Sunday, January 18, 2004

No matter how much we all hate to admit it, we have been significantly influenced by our environments, even when those environments are negative. For example, my parents went to segregated high schools in the Fifties in rural Texas. Fortunately, they're basically decent people and so have fled from the racism they were taught when they were young. I don't think they got over it completely until about the mid-Sixties, though, and a lot of people from that place and time never got over it. (Here's a shout-out to Cousin Larry in Lufkin! Larry don't like niggers. I don't like Larry.)

Anyway, a lot of people in Spain have a hangover hostility towards Protestantism from Franco's "National Catholic" regime. There are very few Protestants in Spain and very little is known about Protestantism. Some Spaniards find it strange that Protestants and Catholics can even coexist in the same country; those are the people who frequently refuse to believe that these days in the US it doesn't much matter whether you're one or the other, or Jewish, or nothing, or whatever.

You sometimes see arguments with roots in the old days made by people who you wouldn't figure. For example, many non-religious Spanish Leftists are quite irritated at the success that evangelical Protestants, many based in the US, are having recruiting in Latin America. This is an evil Yankee plot, of course, to extend gringo culture over Latin America. You also hear the Old Lefty argument that Protestantism is the source of capitalism; therefore, since capitalism is bad, Protestantism must be, too. (These people occasionally cite Max Weber and de Tocqueville, always incorrectly.) I have also heard it said that Protestants are individualists and therefore the idea of "solidarity" with other individuals is difficult or impossible for them to comprehend. Finally, the millions of Protestants ranging from France to Sweden to the Czech Republic are often confused with the Puritans, a small 17th-century English group, now long-dead; the modern group descended from the New England Puritans is the Congregationalist church, now very liberal. It is also often assumed that all Protestants are Calvinists, which is of course not true. In fact, the great majority of American Protestants are members of one of various sects--Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ--descended from the Church of England. The Presbyterians and the Reformed are what's left of the Calvinists in the US.

Anyway, this column by Enric Juliana from Friday's La Vanguardia lets loose a hellacious conspiracy theory. It's called "Torpedo Da Vinci" and it's about the novel "The Da Vinci Code", which I have not read.

It's the biggest best-seller of the season, but it isn't just that: it's a potent ideological artifact as well. With four million copies sold in the United States--more than 300,000 in Spain--the novel "The Da Vinci Code" is becoming a phenomenon that goes a good way behind literature, a field in which it does not precisely stand out in its virtues.

I'm about tired of intellectual geniuses slamming popular fiction. Look, dorkwad, people like thrillers and that sort of books because they're fun and exciting, not because of the deep exploration of character and motivation or whatever. I will also point out that it is a hell of a lot more difficult to write an exciting thriller or a funny comedy than it is to write another novel about a writer living in a big city who's moved there from a small town and is searching for her sexual identity or whatever. I will further point out that Spain is not a country whose current production of "good literature" is anything to brag about and whose current production of popular novels is abysmal--I mean, when Vazquez Montalban is your best mystery writer, you have problems.

Although the first pages taste like cardboard, the plot ends up winning out. Electric and fascinating as the book goes along, its author, the little-known Dan Brown, ends up firing a powerful torpedo at the damaged prestige of the Catholic Church in the United States. And although Opus Dei, characterized in the novel as an organization willing to resort to crime in order to preserve its power, seems to be the principal target, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that there is a greater iconoclastic ambition behind the last world success in the bookstores.

Well, you heard it here first. "The Da Vinci Code" is an evil Yankee-Protestant plot to bring down the Church, and Dan Brown is the Antichrist! Seriously, thrillers frequently center on a respectable organization infiltrated by evildoers: the Pentagon, the police (over and over), the US government, big corporations. Look at John Grisham's first success, "The Firm". The whole plot is that this apparently highly respectable law firm is really a front for the Mafia. Or the whole paranoid fantasies of Oliver Stone's movie "JFK" or of the James Ellroy novels.

The novel expounds on an argument that lovers of enigmas cannot resist: the existence of other Gospels which the Catholic Church has done everything possible to wipe off the map; occult knowledge among Jesus and his disciples--"the other truth"--that might be in the hands of an ancient secret organization, the Priorate of Zion, the supposed precursor of the Knights Templars. (Totally beside the point note: my wife's village, Vallfogona de Riucorb, was once a Templar fief.) The game of enigmas is always suggestive, above all in times of confusion like those today, in which perceptions of the world are changing from a solid to a liquid state: everything is moving and the demand for schemata (or "signs") to give meaning to the chaos can only grow.

It seems that the author, Mr. Juliana, thinks everything is confusing today. So his natural reaction is to go into a Derridaist-Saussureist deconstructionist freakout.

Like any good system of signals, "The Da Vinci Code" hides some very up-to-date messages. And we will add that they are very much connected to the ideological ferment of the Bush era. Here are three examples. The novel refers to the legend that Mary Magdalene was Jesus's lover, but it adds something else: Jesus belonged to the House of David, and the Magdalene was descended from the house of Bengamin, so their union had a political and dynastic meaning, capable of giving symbolic continuity to the kings of Israel. By hiding the true role of Mary Magdalene, the Catholic Church not only reduced the feminine role in Christianity, but it also blocked a "historic project": the reconnection of the figure of Christ with the fate of Israel, an ideal which is not strange to the religious right of the United States, a powerful constellation which includes Protestant groups who have no doubt in calling themselves "Christian Zionists".

WHAT? Here Mr. Juliana goes again, making an enormous stretch to link the American religious right with the pro-Israel activists. This is not an unusual theme for the Vangua to resort to. Mr. Juliana: Despite the occasional ravings of John Ashcroft, admittedly a non-traditional religious extremist, there is no connection between mainstream Protestantism and the few loony far-out jokers who believe that the Bible prophesied everything, and the religious wackos have little influence over the Bush administration or anything else of any importance. (Bush is a Methodist, hardly a raving fanatic.)

Remember, Mr. Juliana is claiming that the novel "The Da Vinci Code" is the cover for an attack on the Catholic Church by radical pro-Israeli pro-Bush Protestants. Now, this is pretty far-fetched. We could even call it a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories grow when people, like Mr. Juliana, are confused about the state of the world, so they have to come up with some explanation for it that makes sense to them. The explanation is that there are some secret powerful people--in Mr. Juliana's theory, the Bush Administration, the radical Protestants, and the Israeli lobby, that is, the damn Jews again--who control everything. See, the world really is responding to a fixed schematic structure, says Mr. Juliana, even though that scheme is hidden from most of us except, of course, he himself. This belief is called Gnosticism. Every religion is Gnostic, since the fixed schematic structure of the world (God's the boss, he made everything and gave us rules to live by) that every religion reveals to us is the whole point of the religion. An a-gnostic is someone who doubts the existence of ALL hidden world structures, including the religious one. Does that make sense?

But there's more. Through the figure of the Priorate of Zion, the novel plants the antagonism of the Church of Rome and Gnosticism, the Christian faction that gave a sacred dimension to individuality (freedom as an American divine project is a recurrent idea in George W. Bush's discourse), the Gnosticism that some authors like Harold Bloom consider to be the principal bedrock of the United States's "national religion". And Dan Brown falsifies without shame the number of victims attributable to the Holy Office. The Inquisition was frightening, but it did not send five million women to the bonfire in Europe: five million victims! A number that equalizes Catholicism with Nazi terror.

No, no, you've got Gnosticism all wrong, Mr. Juliana. You, the guy looking for a conspiracy under every bed, are the Gnostic, not the Protestant who says that he has an individual relationship with Jesus Christ without need of anyone to intervene for him. And, yes, you are right, the Inquisition was pretty nasty but they didn't kill five million people; most likely twenty or thirty thousand or so.

A secretive Rome, the enemy of freedom...without a doubt, any similarity between the novel of the year in the United States and any strategic plan under way is a pure coincidence.

No further comments. In case you're interested, here's Christianity Today's take on the novel and its depiction of Christian history.

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