The Secret of His Success
On the new 'Angels and Demons' film based on Dan Brown's novel
Angels and Demons: the title is well chosen, but the novel is mediocre, just as is the film, saved only by the presence of Tom Hanks, an actor of consummate skill. The real problem, then, is that of comprehending the reasons for its overwhelming success, reasons that interest Catholics because Dan Brown's works speak of the Church. More precisely, they form part of a trend depicting the Vatican as a fantasized mystery, which the American writer has nevertheless taken to an unprecedented level of success.
What do people like so much about Dan Brown? Without a doubt, the fact that he writes about religion and mystery, in other words, those themes that secularized contemporary culture — all reason and science — always carefully avoids. But at the same time they are themes that remain ever alive in the contemporary imagination, even if seemingly forgotten. That religion confronts the mystery of life and death, and thus of the meaning of our living and dying, is undeniable. It is for exactly this reason that a society that seems happily settled into its materialistic and superficial culture — founded on its faith in the possibility to explain everything through science, perhaps even able to win against death — is at its deepest level thirsty. This is what Dan Brown's success reveals above all.
But why then, does this success not smile upon the Church, that spreads the Gospel message with a good deal more depth and calibre? Because few have the courage to question an identity like this, which is in line with "politically correct" behaviour in today's context. But Dan Brown offers religion and mystery within this comfortable bubble. In fact, the mystery woven into his plots avoids the profound questions, limiting itself to merely touching upon them: it is a fantasy world of secret sects and mysterious figures at battle within the Church, in the end reduced to a sect too.
The Christian tradition is portrayed as a patrimony of symbols and occult texts, which science — well represented by the hero, an agnostic American professor knows how to decode, unlike its official representatives who have forgotten their history in order to remove the blood with which it would be bathed. What must be forgotten is indeed always linked to lies and violent repressions, which reveal the black, cruel face of the Church — a Church always hovering between evangelical purity and vicious crime.
The theme, therefore, is at its core the same in these two novels: a sect against the Church, even if the good guys and bad guys are distributed differently. This time, with Angels and Demons, the Church is on the good side, although she must pay the price in scenes of past cruelty. In the Da Vinci Code, the good guys were outside the Church instead, and they actually threatened her very foundations.
This second novel — and film — (which was, however, written first) is therefore rather harmless, showing that true success could only have come through the same overturning of tradition that the Da Vinci Code dared to broach.
In both, key issues for the contemporary Church are confronted with a certain coarseness but not without acumen. In the Code it was sexuality, in Angels and Demons it is the relationship between science and faith. The particular angle is the least problematic possible: the good guys are always the progressives in favour of sex and science, whether they be heretics or Popes, and the bad guys are those who oppose them in the name of loyalty to a harsh and closed tradition, which must inevitably be stained with crime.
That this simplistic and partial view of the Church be so successful, which just corresponds — or at least seems to correspond — to a rather generalized, widespread opinion should provoke thought and reflection. It would probably be an exaggeration to consider Dan Brown's books as an alarm bell, but perhaps they serve as a stimulus to re-examine and revive the ways in which the Church uses the media to explain its positions on today's most burning issues.
Weekly Edition in English
13 May 2009, page 15
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