When Dan Brown's conspiracy novel The Da Vinci Code hit the big screen in 2003, the film was met with box-office success but was widely criticized for its misrepresentations of the Roman Catholic Church and church history. The USCCB established a website to counter its false claims about the divinity of Christ, Jesus' alleged marriage to Mary Magdalen, and its many distortions of the Gnostic Gospels, the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei, and more. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then the Vatican's Secretary of State, called for a boycott of the film. Elizabeth Lev, professor of art history at Duquesne University's Italian campus, called it a “museum of errors”, citing in particular its misinterpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper.

This week in his new novel Origin, released October 3, mystery-detective writer Dan Brown once again finds meaning in symbols, secret societies, art (including Gaudi's towering, still incomplete cathedral, the Sagrada Família), and history. Like The Da Vinci Code, his newest work disparages the Catholic Church and paints its pious adherents as woefully uninformed and insulated from the modern world. This time, the crisis of faith erupts in a cliffside monastery in Catalonia, Spain, where famed futurist Edmond Kirsch forces the sheltered monks into an encounter with “truth” that will shatter the foundations of their faith.

The author wastes no time before launching his attack on the Church. Brown's misconceptions about the inefficacy of faith are revealed in the third paragraph of the Prologue. “Historically,” says his protagonist Edmond Kirsch,

...the most dangerous men on earth were men of God … especially when their gods became threatened.

One of those “men of God” in Brown's latest blockbuster is Bishop Antonio Valdespino. Valdespino is a fictional Spanish cleric who is among his country's most vocal advocates for the preservation of conservative Catholic values and traditional political standards. And Bishop Valdespino himself reflects the author's jaded view of faith:  “And as I told my colleagues,” the bishop says with a smile,

...the devout can always benefit from listening to nonbelievers. It is in hearing the voice of the devil that we can better appreciate the voice of God.

And Professor Kirsch continues in his transparent disdain for faith. Kirsch believes that the Parliament of World Religions, a gathering of theologians from around the world, is a “noble quest” but, Brown writes,

an empty exercise—a meaningless search for random points of correspondence among a hodgepodge of ancient fictions, fables, and myths.

Professor Kirsch plans to announce a discovery which will up-end science as we know it, pitting creationism against evolution. His plan is thwarted, though, until Brown's famed sleuth, Harvard professor and symbologist Robert Langdon, steps in to search for the 47-character password that will reveal Kirsch's secrets to a waiting world....

 

Dan Brown's Crisis of Faith

Dan Brown's success is almost inconceivable: The 53-year-old author has more than 200 million books in print in 56 languages. Three of his thrillers have been made into movies, and the success of those blockbuster films makes it likely that Origin, the fifth in the Robert Langdon series, will also attract the attention of Hollywood.

Brown was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, the son of a mathematics teacher and a church organist. It was that combination of interests which laid the foundation for his lifelong focus on the interplay between science and religion. He was raised in the Episcopalian Church but fell into atheism when he failed to find satisfactory answers to his nagging questions about the integration of science and faith. In a 2009 interview with James Kaplan, he said:

I was raised Episcopalian, and I was very religious as a kid. Then, in eighth or ninth grade, I studied astronomy, cosmology, and the origins of the universe. I remember saying to a minister, 'I don't get it. I read a book that said there was an explosion known as the Big Bang, but here it says God created heaven and Earth and the animals in seven days. Which is right?' Unfortunately, the response I got was, 'Nice boys don't ask that question.' A light went off, and I said, 'The Bible doesn't make sense. Science makes much more sense to me.' And I just gravitated away from religion.

 

The Myth of Catholic Irrationality

For Dan Brown, the creation narrative in Scripture was a deal-breaker. If the earth wasn't created in a literal seven days, then the Bible could not be true. But was he right?

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI affirmed that the Book of Genesis is not intended as science, that it teaches that God created the earth but does not offer a literal explanation for how he did it.

Saint John Paul II, in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, likens faith and reason to “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Rather than fearing scientific inquiry, the Pope embraced its potential to lead the soul toward God. He explained:

God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

It's unfortunate that the youthful Dan Brown didn't receive a more substantial answer from his minister. If he had, perhaps he would have continued his pursuit of truth, eventually exploring the depths of Catholic teaching which can be found in the Catechism or in the works of great theologians like Aquinas. Perhaps his quest would have led him to the Magis Center, founded by Jesuit Fr. Robert Spitzer, where science, reason and faith are integrated and explored, or to the Faith and Reason Institute, where issues challenging contemporary society are explored within the framework of the “two wings.”

Perhaps then Brown's mystery/thriller novels would have more fairly explored issues of faith, minus the barely veiled twist-the-knife attacks on Roman Catholicism.

But the door is still open for Dan Brown, a self-professed “spiritual seeker.” In his novel Angels and Demons, Brown wrote,

Whether or not you believe in God, you must believe this: when we as a species abandon our trust in a power greater than us, we abandon our sense of accountability. Faiths… all faiths… are admonitions that there is something we cannot understand, something to which we are accountable. With faith we are accountable to each other, to ourselves, and to a higher truth. Religion is flawed, but only because man is flawed. The church consists of a brotherhood of imperfect, simple souls wanting only to be a voice of compassion in a world spinning out of control.

My hope is that prompted by the Holy Spirit, Dan Brown will continue his quest for truth, and that in plumbing the depths of Catholic theology and philosophy, he might find the integration of faith and science for which he yearns.

And I pray that readers and moviegoers will not be turned away from their faith by Brown's jaded portrayal, but will instead be renewed in their conviction that there is an answer, and that the answer lies in the Creator Himself.