Its Number One on Amazon, and has gone to the top of several best seller lists, and the reviews are pouring in for Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster novel, sure to be made into a movie. But even Mr. Brown’s fans, reviewing the book on Amazon, are about equally divided as to whether this novel makes Mr. Brown a dude or a dud.
One reviewer on Amazon complains “A good two-thirds of the book (I’m not exaggerating, I counted the pages) was filled with variations on such a scene:
Character A: Have you heard of X?
Character B (usually Langdon): Yes, but I thought that was just a myth.
Character A shows or tells B something.
Character B reacts with shock.
Then, insert scenes of people walking from one place to another, being chased.
Then, insert the sentence “Suddenly everything made sense.” At least for the next ten pages.
I feel his pain as this goes on for 509 pages.
One of the things that happens to writers who have inordinate popular success is that they lose their critical ability to EDIT! This novel is desperately in need of some more of that. I would liken it to what happened after Peter Jackson had his enormous Lord of the Rings success and then put out the bloated King Kong movie.
You would especially think that after five plus years since Dan’s last Robert Langdon adventure he had the time to make this a nice tight thriller. The result— not so much. Another thing that happens to writers who drink too deeply from the well of success is they start recycling, even other people’s material. Inevitably there will be extended comparisons between this novel and the movie National Treasure, both focusing on Washington and those secretive Masons.
Let me be clear that Dan Brown’s best gift is cranking out a real page turner and there are some sections of The Lost Symbol where he accomplishes this quite well. He knows and freely admits he doesn’t have the literary gifts or descriptive powers of a Hemingway or a Faulkner. That’s not the point. The point is, that he should be able to measure up to the standards of others who attempt to write historical fiction– writers like, say, James Mitchener who produced any number of real classics, like The Source. Therein lies the standard of comparison, and on that front he falls far short.
So is the problem simply bad editing or lack of fact checking (there were some 150 historical and theological blunders in the The Da Vinci Code—see my book The Gospel Code)? Well no. Hubris, clearly enough seems to be another one of the problems here. Dan Brown is apparently considerably out of his depth when it comes to either the history of religions, or in this case modern science. He continues to put a ‘FACT’ page at the beginning of his novels meant to give the appearance that he is writing historical fiction, but in fact it comes out closer to hysterical fiction.
Consider for example, the howler on p. 195 where we are told that artists, in order to be “true to the Gospels” began depicting Moses with horns! Well no, that notion does not come from the Gospels, it comes from a misreading and mistranslating of the Hebrew in Exodus, as the previous paragraph says.
Or consider the following supposed exegesis of Gen. 17.20 (p. 194) where we are told that the Genesis creation story tells us humankind is created in God’s image and therefore this implies “that mankind was not created inferior to God”. The speaker goes on to point to Luke 17.20 where we are told ‘the Kingdom of God is within you.” In regard to the former, neither the Hebrew nor the Greek version of the phrase ‘image of God’ convey at all the notion of human equality with God. Is the image of a ruler on a coin equal to the ruler himself? Of course not. Is the image of the king on a seal, equal to the king himself? Of course not. For that matter is your image in the mirror of equal substance, power, reality to you? Absolutely not.
It is not the theological message of the Bible that “ye shall be as gods” despite Dan Brown’s wishing it to be so. That would be the message of the serpent, not the message of the Savior. And this brings us to the core reason that Dan Brown wants to play fast and loose with the Biblical text— he is a promoter of the idea of human self-apotheosis, of human beings having not merely divine potential but indeed a bit of divinity within them.
And as for Lk. 17.20— what Jesus said on that occasion to an inquiring Pharisee was not “the kingdom of God is already within you”. This would be a very odd thing to say to a non-follower of Jesus! What he is saying is that the eschatological saving activity of God has already broken into their midst in his person and ministry, so they do not need to go hither and yon looking for it, when he is standing right in their midst. A literal rendering would be ‘the Dominion is in your midst (or among you).”
The intoxicating religious gas that Dan Brown is inhaling and promoting is “the great promise of man becoming God” (p. 495). Consider his treatment of 1 Cor. 3.16 near the end of this novel, “You are the temple of God” is taken to mean not that Jesus or the Spirit can come and indwell you if you are saved by grace through faith, but rather is said to be a commentary about the human mind, so its all about “the power latent within us” so these texts are “urging us to build the temple of our minds” (p. 499). And just for good measure, Brown, preferring the Gnostic versions of Jesus to the canonical one has his protagonist add from the Gospel of Mary “where the mind is, there is the treasure”.
Indeed,it appears Brown prefers what he calls the ‘religion’ of Einstein– a so-called cosmic religion that will transcend the notion of a personal God and avoid dogma and theology (p.308). But a moments reflection will show that when you reduce God to something less than personal, this is surely a lower and less developed form of religion not a higher one. Indeed, the human penchant to reduce God to something less than human and personal is part and parcel of the human attempt to claim human lordship over everything, including God. There is a word for this in the Bible— idolatry, the worshiping of something that is less than God, as God. If you doubt this is where Brown is going consider p. 328 which repeats has the Dean of the National Cathedral no less repeat eight Rosicrucian manifestos about the end of the world, the last of which is “Before this revelation is possible the world must sleep away the intoxication of her poisoned chalice, which was filled with the false life of the theological vine.”!!! Christian theology is portrayed as the bad guy, as is historical exegesis of the Bible in its original contexts and meanings.
Or consider the interpretation of the word ‘Amen’ on p.358 where the speaker confidently informers us comes from the name of the Egyptian or non-Hebrew God Amon/Amun. Unfortunately for this interpretation, it has no basis in history of linguistic analysis. ‘Amen’ the Hebrew word is not a name, it means ‘so be it’ or ‘truly’, and was normally used as a response to someone else’s affirmation. Nor would the Hebrews have used the name of a foreign deity to affim the truth of their own God’s utterances! They were monotheists after all.
But it is not just Biblical blunders and distortions that we find in The Lost Symbol he seems to have bought some Masonic and even Rosicrucian propaganda hook line and sinker when it comes to the King James Bible and its origins. For example one of Brown’s protagonists and Masons says (p. 495) that Sir Francis Bacon was hired by King James to literally create the King James Bible!!! This is a total myth. There was a translation team led by scholars such as Lancelot Andrews (see Alistair McGrath’s fine book on the origins of the KJV) and it does not appear Bacon had anything to do with the original translating of this version. This sort of lack of good critical judgment evidenced by Brown in discussing and interpreting matters having to do with Christianity does not inspire confidence that he can be trusted on other fronts either.
You may well ask— why do I get so upset with Brown’s novels and their ‘novel’ misrepresentations of the NT and Jesus? The answer is simple.
We live in a Jesus haunted culture that is both Biblically iliiterate and at the same time is an entertainment culture. In this sort of environment which is increasingly less Christian, anything can pass for truth or knowledge about Jesus or the Bible.
When I did my book tour for the Gospel Code, one of the often recurring themes during the Q+A sessions was the question—- Do you mean to tell me Dan Brown is not giving us the facts about the Gospel, Gnostics, etc.? I thought of writing up a chronicle of some of the naive reactions and questions I got and calling it ‘Gullible’s Travels’. The reason and the need for a thorough critique of a novel like The Lost Symbol is because it is offering up a Koolaide that, while quite palletable today, is by no means genuine communion wine from the Gospels.
A. Brown on the Founding Fathers
To give Dan Brown his due, he is certainly right about a few things— for example many of the Founding Fathers were Masons, indeed high up in Masonry (32 or 33rd order Masons). And he is right as well that their religion was tinctured as much or more by Masonry than by the Bible or Orthodox Christianity.
Despite the myth-making of some conservative American Christians, people like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and George Washington and John Adams can not be give a total makeover as if they historically were born again Christians. Some were Deists and Masons, some were some amalgam of Mason and Christian, and yes of course there were some who were devout and orthodox Christians— for example John Adams’ relative Samuel Adams, who ironically is more known as a beer brand today than as he really was, a firebrand for the Lord. If you want to read up on the faith of our Founding Fathers I suggest the book, by a scholar from William and Mary named David L. Holmes— ‘The Faith of our Founding Fathers’ This book presents a fair and balanced assessment of the situation when it comes to the religion, or lack thereof of our Founders. Brown then is right that the Founders were not simply all born again Christians.
Where he goes badly wrong is assuming that people like George Washington believed like Brown seems to believe today— that God is some sort of cosmic energy or force in the universe rather than a personal being. To the contrary, even the Deists believed in a personal God, as did the Founding Father Masons, who like to call God the Supreme Architect. And I am quite confident that those Masons today who are also Christians would repudiate Brown’s interpretation of the Word God, not to mention various of the ways he handles the Bible.
Despite Brown’s attempt to portray the Masons in a sympathetic light in this novel, I am sure he will have various of them squirming as well. Certainly my grandfather, who was both a devout Southern Baptist and a 32nd order Mason (and Shriner) would have been having a fit about now if he read this novel. And the notion that the ‘Laus Deo’ saying on top of the Washington Monument (which means praise God) should be read to mean ‘praise the divine potential and accomplishments of human beings’ is simply ridiculous. The Founding Fathers would be shocked to hear this, to say the least.
B. Brown on the Masons
One of the things Brown does get right about Freemasonry and its religious orientation is that they are syncretists— blending religious ideas, rituals, practices from various different religions. You can readily see this in action if you ever attend a Masonic funeral as I have. But you need not take my word for it. You can read some of their original source documents as well as a thorough critique offered by Steven Tsoukalas Masonic Rites and Wrongs. Part of the real value of Steve’s book is it gives you literal samples from the Masonic sources documents including those for the Scottish Rite.
It becomes clear as one reads the latest Dan Brown novel that one of the main reasons for his having a fondness for some Masonic ideas is because they promote a notion of ‘one world religion’ and ‘spiritual brotherhood’ with Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, and in general any world religionists. This notion, however popular today, involves fundamental misrepresentations of ALL these religions, some of which are theologically, historically, and even philosophically incompatible. They could all be false of course, but they could not all be true, when it comes to truth claims, and more to the point for Dan Brown— you can’t make a coherent patchwork quilt out of these religions, or a giant gumbo without distorting them all.
Of course the religions which are most misrepresented by the ‘Zeitgeist’ sort of treatment are the monotheistic ones— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all of which make some very clear exclusive and particularistic claims which cannot be ignored and one do justice to that religion.
In a lecture given on the Masons, early in the novel (pp. 27-31) Brown has his hero Langdon deflect the criticism that Masonry is a religion as follows Langdon asks the class: “what are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion”. One bright spark replies “Assure, Believe Convert”– which is explained to mean assure salvation, believe in a precise theology, and convert unbelievers (p. 30).
This however is not an adequate omnibus description of a religion. What is described here is a conversionist sect— a particular form of religion. This definition of religion certainly does not suit either most far eastern religions, and various near eastern ones either. For that matter it does not suit most Greco-Roman religions either. And in addition, many Jews would vehemently deny they are a conversionistic sect of any kind, if we are talking about convincing non-Jews about anything.
The essence of a religion has to do with having a particular religious symbolic universe and form of discourse whether or not one is conversionistic or not, and also having rituals and sacred words or texts such that one can tell the differrence between insiders and outsiders on a religious and ethical basis. On this showing Masonry is as much a religion as Mormonism, and both involve unhelpful amalgamations of Christianity with other religious traditions and ideas.
Despite the protests to the contrary, Free Masonry is not merely “a
system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols” (p.
31). It is that of course, but at the same time it has its own profound
sycretistic theological interpretation of all such matters, and as most
any history of religions prof will tell you, the Masons with their
religious entrance rituals and rites of passage, Temples, secrets,
codes, and hierarchy of priest like leaders, they meet the
ancient critieria for being a pagan mystery religion quite nicely– the
essence of which was just such stuff.
Dan Brown tries to make a
distinction between a society with secrets and a secret society, but in
the case of the Masons, the religious knowledge unveiled as one goes
through the orders does indeed qualify it for being a secret society.
The fact that it has public rituals and visible buildings does not make
it any different from the ancient Mystery religions at all. There were
temples to Isis and Serapis all over the ancient Roman Empire. And it
would be worth pointing out here one more time, that ancient
polytheistic Egyptian religion is not the forefather of ancient
Biblical religion. The fact that there are some similarities in
concepts about life and the afterlife is neither here nor there. The
similarities are mostly superficial and the differences between
polytheism and montheism, quite profound.
C. Brown on the Bible and Orthodox Christianity
In his attempt to explain why the Bible has endured through the ages Peter Solomon, Robert Langdon’s mentor and a Mason says the following: “The reason…is that there exist powerful secrets hidden in the pages of this ancient book… a vast collection of untapped wisdom waiting to be unveiled.” (p. 489) The hidden meanings in the Bible are the reasons why the finest minds have pondered this book for so long.
The contrast to this is made plain by quoting Thomas Paine — Paine warned there is a great danger in interpreting the Bible literally. (p. 490). Then the familiar story of Thomas Jefferson’s edited and expurgated version of the NT is presented to us as well (p. 491).
The justification then for allegorizing and deconstructing the Bible comes from the Founding Fathers, on this theory. Langdon, as he listens to Peter Solomon has questions about this. How could the Ancient Mysteries that the Masons talk of, and the Bible be one and the same? The Ancient Mysteries are about the latent power of the human mind… a foirmula for personal deification of the self-help sort (p. 491). The answer given is that the Bible fell into the hands of those who did not understand its true character and the Word was lost, and became ‘the lost Word’ , ‘the lost Symbol’. The Bible then rightly interpreted, in a Masonic kind of way, becomes a human self-help manual, so we can all realize our potential and through human effort and human science, we can realize that all religions are one— all point to the same ‘higher truth’ of human divinity.
There are of course many things wrong with this analysis, but here we must concentrate on the heremeneutical problems. Firstly the Bible is not a Gnostic text full of coded secrets. And even when we are dealing with the apocalyptic visions of an Ezekiel or a John of Patmos the point is not obsfuscation but revelation— the unveiling of the secrets, not their hiding. Indeed this is the meaning of apocalyptic– the unveiling of secrets. And unlike the later Gnostic approach, this is said to be for any and all who are prepared to be disciples, not merely those with the most intellectual wattage.
Secondly, the Bible has to be interpreted with sensitivity to its various genre or types of literature. You don’t interpret parables the same way you interpret historical narratives or psalms which are songs, or law codes, and so on. Each type of literature requires a certain approach, and some literary sensitivity. There are parts that must be interpreted literally, and there are parts that require recognition that metaphor and figure are involved, even if it is referential, as is often the case. Apocalyptic literature is in fact not helpfully interpreted as fiction because while it uses dramatic metaphors and hyperbole, it does intend to be referential to things in history, in space and time, as well as in eternity.
In other words, Brown’s attempt to turn the whole Bible into some kind of coded document requiring insider information to understand is a serious error. Of course the main reason he takes this approach is to avoid what is often called the ‘scandal of particularity’
— the notion that God has revealed himself to a particular people at particular times and places and that salvation comes through a particular means, not through all religions means and avatars. What is especially lost in the ‘browning’ of the Bible is its historical substance, having to do with the story of God’s people, Israel, and their Messiah, Jesus, and then later those who are ‘in Christ— both Jew and Gentile.
A classic example of how not to interpret the book of Revelation comes in a Peter Solomon lecture we are privy to, on pp. 407-08. Here again we are regaled with the Gnostic idea that the Bible is written in code so the ‘unworthy’ could not understand its wisdom. Its all symbols and metaphors of a deeper secretive truth about ourselves that only the worthy can unravel (p. 407). Can you say Elitest? I knew you could.
Solomon goes on to say that what Revelation is all about is the great enlightenment of humankind that is coming– coming through things like Noetic Science, but also by studying the ancient symbols in books like the Bible. “We are in that narrow window of time during which we will bear witness to our ultimate renaissance. After millenia of darkness, we will see our sciences, our minds and even our religions unveil the truth….The Book of Revelation is a vibrant example of our shared truth. The last book of the Bible tells the identical story as countless other traditions. They all predict the coming unveiling of great wisdom.” (pp. 409-10).
Of course despite Mr. Solomon’s confidence, what the Book of Revelation really refers to is Christ’s judging of the world, both before and after he returns in the flesh. It refers to a time when good will prevail and evil will be vanquished. It refers to a time when some will go to the lake of fire and others to everlasting life here on terra firma in the new earth which has had a corporate merger with the new heaven, as Christ and the saints return from heaven. Of course these visions involve analogies and metaphors, but they do indeed intend to describe future historical realities. We may disagree with what the text says, but it is quite impossible to turn it into a book of proverbial wisdom about how we all have the truth and divine potential deep within us. And of course the Bible Mr. Solomon refers to is the Masonic Bible, the Bible with Masonic reinterpretations and allegorizations.
Sadly most of this is missed by Dan Brown, or ignored, or trivialized, or distorted on the way to producing his own gumbo, his own new syncretistic approach to religion and the divine. And at the bottom of the well of Dan Brown’s thinking are these words— ‘ye shall become as gods’, the heady message of human apotheosis, human self-deification. It is a message as old as the serpent, and new as the Lost Symbol and it hasn’t changed all that much over the years. It appeals well to human pride, especially human intellectual pride.
It is interesting how very differently the psalmist reacts, when confronted with all of creation including all that humans are able to do, reflecting on the very same things Dan Brown spends time on.
He puts it this way ” when I consider the sun, the moon and the stars, the works of God’s hands, I ask, what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that you should care. But you have crowned him with glory and honor, made him a little lower than the angels” (Ps. 8).
This leads not to a hymn of self praise, but rather to the conclusion “O Lord, our Lord, how magnificence is your name in all the earth”. It is God who crowns humans with ability and glory and honor. We are both unable and unworthy to put such crowns on our own heads. And it is God who should be praised, who made us in his image. Laus Deo is not merely a saying on top of the Washington Monument. It is the essence of what the Bible calls us all to recognize— that God is God, and we are not. We are merely created in the image of God, and whatever potential we have, we owe it to our Maker, the Supreme Architect. There are no self-made men in this world, only God-made ones who have a choice as to whether they will be good and godly in recognizing they are not God, or whether they will listen to the siren song of the Serpent– “ye shall be as gods”.