Angels & Demons - the book

Angels & Demons demonstrates that Dan Brown clearly has a low view of the church, but he doesn't seem to be opposed to faith per se. In the novel that will be released tomorrow as a major motion picture, he preaches in favour of a brave new world that shrugs off those crusty denominations that continue claim their teachings are connected to testable truth. Personal religion is acceptable " even beneficial " so long as it remains as amorphous and ill defined as the average bathrobe. Just don't wear it out in public!

Angels & Demons is the first of Dan Brown's books to introduce Harvard University symbologist Robert Langdon of The Da Vinci Code fame. In it he confronts the Illuminati, yet another ancient, secret society that numbered amongst its members a whole range of artistic and scientific luminaries from the past " presumably those who had their applications rejected by the Priory of Sion.

The malevolent Illuminati are apparently seeking to destroy faith in God by demolishing the Catholic Church. They assassinate the Pope, brutally murder the four cardinals most likely to succeed him, and plant an anti-matter bomb under St Peters that will level the basilica. The real danger Langdon discovers is that the explosive device will destroy the vaults of Vatican City and the church's massive assets, resulting in the collapse of Catholicism worldwide. At least that's the plan"

SPOILER ALERT: Three quarters of the way through the book it becomes clear the Illuminati have been horribly maligned. The identity of this peace-loving society has been assumed by a deranged Catholic priest who is himself the secret love child of the deceased Pope. Father Carlo Ventresca, intends to miraculously foil the Illuminati's supposed plot at just the right moment in order to inspire a new wave of faith in God. In a few short pages the church goes from sympathetic victim to vile perpetrator, and Dan Brown assumes a style of attack that will be remarkably familiar to anyone who has read or seen The Da Vinci Code.

Angels & Demons bears all the hallmarks of airport fiction, or what my wife pleasantly describes as "Mills & Boon for men'. Langdon races around reading clues in renaissance art and dramatically unraveling the mystery, without managing to save anyone's life (otherwise the plot would stop short). He is accompanied by a leggy physicist who is both a brilliant skeptic of religion and a yoga master. Langdon defeats the Illuminati assassin, survives an improbable fall from an aircraft and uncovers the Vatican's dirty little secrets all in one day, which makes him one very busy symbologist.

Similar to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown begins his book with a list of "FACTS' that suggest his story is somehow based on reliable information. There is not room in a single article to list all of the improbable things that happen in this plot " the very first being a leading scientific body's decision to make Robert Langdon its first call in the face of a brutal murder, and not the police. Nor is there space to list the distressing number of scientific, artistic, historical, military and geographical inaccuracies in a story Dan Brown maintains he spent years researching. I will leave it to articles like Dan Brown is a fraud and Sure, read Dan Brown but never believe him to complete that life's work. Suffice to say, my favourite is insisting that Christianity appropriated the idea of communion from the "god eating' custom of the ancient Aztecs " a culture that developed a thousand years after the early church.

Of more interest to Christian readers will be the way Dan Brown handles their beliefs. Apart from reducing all Christendom to the Catholic Church, Brown seeks to define Christianity by deepening the divide between faith and reason. Religion is permissible so long as it remains in the heart; the mind is the domain of the scientist. The book is filled with intelligent, rational men and women who have come to the conclusion that a belief in God is just not for them. As Brown describes one doctor,  "" he was not a religious man; the science of medicine had bred that from him long ago." Even the heroes of the church are those who approach the mindset of the scientist rather than the minister:

"The camerlengo spoke with no rhetoric or vitriol. No references to scripture or Jesus Christ. He spoke in modern terms, unadorned and pure. Somehow, as though the words were flowing from God himself, he spoke the modern language " delivering the ancient message. " In a world of apathy, cynicism, and technological deification, men like the camerlengo, realists who could speak to our souls like this man just had, were the church's only hope."

Brown's version of the church is weak and wavering, admitting that it is in need of more relevant miracles now that millennia separate it from the resurrection of Jesus. Religious fervour is reserved for the mobs that refuse to vacate St Peter's Square in the face of a bomb threat, and those who hail a man who survives the terrible disaster as a messenger from God. It is no surprise that he turns out to be the arch villain, a religious zealot who pays more attention to the voices in his head than to reality.

Science is presented as picking up where religion has had to leave off, answering the big questions of life. The physicists at the centre of the story effectively hand humanity God-like powers as they succeed in replicating "creation'. God himself is reduced to the level of a natural force, residing in everything at a particle level. He is the best sort of Creator to back Brown's personalized concept of religion: omnipresent but ultimately unknowable.

Christianity is characterized as a handbrake on humanity, deliberately holding back scientific advances because the church doesn't believe people are ready. Its chief instruments are fear and guilt, and its goal is control. Furthermore, there are no rational components to the author's description of faith. It is a far cry from Biblical faith which rationally says, "Because God has everything else he has promised, I can trust Him to do the rest.' Through Robert Langdon and his other characters, Brown seems to opt for some form of agnostic pantheism as the most balanced position. Langdon does not believe in the Christian God personally, but he rests in the fact that all religions have the same goals. Brown's scientists see the true value of religion as the day-to-day benefits it provides people. Even Brown's priests admit it doesn't have to be based on facts to be a benefit to people.

Paradoxically, despite the condescension and condemnation, Brown does have some very useful things to say about the nature of modern life for the Christian to pick up on. Science may appear to have triumphed over Christianity, but at what cost? Humanity struggles under the weight of a meaningless existence and a loss of accountability. Furthermore Brown even argues very cogently that God can still be both omnipotent and benevolent even in the face of disaster. Most importantly, in the novel's climactic pages the author recognizes that the supreme miracle religion could present would be evidence that God had spoken to a man. Would that Brown had paid a little more attention to his research and seen the historically respected account of Jesus' words recorded in the Gospel of John:

"For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say." (John 12:49-50)

Angels & Demons succeeds for the same reason that pornography succeeds " because it doesn't rely on the factual, it simply provides stimulus. The sheer suggestion of a deceitful Pope who fathers a murderous son bent on blowing up St Peter's Basilica is salicious enough. In that sense, the average reader doesn't mind that the surrounding "evidence' is actually fanciful rubbish. The only thing that matters is the level of satisfaction the conclusion brings. And since Robert Langdon gets the bad guys and the girl, without God stepping in to hold him accountable, it is likely to be a very attractive finale indeed.

 

Mark Hadley is a communicator and has worked in the visual media for more than twenty years, producing television series and documentaries for Australian and international television networks. You can find his latest articles and projects on his web site markahadley.com

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