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

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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.

[Original use.perl.org post and comments.]