Most of us go to the movies like lambs to the slaughter. That certainly has been true for the film version of Dan Brown’s pre-“Da Vinci Code” attack on Christian faith, “Angels and Demons.” Now a warning — if you haven’t seen the movie, and want to be surprised by its ugly ending, read no further. But if you’ve seen the movie, and thought it was only marginally mean to the Catholic Church in Rome, then please, hear me out.
And believe me, if you do fall into category two, you’re not alone. The critics I’ve read seem to have slept through the movie. Even the Vatican’s official paper, “L’Osservatore Romano,” called it “more than two hours of harmless entertainment, which hardly affects the genius and mystery of Christianity.” Maybe the Vatican needs to hire a Robert Langdon to interpret the movie for them.
Right now, let’s pretend we are all Robert Langdon, the protagonist in both of the movies based on Dan Brown’s books. Langdon is a symbologist (a title invented by Brown for a professorship at Harvard University). Langdon studies the meanings implied by symbols, such as the crossed keys of the papal office, the ambigram-matic image-writing of the Illuminati, etc. In other words, Langdon looks for the story within the story, or within the artwork, of people trying to disguise their real points of view.
A simple summary of the plot of “Angels and Demons” would go like this: the kidnapping of four key cardinals just before the election of a new pope prompts the Vatican to hire Langdon to solve the mystery. He studies texts and artwork from 17th century scientists, supposed enemies of the church, to find an anti-matter bomb planted somewhere in the Vatican by those scientists’ intellectual descendents, the Illuminati. (By the way, the anti-matter bomb was created by a priest-scientist looking for the “God particle” — an insight, perhaps, into Dan Brown’s scorn for the idea of cooperation between religion and science.) At the last minute, a young priest risks his own life by taking the bomb skyward in a helicopter, where it explodes with minimal damage. End of story, right?
Not exactly. That young priest, the potential hero of the story, turns out to be the patricidal villain of the piece. And here’s the real rub: the storyline built around the priest is designed to mock the story of Jesus.
Let’s take it from the top. This priest is the late pope’s chosen one, his chamberlain, the camerlengo. Moreover, he was chosen at the age of 9, and actually was adopted by the late pope. The reference to Catholic clergy and what they do with young boys couldn’t be more obvious, but theologically speaking, it’s even worse in the book because the pope impregnates the camerlengo’s mother, a nun, by in-vitro fertilization. Does this sound like a mockery of the virgin birth to you?
It does to me, because Catholics believe the pope represents God on Earth — thereby making the camerlengo, symbolically, the son of God. But wait; it gets better. Because Dan Brown hates the Catholic Church even more than he does Christ, he implies the camerlengo’s unbridled ambition was learned at his father’s knee. The camerlengo poisons his father, the pope, and then prays at the tomb, “What I do, I do in the name of everything you believe.” The tomb is opened, and the poisoned pope’s mouth has turned swollen and black. Hey, where’s a symbologist when you need one?
Meanwhile the movie cranks on, with most of the footage focusing on Langdon’s pursuit of the mythical Illuminati path through some of Rome’s beautiful architecture. And while we think Langdon is the hero, in the backs of our minds we expect the camerlengo to save the Church eternal for the faithful crowd of believers gath-ered in Vatican Square.
In one symbolically meaningful scene, the camerlengo takes Langdon into his inner chamber and asks him, “Do you believe in God?” Coming from a priest, it sounds like a fair question. But coming from Dan Brown’s symbol for the Christ/Antichrist, it sounds like the devil. Langdon’s answer, “My heart tells me not to,” seems shallow to a believing audience, but thereby Brown has planted the seed of doubt.
Wait, it gets better. When Langdon finally faces the assassin hired by the camerlengo (in the book it’s a crazed Muslim — Brown will trash any religion), the killer tells him, “Be careful, these are men of God,” as if to say, churchmen are more dangerous than murderers. But it’s the camerlengo’s staged sacrifice and resurrection scene that is Brown’s ultimate sacrilege in this anti-Christian movie. Put on your Langdon hats and check the symbolism in this:
ä The camerlengo takes the bomb (the failed God particle?) from St. Peter’s tomb, and just as Christ took away the sins of the world, the camerlengo carries it by helicopter into the heavens. Looking up from below, Langdon watches and says, “Oh my God,” while angelic music swells in the background.
ä When the bomb goes off, the sky lights up like some sort of miracle. With this light as background, the camerlengo parachutes back to earth; there his broken and battered body is seen to awaken. A messenger rushes back to the closed room, where the cardinals (disciples) hear repeated again and again, “He saved us!” and “He is alive!” They decide to appoint the camerlengo as pope (the son of God named God’s equal) by acclamation.
ä When the camerlengo is exposed as the murderer of his father and the villain behind the entire plot, he rushes to St. Peter’s, douses himself with oil from the lamps, and says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” as he burns himself to death. Of course, the church and the press conspire to lie, and portray the camer-lengo as the savior of the church.
Thus ends Brown’s telling of the Christ story — a version in which the Christ figure turns out to be the bad guy. It doesn’t take a “symbologist” from Harvard to figure out Brown’s motive and message here. I’ll leave that up to you.
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.