It was described by the Library Journal as a “masterpiece” that “should be mandatory reading.” The Chicago Tribune called it a book containing “several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned speculation.” Critics gushed about how well-researched the book was—the New York Daily News called its research “impeccable.” Its author insisted that the book was thoroughly researched and factual in all respects. So focused on truth and accuracy was he that he made certain his book prominently featured a page titled “FACT,” stating, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Who is this great historian and scholar? And what erudite work of historical research did he pen for the pleasure of both the masses and the elites?
Yes, it was Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003.
Brown continues to produce “masterpieces”—although, to be fair, few have bestowed such lavish praise on novels such as The Lost Symbol (about the Masons and conspiracies), Inferno (about Dante and overpopulation), and, most recently, Origin. The latter once again features Robert Langdon, a “symbologist” whose thin personality is matched perfectly by Brown’s even thinner writing. But Brown’s novels aren't really about characters or plots; they are about Big Ideas and Controversial Subjects—in this case, the great and abiding tension between Catholicism and science, and how the former is (of course) threatened by the ceaseless progress and stunning insights of the latter.
To be honest, I gave up after the third chapter, which is where my free Kindle preview ended. In my defense, I did co-author a book with medievalist Sandra Miesel about The Da Vinci Code, I slogged through all of its prequel Angels & Demons, and I watched the movies for both—reviewing the latter, admittedly with little patience or mercy. What I did notice, however, is that Brown is still a dreadfully dull writer whose relationship with the English language is tenuous, even tortured, for a man who claims to have once been an English teacher. (“Whatever else you want to say about Brown,” noted Matthew Walther in a caustic takedown in The Week, “he is certainly a memorable writer. He takes what might be charitably described as a loose view of the relations between nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates, between words in general.”)
However, my focus here is not Brown’s many sins against the art of fiction but about how the use of fiction and narrative provides a cover for Brown to twist the truth. The most aggravating aspect of the entire Da Vinci Code phenomenon—did I mention the novel has sold over eighty million copies?—is the smirking taunt: “Don’t you know it’s just fiction?”
I’ve noticed, for instance, that most of the more recent reviews of our book The Da Vinci Hoax have taken up this idiotic but popular trope. An example, from Amazon.com:
What baffles me is that there is a book out there that is "debunking" a work of fiction. It’s a sad commentary on humanity that people here are railing about how the characters in Dan Brown's book are relaying historical information. Get informed! Dan Brown himself has said the Da Vinci Code books are works of fiction FFFFIIIIICCCCTTTIIIIOOOONNNN. How insecure do you have to be that you need to debunk a book that has already been debunked by its own author?
Yes, “get informed,” indeed! Let’s recap the basics: The Da Vinci Code initially received so many positive reviews and attention precisely because Brown insisted vehemently that the novel was based on deep research and historical fact. And while reviews would mention the “fast-paced plotting” and such (as if dozens of two-page chapters equate to fast or good plots), the obsession for readers was with the historical claims and the attending conspiracy theories—few of which, it should be mentioned, are original with Brown. So, Brown never “debunked” his novel; on the contrary, he played (and continues to play) a coy game in which he rides on the coattails of his supposed research while hiding behind the skirts of “it’s just fiction” whenever said research is taken to task.
It brings to mind a wonderful quote from G.K. Chesterton:
A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. It does much more than that, it tells us the truth about its readers; and, oddly enough, it tells us this all the more the more cynical and immoral be the motive of its manufacture. The more dishonest a book is as a book the more honest it is as a public document.
Brown is a perfect representative of our commercialized, post-Enlightenment, secularized mass culture. A former Episcopalian, Brown presents himself as a deeply educated but skeptical elite who has cast off the superstitions of a dark and religious (that is, Catholic) age. Yet his learning is shallow, his secularism sentimental, and his goal is apparently to sell as much pulp fiction as possible—all while pontificating about overpopulation and trumpeting a warmed-over form of neo-Hegelian pantheism. In addition, Brown constantly (if not consistently) employs a crude sort of gnosticism—the promise of a secret and elite knowledge—that hinges on the key premise that most everything we’ve been told about history is either incomplete or false.
And “history,” for Brown, almost always means what has come down through traditional and/or Christian narratives. As he stated in an interview this past October:
For me, the single most compelling aspect of history is that history is not always as accurate as we might believe. Throughout the ages, our trusted tales of “what happened” have always come from the same source – the winners. In other words, when cultures clash, the surviving people decide how their story will be told. For this reason, I am passionate about examining hidden histories and secret documents in an effort to unearth alternate viewpoints, lost facts, and new ways to interpret the stories we’ve all believed since childhood.
Joseph Ratzinger posited in Truth and Tolerance that what “the whole Enlightenment has in common is the desire for emancipation”—especially the “constraints of authority.” Brown, in his hamhanded and superficial way, gives voice to this with stories about dark conspiracies and hidden texts, the irrational nature of faith, the purity of individual reason, the horror of dogma and doctrine, and the heroic battle for science, which he elevates as a sort of religion (again, hardly new to Brown). And Brown’s popularity readily indicates how eager the masses are to hear such things, all the more easy to consume and regurgitate because they come in the form of a fast-paced, breathless “thriller.”
Christians, of all people, should be most aware of the importance of history and narrative. “What we think about the meaning of history,” observed Herbert Schlosserg in his brilliant Idols for Destruction, “is inseparable from what we think of the meaning of life. … That the question of history has any importance at all is in itself a religious conclusion.” Brown, unwittingly or otherwise, recognizes that one of the best ways to attack orthodox Christianity is to not simply rework or skew the facts, but to insinuate in countless ways that we can never really trust the facts, which have, after all, been passed down to us by “the winners.”
Ultimately, Brown discourages readers from actually reading history. This is not a new problem; Chesterton was addressing it well over a century ago, as in his 1908 essay “History Versus the Historians,” in which he lamented:
There is no history; there are only histories. To the tell the tale plainly is now much more difficult than to tell it treacherously. It is unnatural to leave the facts alone; it is instinctive to pervert them.
His solution? “Let us read the actual texts of the time.” So, for instance, rather than accept Brown’s depiction of the “gnostic gospels” as more accurate and historical than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, read those texts. In doing so, you probably are doing something Dan Brown never did.