There’s been some pretty heavy stuff going on here in the Land of Pilgrims, and I’m a bit stressed out, so I’ll stress you out next week, Reader, but for right now I want to back off and take out one of my old book reviews for some lighter reading.
“It’s better than The Da Vinci Code,” they said. “You’ll like this one better,” they said. “The facts are closer to reality,” they said.
So I found Angels and Demons in the library and read it.
There is absolutely a reason Dan Brown is used as a derisory name of non-scholarship among us medievalists. He has no idea what he’s talking about, but he makes it horrendously popular.
The premise itself is absurd—the Illuminati are trying to take down the Catholic Church once and for all. WRONG. The whole argument is built on the premise that religion and science hate each other and can’t be in the same room together, like ex-spouses at a child’s graduation or something. NOT. TRUE. Brown’s characters keep claiming that this goes all the way back to the Middle Ages when “true” scientists got fed up with being suffocated by the Church and went underground with their resentment. True for Renaissance folks, perhaps, but most of the best medieval scientists were devout Christians. Johannes Gutenberg: perfector of the printing press, 15th century—Christian. The Venerable Bede: 7th century English historian who worked with astronomical calculations to give us the maddeningly complicated dates of Easter—Christian. Robert Grosseteste: 13th century Bishop of Lincoln, who worked with optics and the physics of light—Christian.
Was the relationship in the Middle Ages perfect? Heck no. Roger Bacon, “inventor” of eyeglasses and discoverer of the light spectrum, 13th century, was kicked out of his monastic order when he went too far off the deep end. (He also, incidentally, discussed the concepts of planes, cars, and steamships some 600 years before the Wright brothers and Henry Ford, for anyone who thinks medieval science was all leeches and witch-burning.) But the Church was behind a lot of initiatives regarding science and education, not least because it was the most stable presence around. In fact, science was the way for most of these men to elevate their faith—science and religion were often partners, not enemies. The Church often paid for science’s advances because it was considered incredibly worthwhile to understand God’s works of creation.
But noooooo, far easier for modern folks to see the Middle Ages through the lens of Petrarch’s disdain for all things not Roman, when the Renaissance was actually far darker and less tolerant than most of the Middle Ages (the vast majority of witch-burnings were after 1500, for instance).
So the premise is bad. The writing is terribly elementary, also—there are no richly spooled out sentences here, because Brown writes like a newspaper journalist: flashy and meant for the lowest common denominator. (Go ahead, call me a snob. Please.)
There is one section that deserves praise: the speech of the camerlengo that reveals all that’s been going on. It was the best part of the book, really, in which the character describes how “science is the new God.” Really, just skip the rest of the book and read pages 378-84, because it speaks volumes about the modern invention of the religion/science war. Here are some snippets:
Even the technology that promises to unite us, divides us…promises of efficiency and simplicity have bred nothing but pollution and chaos.
Who is this God science? Who is the God who offers his people power but no moral frame-work to tell you how to use that power?…The church is tired. We are exhausted from trying to be your signposts.
But who is more ignorant? The man who cannot define lightning, or the man who does not respect its awesome power?…Show me proof there is a God, you say. I say use your telescopes to look to the heavens, and tell me how there could not be a God!
Faith…all faiths…are admonitions that there is something…to which we are accountable.
I don’t agree with all the specifics of these, not least because I’ve had some very wonderful conversations with an atheist friend of mine about morality and theology and whether one needs the other, but I do agree with the sentiment. Why must faith and knowledge be opposites? Why must wonder be either a secular or a sacred domain?
And the gender thing—there was a female character (eeee, a girrrrl scientist!) who was being a brainiac, but then the main character wanted to sleep with her. Out with the intelligence, in with the damsel-in-distress-sex-object. REALLY, DAN BROWN.
It was better than The Da Vinci Code. But when I cared so much more about the destruction of archives than the deaths of any of the characters, that’s bad.
Then again, I am a medievalist.
Rating: 1/5 stars