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The danger that Dan Brown’s prose style might be contagious discouraged me from reading The Da Vinci Code, and I decline to see the film. In 1982, I read the same asinine story in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail presented as fact, and do not gladly dive twice into the same sewer. Why this rubbish became the world’s best-selling work of fiction, though, paradoxically confirms the strength of America’s Christian faith.
Why should an American novel depicting Christianity as a hoax command such a readership while Christian faith is resurgent? Americans are migrating en masse to evangelical denominations who preach Christ crucified and eternal salvation, abandoning the blancmange beliefs of mainline Protestantism. Americans, to be sure, also watch pornography. One might dismiss Brown’s oeuvre as ecclesiastical pornography, but there is something more to it.
To make sense of the Christian fascination with The Da Vinci Code, compare Christian and Muslim reactions to fictional assaults on the foundation of faith. In English fiction, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is the nearest Muslim equivalent to Brown’s book. More than 60 million copies of the latter have been printed, and a large plurality of American Christians either will read the book or see the film. But very few Muslims have read Rushdie’s book. Rushdie still lives in danger of his life, but no Christian fundamentalist has invoked violence against Dan Brown. Inconceivable, for that matter, is a Jewish counterpart to The Da Vinci Code, for Judaism is short on mysteries and long on history. Jews quibble, to be sure, about whether Moses received the Pentateuch from God at Mount Sinai, or whether later redactors compiled earlier tales into the canonical version, but it does not much matter.
If 8th century BC scribes wrote the Torah instead, who is to say they were less inspired than Moses? Once I asked a Jewish child, “How do you know that God brought you out of Egypt?” Before I could end the sentence she countered, “If God didn’t bring me out of Egypt, then what am I doing here talking to you?”
But if Jesus did not die on the cross, but instead married Mary Magdalene and begat a bloodline of French aristocrats, Christianity’s promise means nothing. Precisely because Christianity is a promise, the promise of eternal life, it always is subject to doubt. To be Christian means to get out of one’s skin, that is, to relinquish one’s sinful, Gentile nature and to be reborn into the People of God.
Unlike the Jews, who consider themselves God’s people, warts and all, no Christian can see the People of God, or be sure whether he himself belongs to it, or whether the mystical transformation of his flesh actually has taken place. It is not certainty that Jesus offered – except to the few who saw him after the Resurrection – but rather the possibility of faith. If the Christian did not have to wrestle with doubt, like Jacob with the angel on the riverbank, faith would have no redeeming power.
Doubt does not easily find expression in traditional society, where the life and thinking of individuals has deep roots in established communities. But traditional religion barely exists in the Christian world. In modernity, all religions become religions of personal conscience rather than communal duty. Doubt ceases to be a private matter and must find a public voice. By way of analogy, Victorian husbands were no more faithful to their wives than today’s British husbands, if we consider that prostitutes comprised a tenth of London’s female population halfway through the 19th century.
Victorians, however, rarely viewed pornography, which was hard to obtain. The fact that modern husbands have free access to pornography does not necessarily make them less faithful. Christians read The Da Vinci Code with the same prurient interest that attracts them to pornography; it allows them to question the premises of faith just as hardcore material allows them to question the premises of monogamy.
Proponents of the “Gnostic Gospels” have taken The Da Vinci Code as an opportunity to peddle their version of Jesus as guru rather than Son of God. Still, I doubt that Brown’s book occasioned even a single lapse in faith on the part of a devoted Christian. Once again same Existential argument applies. If Jews takes their present existence as proof of the truth of Hebrew scripture, Christians take their prospective existence as proof of Jesus’ promise.
No one becomes a Christian because Christian doctrine is reasonable; few stranger claims have been made that God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only-begotten son to redeem it. That of course is an extension of the equally scandalous Jewish claim that the creator of all, who wears the universe like a garment that he will discard when it wears out, cannot help but be moved by the suffering of the humblest of his creatures.
If Jesus’ resurrection is a hoax, the Christian knows, then there is no consolation before the inevitability of death. Pop spirituality, that is, Gnosticism, works a different side of the street. Those who want spiritual advice on how to feel good in this world know where to find it; those who want to overcome death go somewhere else.
If Christian faith were not resurgent, no one would care much about Brown’s book. People wallow in doubt only because they begin with the premise of faith. In 1976, at the postwar nadir of US religious commitment, Robert Ludlum published The Gemini Contenders, a thriller with an identical premise: a conspiracy by the Catholic Church to cover up disproof of Christ’s divinity. It sold well, but not like Brown’s book. Brown is the indirect beneficiary of the intensification of American faith.
These considerations provide an adequate explanation of why an anti-Christian screed might achieve wildfire success in a Christian country, but it does not explain why this particular screed succeeded. That is a subtler issue.
Certain events in history lend themselves conspiracy tales. Take for example Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, containing a fictional conspiracy by the real 17th-century French premier Cardinal Richelieu. In fact, Richelieu and his intelligence chief Father Joseph du Tremblay conspired to prolong the religious wars in Germany into the terrible Thirty Years’ War (see The sacred heart of darkness, Asia Times Online, February 11, 2003), destroying most of Europe’s German-speaking population to make France the undisputed power on the continent.
Du Tremblay, the “Gray Eminence,” walked barefoot about Europe in his Capuchin gown to manipulate and deceive the leaders of Europe. A self-abnegating mystic, he was the most successful intelligence operator of whom history is aware, and we still do not know all his exploits. Men like this transcend the popular imagination, for they are gifted with an uncanny perception of human weakness that few people wish to contemplate. Even Friedrich Schiller, in his Wallenstein trilogy of the Thirty Years’ War, could not fathom the extent of French manipulation behind the tragic events he dramatized.
The popular mind of 1840s France sensed something sinister (the German term unheimlich expresses it better) in the emergence of La France in the 17th century. Dumas pere obliged with a silly swashbuckler of a conspiracy tale. This flattered the mock-heroic pretensions of the tattered French ego. The truth was too lurid for France to consider, namely that Richelieu had invented a French state on the premise of a narcissistic nationalism that only could lead to national ruin. Frenchmen did not want to know the true Richelieu, for they could do so only at the terrible price of knowing themselves. La France went on to defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and Pyrrhic victory in World War I, followed by a century of humiliation. I summarized the facts in the 2003 essay linked above.
To compare Brown’s bit of humbug to Alexandre Dumas is too charitable to the former, but there is something of a parallel. The history of the Roman Catholic Church is tragic, in the fullest sense of the word, namely that inherent flaws lead to terrible consequences. It is the tragedy of Europe, for, as Hilaire Belloc said, “Europe is the faith, the faith is Europe.” Europe is a construct, built out of the Germans, Vikings, Slavs, Magyars and other peoples who invaded the denuded lands of the old Roman Empire over 800 years. Christianity offered them a fateful compromise: Hebrew hopes, and a pagan life. The pagan side won, with awful consequences.
The peoples of Europe cannot easily distinguish their Catholicism from their bittersweet love for their own ethnicity. Despite John Paul II’s papacy, Poland remains a battleground between neo-pagan nationalism metastasized throughout the Polish Church and the late pontiff’s vision of Catholic universality. Benedict XVI’s visit this Sunday to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp was marred by a street assault on Poland’s chief rabbi, whom the pope had invited to pray at the ceremony. The Vatican has not been able to suppress the nationalist Radio Maryja, a platform for anti-Semitic propaganda. It cannot cure the cancer without the risk of killing the patient, Poland’s national-Catholic identity.
Paganism is self-worship. The crypto-pagan Catholic stands like Narcissus before images of Jesus, Mary and the saints, praying to his own image. To redirect the gaze of heathen converts away from their earthly ethnicity, and toward the Kingdom of God above, the Church enlisted the efforts of the great artists. As I wrote in Why the beautiful is not the good (May 17, 2005):
Pearls grow in oysters to soothe irritation; the high art of the West grew pearl-like in Christendom around an abrasion it could not heal: the refusal of mere humans to place all their hopes upon the promise of life after death. Christianity made Europe by offering the kingdom of heaven to barbarian invaders, while allowing them to keep their tribal culture. The high art of the West gave these rude men a presentiment of the kingdom of heaven and formed an authentic Christian culture opposed to pagan holdovers.
But the cure turned into another disease. The Church gave its artists free rein over the popular imagination, but the artists exploited this authority to project their own narcissism. That is a long and sad story, which I have told to the best of my ability on another occasion.  The mutual betrayal of the Church and its artists during the 19th century explains much of Europe’s decline and fall at the outset of the 20th.
Even if the broad public is estranged from the Christian high culture of the past, the conflict between Christian purpose and pagan narcissism is evident to the uninformed observer. The Greek form of Renaissance art warred against its Christian content, and it is the classical-pagan rather than the Christian side that came to the fore. The public may not know the details, but it does not take a doctorate in art history to see that the great Christian painters of the Renaissance put their own talents before the service of God.
That is why the Renaissance offered such a short burst of creative output before the Counter-Reformation put the artists in their place and brought forth an era of religious orthodoxy and artistic mediocrity. The crown and scepter in plastic arts passed from Italy to Holland, where Protestant painters such as Rembrandt created a different concept of beauty.
In this most fascinating and most conflicted epoch of culture, Leonardo towers above his contemporaries as the exemplar of its brilliance as well as its contradictions. He was both the consummate Christian and the consummate pagan. The painter of the best-known image of Christian art, The Last Supper, was in some respects the least Christian in character. The extent of Leonardo’s own narcissism is a matter of lively debate. Computer scientists, for example, have produced credible evidence that his best-known painting, Mona Lisa, is a self-portrait. 
Brown may be a dismal writer, but he struck a nerve by linking the epitome of Western genius to doubts about the authenticity of Christian revelation. The effect of his book will pass, like a mild case of food poisoning. Christianity’s inner struggle will remain.
1. See Spengler’s three-part series, The pope, the musicians and the Jews, May 10, 2005; Why the beautiful is not the good, May 17, 2005; and The Laach Maria monster, June 1, 2005.
2. Eg Lillian Schwartz.