After four days and 509 pages, I finally finished Dan Brown’s latest novel, “The Last Symbol,” over the weekend.
Without going into too much detail or critical review, suffice it to say that the formula that made “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” successful is entirely present in Brown’s latest offering. There are secret societies and symbols, codes and crypts, and, of course, the ubiquitously hopeful-yet-eternally-skeptical presence of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon.
There is some (though not nearly as much as in “The Da Vinci Code”) to offend the delicate theological sensibilities of Christian orthodoxy. Like his two previous works, Brown threads a tenuous needle between historical and textual data that is often “true enough” to serve the larger narrative arc.
This is to say that the web Brown is weaving (through all three books, really) is loaded with an awareness of something larger – something beyond humanity that has simultaneously imbued humanity with the kind of creative power and knowledge previously restricted to divinity.
People clamor to read Brown’s conspiratorial treasure hunts. Most “churched” folks know enough to raise an eyebrow when Brown questions orthodox doctrines, such as the virgin birth and the unique divinity of Christ, but the brow further furrows at the historical “evidence” he cites, which is, most often, quite legitimate.
It is at this point that I think the Church has a great deal to learn. Brown’s sales are compelling, even (and perhaps especially) among “church-going folk,” but the real arbiter of doctrinal fidelity has been more tangibly measured of late by both the Barna Research Group and the Pew Forum on Religion and the Public Life.
Both surveys suggest that congregations are more theologically open to the varieties of religious experience despite otherwise conservative denominational affiliations. This revelation alone is startling, used by Barna and any number of others to martial the troops to “teaching and preaching the Bible.”
But what are they being taught by their pastors? In a 2004 survey of 601 “senior pastors” barely 50 percent of pastors claimed to adhere to what Barna calls a “biblical worldview.” At the risk of taking the survey a bit too seriously, Barna further asserts that only 45 percent of pastors who have attended seminary claim a “biblical worldview.”
I clearly remember a professor in seminary citing his mentor – a pillar of moderate Baptist life whose name I will not disclose. “There’s an implicit double-speak to theological education that is unavoidable. ‘Don’t leave here and go into your churches and teach what you’ve learned – not if you want to keep working in churches.'”
I remember my blood boiling at the suggestion. That very double-speak had led to feelings of betrayal in my collegiate years. I can clearly remember thinking, “Why didn’t anyone in church ever ask why there were two Gadarene demoniacs in Matthew but only one in Mark, or that parts of Daniel were written in Aramaic, or say anything about J-E-D-P (the theory that the first five books of the Bible were written by four different authors)?”
For years this has continued as its own secret society of sacerdotalism – that we, the educated clergy, learn secret information that is not, should not, would not be in our best professional interests to reveal to the congregation. I do not wish to minimize the impact of this.
I know that there are many who have sought to preach faithfully the witness of the gospel and Scripture in the fullness of the higher critical methods and a thorough understanding of Christian history and have done so at their own peril.
This must, however, be the point at which we draw some measure of fidelity. I do not mean to suggest that we force anything, even a “new” orthodoxy on anyone. However, as ministers and laypersons within the free-church tradition, we have an imperative to tell the truth. “That which we have seen, that which we have beheld with our own eyes.”
When the Church ceases to tell the truth, even the vagaries of its own history, it leaves the flock to fend for itself. It is entirely possible that there is a great number of Christians who will read Jesus’ words “The Kingdom of God is within you” for the first time in Brown’s books.
It is even more likely that something in that writing – the call to embrace the image God has imbued all humanity with – may introduce as new and novel that which is ancient, sacred and thoroughly Christian.
It is not Brown or any other author or historian that the Church has to fear. It is our own cowardice and tendencies toward self-preservation that have “obscured that which has been made plain.”
If the Church is to carry on, in this millennium or the next, the real test will be how honest we can be with ourselves, our faith and with the God we love and serve.
As ministers, as laypeople, as ones who know “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched,” this is what we are to proclaim concerning the Word of Life.