Glorious Appearing–the twelfth edition of the Left Behind novels–and The Da Vinci Code are a strange couple. Yet there they sit, Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the April 18th New York Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction. The Left Behind books have now outsold John Grisham, and The Da Vinci Code has sold nearly seven million copies in a year.
Is the popularity of the two a mere coincidence? So it would seem, based on the glaring differences between the books. In one corner, the Left Behind juggernaut is steered by two devout fundamentalist Christians, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and takes readers on an apocalyptic journey through seven years of future tribulation, based on a literalistic interpretation of the book of Revelation. In the other corner, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code spins a conspiracy-heavy yarn steeped in feminist and occult beliefs, and attacks several points of Christian doctrine, including the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus.
But some see common ground between the books and have proposed that they, along with The Passion of the Christ, are merely different versions of competing Christianities. These “opposing visions,” one recent article opines, reflect a “clash between Christians and other Christians.” The sad conclusion of these doctrinal skirmishes? “People tend to look for the version of Jesus that reinforces the one they already have.”
However, if this is true, then just about everyone is a Christian, including those who reject the existence or the divinity of Jesus and therefore are Christian simply by virtue of having an opinion about the Christ. Exhibit A is Brown, who says he is a Christian, but adds, “although perhaps not in the most traditional sense of the word.” (Meaning he doesn’t believe Jesus was the Christ, just a “mere mortal prophet,” in the words of one of his characters.) But Brown does believe “we are all trying to decipher life’s big mysteries, and we’re each following our own paths of enlightenment.” So there you have it: Anybody can be a Christian, as long as he doesn’t mind the term and can define it however he desires.
The point is that the most significant similarities between The Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind series are not found in labeling them “Christian” and wishing religious controversialists would all hug and make nice. In fact, Brown’s and LaHaye/Jenkins’s views of Jesus are a point of serious difference, and no amount of glib semantics should obscure the matter. Rather, it’s far more accurate to describe both books as neo-Gnostic mythologies based on radical interpretations of ancient texts. Both are created without much concern for fact and scholarship, but both give a wealth of lip service to supposed research and historical veracity. Both rely on a dramatic emotional appeal that is steeped in anger and fear. Both rest on a distrust of authority and a desire to be free from the confines of tradition. Both promise special knowledge, or gnosis, to those willing to accept the authors’ premises and suspend judgment about the veracity and solvency of those premises.
In the Left Behind books (which I have written about before on NRO), an apocalyptic mythology about the future has been created based on interpretations of the Bible, using a unique and recent form of theology called premillennial dispensationalism. In The Da Vinci Code, a radical feminist mythology about the past is created via an interpretation of selected Gnostic writings that relies on esoteric, neo-pagan premises. In the Left Behind series, humanity is utterly depraved and history spirals downward into chaos and inevitable collapse; salvation can only come through a personal act of faith and complete renunciation of “the world.” In The Da Vinci Code, humanity suffers from a lack of the “sacred feminine” and the world tilts ominously towards a male-dominated future; freedom from this imbalanced state requires the healing touch of the “goddess.”
Both novels cite a common enemy: the institutions of man, especially the Catholic Church. This is far more overt in The Da Vinci Code, which contains a cacophonous recitation of how evil, violent, misogynist, murderous, backward, and corrupt the Catholic Church allegedly is. (No mention of Protestantism is ever made in Brown’s novel, but “the Vatican” is omnipresent.) The authors of the Left Behind books agree with that assessment, as an examination of non-fiction works such as Are We Living In the End Times? demonstrates, but they are more muted in saying so in the Left Behind novels. There is no doubt, however, that LaHaye and Jenkins include the Catholic Church in a list of man-made institutions (e.g., the U.N., the European Union, Hollywood, etc.) contrary to the will and work of God. The bottom line is that faith is individualistic–”Me and Jesus” or “Me and the Goddess”–and that any spiritual or religious community larger than an intimate home church or a cozy secret society is to be viewed with great suspicion.
Now, if push came to shove, I’d choose to be in the trenches with LaHaye and Jenkins over Brown any day. Despite serious disagreements, we share essential beliefs and I have no doubt about where they stand. Not so with Brown, whose hip and popular postmodern cant is syncretistic, often incoherent, and thoroughly relativistic.
As strong as my criticisms of The Da Vinci Code might sound to some, recourse to shouting is sometimes necessary to be heard over the massive roar of adulation that continues to accompany the novel. Judging from the glowing reviews and the dewy-eyed television interviews (not to mention a forthcoming major motion picture), you’d think that Gibbon or Toynbee had penned a new masterpiece, the difference being that no one reads Gibbon or Toynbee. Besides, whatever their biases, they were actually historians, not pseudo-intellectual poseurs.
Many of Brown’s fans crow about his “research” and the “accuracy” of his historical claims, but they apparently won’t even put him to the desk-encyclopedia test. Although his novel boasts that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate,” Brown cannot even correctly state the size of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, missing it by a full 18 inches. His vaunted research into Leonardo’s life is taken almost entirely from The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ, while his tired theories about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, Constantine, and early Christianity are nearly all borrowed from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a book that is about as historically accurate as a Kremlin account of life in the gulags. So rife with error is the novel that medieval historian and journalist Sandra Miesel, who co-authored The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors of The Da Vinci Code with me, dryly remarked, “I’m actually surprised when The Da Vinci Code is correct about anything at all.”
People who will never seriously examine what a 2,000-year-old institution states about what is true or false are voraciously chewing up the fictional fast food of a mediocre novelist from New England as though he had a direct line to the Supreme Intellect of the Universe. Free thinkers and libertines who once believed that marriage was boring and humdrum now think it is the most exciting thing in the world–as long as it’s Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. What gives? Setting aside those who simply want a “good read,” I have to conclude that many people have lost their minds. We live in an information age, but this era is arguably the most historically illiterate of any in American history. When people say (and they are saying it), “The Da Vinci Code is the greatest thing I’ve ever read,” you have to wonder: What have they read? Cereal boxes?
In The Da Vinci Code, character Robert Langdon, a symbologist, muses as he lectures the neophyte Sophie about the nature of faith and religion: “Sophie, every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith–acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove.” Dan Brown may not know much about the Christian faith, but he knows more than a little about fabrication–and the rewards of foul fiction.
–Carl E. Olson is the co-author, with Sandra Miesel, of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors of The Da Vinci Code, to be published this summer by Ignatius Press.