingly, and did themselves no favors. But Galileo was never in danger of being executed; in fact, he was allowed to continue to adhere to Copernican theory as a hypothesis.

Sadly, Galileo continues to be represented in popular culture as the poster boy for reason and science against superstition and religion—that is, Christianity. Brown’s novel and the impending movie promote the misrepresentations. "Since the beginning of history," Langdon states nonsensically, "a deep rift has existed between science and religion" (ch. 9). The fictional historian is apparently unaware that modern science would not have come into being if it weren’t for Christian theology and philosophy, along with the support of the Catholic Church. Nor did science, as we think of it in modern world, even exist prior to the late Middle Ages; the term "scientific method" was rarely used before the mid-19th century.

Demons in the Details

Yet the best-selling novelist seems confused about the topic. Both science and religion, Brown stated in an interview posted on his Web site, "are manifestations of man’s quest to understand the divine. Religion savors the questions while science savors the quest for answers." Whatever does that mean? Are there actually any scientists who would say that science is a quest "to understand the divine"? Most would likely go with the standard definition of science as the systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

"Science and religion seem to be two different languages attempting to tell the same story," Brown adds, "and yet the battle between them has been raging for centuries and continues today." Why, then, does Brown have such an irrational dislike for Catholicism? Why does he put all of the blame for this "battle" on the Catholic Church? Does he not know the integral role played by the Catholic Church and scientists who were devout Catholics in every field of scientific study? Does he agree with Langdon, the hero of Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, that "it seemed there was always a close correlation between true believers and high body counts" (ch. 11)? Does he agree with the vague pantheism of the heroine Vittoria, who states, "We all seek God in different ways. . . . Religions evolve . . . God is the energy that flows through the synapses of our nervous system and the chambers of our hearts! God is in all things!" (ch. 131)?

Dan Brown’s exact religious beliefs and spiritual inclinations remain obscure. What is clear is that he has a tenuous, even contrary, relationship with truth in general and the Catholic Church specifically. And while he has sometimes talked as though he wants to appeal to the better angels of his readers, the careful reader should know there are demons in the details.

SIDEBARS

Brown Fumbles Facts

Following are just a few of the many mistakes a conscientious author with access to a library or the Internet (not to mention an editor!) should not make—especially if he wishes to be known as a good researcher. (Because there are several editions of Angels & Demons, these errors are identified by chapter, not page number.)

  • On the "Fact" page, Brown states that CERN "recently succeeded in producing the first particle of antimatter." But the positron (or antielectron), the first known antimatter particle, was identified by physicist Carl Anderson in 1932. In 1955 the antiproton was produced at the Berkeley Bevatron, a fact that is, oddly enough, acknowledged on Brown’s Web site.
  • The character Maximilian Kohler, the director of CERN, says that GUT refers to "General Unified Theory . . . The theory of everything" (ch. 8). It actually is an abbreviation for "Grand Unified Theory."
  • Langdon states that the Illuminati fled Rome after Galileo was arrested in the 1630s and "were taken in by another secret society . . . a brotherhood of wealthy Bavarian stone craftsmen called the Freemasons" (ch. 11). But there were no Freemasons in Bavaria prior to the mid-18th century. The Bavarian Illuminati was founded on May 1, 1776, by Adam Weishaupt, the first lay professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt. Galileo died in 1642.
  • Vittoria Vetra, Kohler informs Langdon, "is a strict vegetarian and CERN’s resident guru of Hatha yoga." Langdon wonders to himself: "Hatha yoga? . . . The ancient Buddhist art of meditative stretching seemed an odd proficiency for the physicist daughter of a Catholic priest" (ch. 14). Although yoga is practiced by some Buddhists, all forms of yoga, including Hatha yoga, have their origin in Hinduism.
  • Langdon refers to Edwin Hubble as a "Harvard astronomer" (ch. 19). Hubble had no association with Harvard University, either as a student or professor.
  • Kohler’s secretary hears the director of CERN in his office "on his modem, his phone, faxing, talking" (ch. 28). Since the World Wide Web was invented at CERN (in 1990, by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau), it’s hard to understand why Kohler would be relegated to using a modem.
  • Several characters are depicted trying to hear a "dial tone" on their cell phones (ch. 25, 32, 106). Cell phones do not have dial tones.
  • Langdon marvels at "Michaelangelo’s famed spiral staircase leading to the Muséo Vaticano . . ." (ch. 31). The Vatican Museums are correctly known in Italian as Musei Vaticani, and the staircase was designed in 1932 by Giuseppe Momo, personal architect of Pope Pius XI.
  • Passing some Swiss Guards, Langdon notices that they carry "the traditional ‘Vatican long sword’—an eight-foot spear with a razor-sharp scythe—rumored to have decapitated countless Muslims while defending the Christian crusaders in the fifteenth century" (ch 35). The ninth and last Crusade ended in 1272; the Papal Swiss Guard was established in 1506.
  • Readers are informed that popes "died of exhaustion in an average of 6.3 years" (ch. 42). But when Brown was writing his novel (c. 2000), the papacy had been in existence for about 1970 years; divided by 264 popes, that is an average of 7.46 years per pope. Working the other direction using Brown’s average (subtracting 1663.2 [6.3 x 264] from 2000), we arrive at c. 337, the year of Emperor Constantine’s death. If we start with the pontificate of Leo XII (1878-1903), the nine popes prior to Benedict XVI averaged over 13.5 years per pontificate.
  • The camerlengo, asked if he recalls the prayer of St. Francis, prays, "God, grant me strength to accept those things I cannot change" (ch. 43). But that is from the Serenity Prayer, usually attributed to Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971).
  • The character Gunther Glick, a BBC correspondent, tells his photographer that "Rhodes Scholarships were funds set up centuries ago to recruit the world’s brightest young minds into the Illuminati" (ch. 63). But according to www.rhodesscholar.org, Rhodes Scholarships "were initiated after the death of Cecil Rhodes in 1902."

Further Reading

  • Science And Belief in the Nuclear Age (Sapientia Press), by Peter E. Hodgson
  • The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (Ignatius Press), by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
  • Light and Shadows: Defending Church History amid Faith, Facts and Legends (Ignatius Press), by Walter Brandmueller
  • The Savior of Science (Regnery Gateway) and Questions on Science and Religion (Real View Books), by Fr. Stanley L. Jaki
  • "The Plot Holes and Intriguing Details of Angels & Demons," by David A. Shugarts, in Secrets of Angels & Demons: the Unauthorized Guide to the Bestselling Novel (CDS Books, 2004), pp. 336-361
  • "Dan Brown is a fraud: A list of errors in Angels and Demons," on the "No Loss For Words" blog (http://www.dannyscl.net/2005/01/dan-brown-is-fraud-list-of-errors-in.html; January 3, 2005)

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report (www.CatholicWorldReport.com) and Ignatius Insight (http://www.ignatiusinsight.com...

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 4.