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jjohn (22)

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Journal of jjohn (22)

Thursday January 06, 2005
12:45 PM

Thoughts on /The Golden Compass/ and /The Da Vinci Code/

[ #22600 ]
Having just finished both of these books, I wanted to collect my thoughts on these two works, the first by Philip Pullman the the later by Dan Brown. Both books dredge up some festering charges of the shenighans perpetrated by the Catholic Church over the long years of its existence. Even though I am not Catholic, nor indeed a practitioner of any creed, I found both books to be a bit unfair to the Church. And this is odd, because there are few who enjoy a good thumping of Bible-thumpers more than I.

Pullman's Golden Compass is really a tale for young adults and follows the wild adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her soulmate/avatar daemon Pantalaimon. In Lyra's parallel Earth (which resembles late nineteenth century Europe), the Church has a vast and pervasive hold over secular governments. And like Microsoft, the Church pits internal groups against each other. Eventually, Pullman gets around to mentioning some of the more regrettable violence promulgated by the Church, including the Inquistion and the Castrati choir boys. Good fun. In the end, Pullman brings up these historical barbarisms to explain some of the violence that the Church in his story is involved in. It's not all that sweeping of a condemnation of the real-world Church, but it does give the reader a little gristle to chew on.

I've heard that Pullman's work is being adapted to film and that the movie producers, fearing a Christian backlash, are changing the Church into some evil, bureaucratic behemoth. What better way to insult intelligent Christians than to say tacitly "because you can't tell fact from fiction, we're going to adapt the film to your limited understanding and fragile sensibilities." The only thing more hurtful than criticism is condescension. Fah.

By a seemingly random chance, a copy of The Da Vinci Code came into my hot little hands. This is a book that I did not want to buy, because I'm a snob and it's a very popular title. And the corollary to popularity is that anything loved by a very great number of people must be pretty banal indeed. And it kind of is. It's not that Brown is a bad writer, but his narrative is manipulative. This may be part and parcel of the way writing for thrillers works (along with including clichés like "part and parcel"). I don't normally read them. The last one that I finished was Acts of the Apostles, which was virtually thrust into my hands by the author. However, Brown is skilled at keeping the reader engaged in the plot, even if he's a bit heavy-handed in dropping clues, setting up plot elements, and at creating characters the reader should care about.

But that's not really what's awful about Da Vinci Code. Brown merely recycled a good bit of vintage conspiracy theories and a plot I know I have heard before (Name of the Rose, maybe?) and dressed it up with utter neo-pagan garbage. If I never hear the phrase "sacred feminine" again it will be too soon. That particular phrase is so noisome to me because it represents all that's unbearable about university learning: a plethera of specious terms that have no concrete meaning (you can add the term "Self" to that list of empty words too). Brown dresses up his rather blunt trauma attack on Catholicism with art history and appeals to the mysterious, which are nearly the same tactics used by some of the early Church to attack paganism. There is a fine traditional of those Christians who tried to apply a modicum of reason to their faith, including Thomas Acquinas and St. Augustine (who wrote my motto for living "work out your salvation in fear and trembling"). But, naturally, those are conveniently forgotten. If the mysterious Priory of Scion is so concerned with saving the "true meaning of Christ's teachings," why the hell are they practicing paganism? Christ was a Jewish reformer, a monothesist. He bloody well wasn't a dope-smoking, tree-hugging neo-wiccan hippy. If you think Jesus was a bastard to the Pharisees, do you really think that he'd give pagans a pass? That sort of revisionist history I can't cotton too. If you want to talk about the political comprimises the Church made to doctrine over the years, have at it. Issues like clerical celibacy, the Holy Trinity and which books were to compose the Canon are all fascinating and ripe for lambasting the Church. There is little profoundity or insight in saying that the Church fears vaginas and that it is very pro-phalus. Saying that the Church fears an ancient Hebrew line of royalty, no matter how provocative its progenitors may be, seems stupid.

In the end, The Da Vinci Code is merely a thriller with pretentions of greatness. That this book became so popular speaks to the laziness of the modern reader.

Dan Brown: I want my sleep back that you robbed me of for this big bucket of warmed-over suck.

Mmm. I can't think of anyone else to cheese off right now, but I'll work on it.

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  • There are a lot of people who consider themselves Christians who don't consider themselves Roman Catholic, so I'm not sure that Pullman's work is as particularly offensive as a whole as people outside of both groups might believe. However, I found the ending of the whole trilogy to be a letdown. Perhaps people take offense to the ineffective resolution of a great story.

    As for Dan Brown, my understanding is that he lifted the conspiracy almost wholesale from a lesser-known 1982 novel called Holy Blood, H

    • Unless you're making a deliberate point about the quality of the research, I should point out that The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (as it was originally titled - another pointless US renaming) is not intended as a novel. The original authors intended it (and it's many sequels) as serious historical research. Many people disagree with them :)

      And you're right - Foucault's Pendulum is far superior to either The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code.
      • I haven't read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, so I can't comment on it with much authority. From what I've heard, though, anything that feels the need apologize for unsupported theories with phrases such as "This may be the case, but we can't prove it" is much closer to a novel than serious research of any kind. Perhaps my sources were both subtle and clever.

        (I originally thought it was French, with the obvious pun of sang real and san greal.)

  • Brown merely recycled a good bit of vintage conspiracy theories and a plot I know I have heard before

    Thank you. It is gratifying to me to hear that people outside of the religious context I'm familiar with are able to detect this. This book is absolutely nothing new, and I'd add it's neither factual nor interesting, to boot. I eagerly anticipate it blowing over as previous incarnations have and as it already appears to be doing.

    And this is odd, because there are few who enjoy a good thumping of Bi

    J. David works really hard, has a passion for writing good software, and knows many of the world's best Perl programmers
    • This book is absolutely nothing new,

      No argument from me there.

      and I'd add it's neither factual nor interesting, to boot.

      Well, we can debate its factual accuracy, but I doubt anything useful will be added to either side of the argument :)

      But I can't agree that the theory isn't interesting. Whether it's true or not, I find the idea that the church has consistantly lied about its own origins for so long to be completely fascinating.

      I eagerly anticipate it blowing over as previous incarnations have an

      • I don't know much about what the Catholic Church says its history is, and I don't really care. I know that there are very few lies to be found in the history of the church taught in scholarly Protestant circles (partially, I suspect, because much of that history is also Catholic history, and the Protestants don't mind making the Catholics look bad, when it is appropriate :-).
  • I think I like St. Augustine the most because he was a bastard of a sinner before he converted. I also like him because he didn't presume to know the will of God, i.e. he was very scared of what would happen to him in the afterlife. On his deathbed he was very concerned about whether his sould was saved or not.

    I like that thought. Then again I'm somewhere between and agnostic and an atheist, but I do like to read Augustine and Aquinas (not so much Aquinas because his grasp of Aristotle totally eclipses min