The Dan Brown Code
by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on May 25, 2006.
To decode Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, perhaps it is appropriate to peer into history. We begin our story in Rome in 340 A.D., with the birth of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus.
Let us set the scene. In 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine decreed tolerance for Christianity. By the end of the century, Christianity became the legally enforced religion of the realm.
"Symmachus attached the greatest importance to his membership in the Roman Senate," even though it "was losing all its real power," write Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter. Symmachus gave grand speeches, funded poets and wrote letters. However, "he sometimes found it necessary to complain that there was nothing interesting to write about -- and this in an age when the last great civilization of the ancient world was sliding to ruin."
Symmachus opposed "the removal of the statue of Victory, a symbol of the old pagan religion, from the Roman Senate house." He said, "Not by one path alone can men come to so great a mystery."
He was answered by the Christian Ambrose of Milan: "What you know not, that we know by the voice of God. And what you seek by fancies, we have found from the very wisdom of God."
Dan Brown is a modern-day Symmachus. In a lecture offered on his website (DanBrown.com), Brown says, "We are all trying to decipher life's big mysteries... And each of us must follow our own path to enlightenment."
Brown adds, "[N]ow, more than ever, there is enormous danger in believing we are infallible, that our version of the truth is absolute, that everyone who does not think like we do is wrong, and therefore an enemy."
But the fact that we are fallible does not imply that no truth is absolute. Truth does not come merely in "versions"; some people are objectively wrong, and some really are our enemies.
Brown continues, "I don't claim to know where we all came from, but I do know that there are multiple versions of that story."
However, most versions are demonstrably false.
He says, "The history that eventually becomes our truths depends entirely on what books we read and who our teachers are. My critics and I clearly have read different books and have had different teachers. Some of these people sound absolutely certain of their truth... I was not born with the luxury of absolute certainty."
Yet the fact that particular points of history can be distorted by sources does not mean that all historical speculations are of equal value or validity or that learning actual history is impossible.
But, like Symmachus, Brown doesn't completely believe his own skeptical rhetoric. We all have to follow our own path, they say. But what if the path of some is to forcibly suppress other religions, stifle free expression and slaughter heretics and infidels?
Brown doesn't really believe that all paths are equal, that no truth is absolute, that nobody is wrong, or that all claims about history deserve the same respect. The nihilists of the left do believe those things. They further preach that thought is a product of skin color and gender and class and that ethics is a matter of personal or social whim. The destructive forces of multiculturalism and postmodernism feed the prophetic and self-righteous voices of the religionists.
Symmachus found his answer in Ambrose. Brown finds his in Pat Buchanan, who blasts Brown at TownHall.com. Buchanan dismisses Brown's historical speculations by citing "Catholic teaching and tradition." What Brown knows not, Buchanan knows by the voice of God.
Buchanan suggests that making a movie of Brown's book is akin to pushing Holocaust denial and "is the moral equivalent of making a movie based on the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and implying this is the truth about the Jewish plot to control the world."
But Buchanan's comparisons fail. The Holocaust really did happen, and there really is not a "Jewish plot to control the world." These are objective facts, and to deny them, while within a person's political rights, is factually wrong and morally offensive. On the other hand, the Catholic religion is mythology. Reframing a myth in a novel is not comparable to denying objective facts.
Buchanan notes that criticisms of other religions are not similarly tolerated. He calls the Danish cartoons of Mohammed "blasphemous," and he describes a film that "offended Muslim faithful." He doesn't mention the right of free speech, which entails the right to blaspheme and offend.
But Buchanan does lay into American culture, claiming that "we live not just in a post-Christian era, but in an anti-Catholic culture not worth defending or saving, for it is truly satanic." Cuckoo!
Recently historian John Lewis gave a talk in Arvada. He made fun of the left, but then he warned: "The problem is... the rightists" who "are further removed from reality."
Brown offers no challenge to the Ambroses of today. And now what many religionists are threatening to tear down is Liberty.