A Christian response to Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons
29 August 2009
Dan Brown is a great writer, and knows what the average person will find intriguing. I really enjoyed his The Da Vinci Code—both the book and the movie—and that despite the numerous inaccuracies. Frankly, I was less enthralled with Brown’s earlier work, Angels and Demons. This following response is based on my reading of the book only. My reaction to A&D was more tepid. I found myself becoming irritated as I read many things palmed off as fact, or seemingly intended to influence the reader unfamiliar with history, theology, and science. I realize that this is the earlier of the two books, so I may well be viewing A&D through the lens of TDVC. Nevertheless, it is my purpose in this short paper to highlight some of the errors, major and minor, so that the reader may be more vigilant.
Misrepresentations of Biblical Religion
The first category of errors is misrepresentation, and sometimes caricature, of the Judeo-Christian heritage.
According to Brown, the church claimed it was the sole vessel through which man could understand God (p.51). Yet this is far from accurate. Christian theologians believe God has spoken to us through the Bible (Scripture), the history of Israel (in the Old Testament), the person of Jesus Christ, and even (more generally) through nature. Some groups and movements may claim exclusive rights and powers, but Brown’s portrait of the Catholic Church is simply inaccurate.
Sadly, such mischaracterizations are rife. Christians do not really think about their faith—not a bad challenge!—but rather it is a placebo (p.370). Worse, faith is pitted against science. Brown seems not to know that most scientists used to be churchmen, and Darwin’s biggest fans, at least in the early decades after 1859, were Bible believers. And what about the theologians and Christian thinkers through the centuries, who have contributed so much to intellectual life? Brown’s education itself probably owes a good deal to the church, who (along with the Muslims) were custodians of learning in the Middle Ages and beyond.
Some of Brown’s facts are inaccurate. For example, A&D has Christians borrowing the sign of the cross from the Egyptians (p.59). Later on the book, the four arms of the cross are supposed to represent the four elements in classical Greek thought, earth, air, fire, and water (p.209). But why not taking the sign of the cross from the Cross itself, since this was the instrument up on which the founder of Christianity was executed!
The book also alleges that Jesus was born in March (p.274). And yet there is no scripture that allows us to pin down the month of the birth of Christ. Admittedly, December is unlikely on several grounds, and perhaps the traditional date of Christmas is what Brown wishes to challenge. Yet the earliest Christians who wrote about the birth of Christ professed ignorance—as should we.
Another reckless assertion is that the Vatican archives contain unpublished books of the Holy Bible (p.205). What books does Brown have in mind? Scholars are aware of none. Besides, the Bible was not “published” all at one time; rather, it came together over a period of many centuries. On a related note, A&D refers to the “original manuscript” for the 14 books known as the Apocrypha (p.588). He seems to be unaware that the Old Testament apocrypha were written over a span of three to four centuries, and there simply never was an “original manuscript.”
Some of the claims in A&D verge on the bizarre. The Eucharist is “god-eating,” and the practice was borrowed from the Aztecs (p.275)! In fact, eucharistia is the Greek word for thanksgiving. Jesus’ hyperbole (Matthew 26:26) has been misunderstood. A&D also states that early Christians fed their dead through “libation tubes.” They supposedly poured milk and honey into the very crypts where their dead lay entombed (p.537). Bizarre indeed!
A second cluster of errors falls under the heading of pseudoscience. I offer only two examples. (I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun of the reader who wants to find more.)
In A&D, pure energy is the father of creation! (pp. 93, 573). Yet how can that be? Energy it is interconvertible with mass; it is mindless; nor does it have creative power. Energy must be harnessed by intelligence before it can “create” anything. Another weird proposition is that Gaea (Gaia), or Mother Earth, is an organism (p.134). New Age beliefs are thus being introduced through the back door. But if Gaea is an organism, who is her creator? You can’t have it both ways; the creation (or creature) is not the Creator.
Errant theology also appears in the statement that divine revelation is self-knowledge. (The Buddha has been grossly misinterpreted, since he did not in fact affirm the existence of God, and—worse—denied the existence of the individual self, or soul). According to A&D, Each of us is a god. (p.532). The confused theological excursus continues:
“God is not some omnipotent authority looking down from above, threatening to throw us into a pit of fire if we disobey. God is the energy that flows through the synapses of our nervous system and the chambers of our hearts! God is in all things!” (p.585) Again, is Brown saying that God is energy, or that we are God/gods?
The third category includes many general errors, not necessarily scientific or theological. I note three examples.
The Latin phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum, which appears on the back of the $1 bill, is rendered “New Secular Order” (136). And yet the Latin says nothing of the kind; the phrase is correctly translated new order of the ages. In A&D 133-134 Brown has an intelligent character committing the genetic fallacy—that our specific faith depends (obviously) on where we are born. Yet if there is any truth at all, it cannot be geographically dependent. One last point I will make—and some may think I am being petty—is that poor grammar on the lips of characters who should know better (e.g. 390, 428). Neither Brown nor his editors caught these errors. As with the pop theology of the book, even grammar conforms to an errant standard. Such mistakes jar the reader and cast a negative light on the book’s other propositions, many of which are undoubtedly true.
My aim is not to be a killjoy. Normally when I watch or read a work of fiction, I disengage and let things slide. Yet is it right to take such a casual approach when the work in question perpetuates error, reinforces sloppy thinking, and brings disrepute on those who are trying to follow Jesus Christ? Thus I defend my critique.
As a work of fiction, A&D is probably nearly as good as TDVC. Yet for its contribution to the collective ignorance of the reading public, it should receive no kudos. As men and women of faith, we are called to rise above such silliness.
For another (more thoughtful) review of Angels and Demons, please see Jason Goble's review.
PS: Some reader will undoubtedly find errors in this article, and I hope he or she will feel free to write to me so that corrections may be made. – DJ