Dangerous Fiction

There's an interesting interview with Mark Shea available from Zenit. The topic of the interview is Mark's book, The Da Vinci Deception, co-authored with Edward (Ted) Sri (published by Ascension Press; when it's released on 28 February it will be available from Amazon.com). Mark is a great apologist (Sri, an assistant professor at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, may be a great theologian, for all I know, but he seems to have published only three things, all of them popular and two co-authored by Scott Hahn, so I'm not in any position to judge one way or the other), and I very much enjoy reading his blog. I don't doubt that there is room for one more anti-Brown book, and I'm certain that if there's room for one more of these, then Mark is more than qualified to write it. Like most anti-Brownies, Mark gives a litany of errors and inaccuracies in The Da Vinci Code, but the question that really fascinated me was this one:
Q: How do these inaccuracies challenge the Church, her teachings and the person of Jesus Christ?

Shea: Brown is attempting to establish a neo-pagan feminist creation myth. The basic myth is: Jesus was actually a feminist, agog for neo-paganism. The Church supposedly covered up all this with lies about his divinity. Brown's point here is: Let's get back to goddess worship as Jesus intended.

This laughably baseless claim is, of course, utterly contrary to the facts about Jesus. But many in our overly credulous and historically illiterate culture believe it. So Catholics must undertake to catechize not just themselves but their families, friends and neighbors, or they can expect this dangerous myth to continue spreading.
I think I can agree rather readily with the characterization of our culture as overly credulous and historically illiterate. We live in debauched times. The characterization of Brown's intent, however, also seems, well, somewhat credulous, though in a different way.

First, I'm not at all certain that Dan Brown is really up to what he is credited with here. He may be an OK writer--The Da Vinci Code, for all its blasphemous error, is not a terrible story--but he's not the sharpest tool in the shed, and it's hard to see how somebody with his limited capacity for research and scholarly inference (let alone literary talent) could pull off the great call to paganism that Mark imagines. Second--and this is, in some ways, the more important worry--it's particularly hard to see why one is supposed to read this book as a deliberate attempt "to establish a neo-pagan feminist creation myth." That is certainly not an aim that is overtly stated anywhere by the author, so foisting it upon him is somewhat risky.

Tolkien, famously, disavowed having ever had any intentions of creating any sort of allegory, let alone a specifically Christian one, in his writings, but that never stopped anyone from finding all sorts of allegorical parallels on every page of LOTR anyway. After all, it was argued, the man was a Catholic, and you can't keep that sort of thing out of your mental apparatus even if you try to. Brown, I suppose the argument is supposed to go, appears to believe much of the stuff he writes, and even if he didn't, why would you write stuff like this when you know perfectly well that it's going to upset orthodox Christians everywhere? In other words, cui bono, unless you hope to accomplish something by it. And what else could you hope to accomplish other than "to establish a neo-pagan feminist creation myth", since that is what the text of the book seems to be about?

Textual interpretation is a notoriously vexed business, of course, and probably the most vexed aspect of all is that hobgoblin of the postmodernist crowd, authorial intent. One of the most important results to come out of disciplines such as the philosophy of science is the phenomenon of underdetermination. In science it's a very useful notion: it basically means that no scientific hypothesis can be regarded as immune from criticism, since there are always alternative hyptheses that are equally compatible with all the data. In the case of literary interpretation things are obviously even more underdetermined than in the sciences. The observable data--in this case, the text of a particular book--are obviously insufficient to fully determine the only correct interpretation of those data. In science what one looks for is the best hypothesis, not the only correct one, since we can never know with certainty that we do, in fact, possess the only correct explanation of any set of observable phenomena. In the case of literary interpretation it seems somewhat silly to hope that there could even be such a thing as a "best" hypothesis, since some authors may be deliberately ambiguous, intending multiple interpretations to apply.

Authorial intent is arguably not always among the data present in a particular text to begin with, so it becomes even more bogus to claim to have discovered it there. This is not to say that it cannot be discovered there by indirect methods, or that it is never explicitly in there, this is just to say that it is not present in every text in the same way that, well, the text itself, is. Given the implausibility of trying "to establish a neo-pagan feminist creation myth" in the first place, in light of both the nebulous nature of such an enterprise and the dubious abilities of the alleged perp, I think this particular shibboleth is going to have to be a non-starter.

This benign interpretation of the book is not shared by Mark Shea, however:
Q: Why is there a concern about Catholics -- and everyone else, for that matter -- viewing "The Da Vinci Code" movie without a discerning eye and solid background information?

Shea: Because it's written with the express intention of destroying faith in Jesus Christ and replacing it with neo-pagan goddess worship.

The problem is the average reader does not know "The Da Vinci Code" actually makes you more stupid about art, history, theology and comparative religion.

"The Da Vinci Deception" and Da Vinci Outreach are there to educate readers on the quite deliberate falsehoods -- as well as ignorant blunders -- that fill the story. We are also including a resource aimed at educating high school students and helping them to tune their "bunk detectors" to Brown's wavelength.
This alleged "express intention" (I wonder whether he means the "expressed intention"?) may or may not be the author's actual intention. It seems to me that there are two possibilities here. On the one hand, Brown may have come right out and said, verbatim, "I intend to destroy faith in Jesus and replace it with neo-pagan goddess worship" (I don't think that he did say that, by the way, in which case it can hardly be said to have been his "expressed intention"), in which case it might be his intention, or it might just be a joke, or a ruse to attract attention. On the other hand, Brown may have said nothing of the sort but have written a book that is not inconsistent with the hypothesis that what he intends to do is destroy faith in Jesus and replace it with neo-pagan goddess worship (I take this to be much closer to the actual facts), in which case his intentions have not been expressed and we don't really have any grounds for expressing them for him, even though we might be right in our suspicions.

Let us assume the latter--that he did not declare his intentions but the book is not inconsistent with what we suspect his intentions to have been. What, exactly, is the danger here supposed to be? Well, in the excerpt above we were told:
The problem is the average reader does not know "The Da Vinci Code" actually makes you more stupid about art, history, theology and comparative religion.
This, it seems to me, raises more questions than it answer. I'm not sure, for example, just what to make of the claim that reading the book might actually make an average reader "more stupid". There certainly seems to be a suggestion here that the average reader is already at some level of stupidity that reading the book only serves to exacerbate, but it's not exactly clear how reading a book can accomplish such a thing. Is the claim supposed to be that the average reader is actually going to believe the erroneous claims in the book? Is the claim supposed to be that stupidity is simply a matter of having false beliefs? Many of the claims made in the book are not merely erroneous, they are downright fraudulent. Is the claim here supposed to be that someone who has been tricked by fraud has been made "more stupid" by having been tricked? None of these putative claims is going to hold any water, and yet I can't see any other way to read the statement. I think what he must have meant was really something along the lines of "The trouble with a book like this is that some folks are going to believe the things it says, even though some of those things are demonstrably false."

Or take this bit from the earlier excerpt I quoted:
But many in our overly credulous and historically illiterate culture believe it. So Catholics must undertake to catechize not just themselves but their families, friends and neighbors, or they can expect this dangerous myth to continue spreading.
If we're talking about people who are overly credulous, then what kind of sense does it make to say that "Catholics must undertake to catechize...themselves"? Catechesis is supposed to come from an expert and be imparted to the neophyte. It doesn't make any sense to say that an expert should impart knowledge to himself, or that a neophyte should turn himself into an expert without the aid of some other expert. The task at hand begins to seem somewhat misconceived.

In spite of my worries about some of what Mark has said in this interview, I don't doubt that his book will be useful. He is a fine apologist, and the work that he does is extremely valuable. Whether or not Brown's "express purpose" is as sinister as some in our credulous culture may be tempted to believe, he certainly seems arrogant enough and hubristic enough to warrant a little attention from those who would debunk him, demythologize him, and parody him. I'm sure it couldn't happen to a more deserving fellow, even though I seriously doubt that he is really all that dangerous. He's just not clever enough. Or, to put it another way: if merely reading his book can make you "more stupid", imagine what it would mean to have written the thing in the first place.

Comments

Darwin said…
I have nothing of substance to add, but found myself chuckling so much while reading this post that I had to put a word in to thank you.
Tom said…
Well, I mean to say, Mark Shea has many virtues, but he has never made a personal fetish of speaking with philosophical rigor. Just as well; we all know how dull that can be, what?
Scott Carson said…
Let me see if I follow you here. When somebody comes along and sophistically stirs up a bunch of controversy where none exists, it's really just a failure to speak with philosophical rigor?

I suppose it may not be exactly like selling snake oil, but I did think that some of the stuff he said about the putative dangers of reading Brown's book were somewhat overblown. On the one hand, one might really think that folks are going to read this book in droves and soak up every erroneous claim like a sponge. My opinion, unsupported by anything that could masquerade as empirical evidence, is that this is extremely unlikely. On the other hand, one might think that it's just plain Bad that these lies are circulating at all. With that I could agree, but it's hardly a novelty: people have been saying this, and much worse, about the Church practically since its inception. There's no new danger here and history has shown that what danger there is is in fact minimal.

I have no qualms with folks drumming up business, mind you--especially if they're decent God fearin' folks as Mark appears to be. I'm sure I would have tried a similar tactic if I had a book to sell. I think I might have said that every tenth copy of the shrink-wrapped copies of the book has a $50 bill in it.
Steven said…
Dear Mr. Carson,

I have long supposed that the strongest motivation for Dan Brown to make sure the fuss was kicked up and remains kicked up is the enormous amount of money he has made from the books thus far.

As you point out, the story is fair, the writing fair to poor, but the marketing has been A+++++. His marketing team is a group of geniuses.

Anti-Catholic--of course it is, because that makes money. How? Stir up enough fuss and everyone's out to see what it's all about. Add in the pagan goddess angle and you've got a stew that needs no thickener.

Couldn't possible agree more with your critique above. Brown's basic intent was in accord with Samuel Johnson's oft quoted apothegm, "No one but a blockhead ever wrote for anything besides money."

shalom,

Steven
Steven said…
Dear Mr. Carson,

Sorry, need to amend my previous statement. Not having read the book, I would agree with you given that all of these things are there. I can't possibly agree with you without having read the book, as that would be unjust. However, the reasoning you follow and suggest here seems perfectly reasonable and logical to me.

shalom,

Steven
Tom said…
When somebody comes along and sophistically stirs up a bunch of controversy where none exists, it's really just a failure to speak with philosophical rigor?

You phrase that as though the answer should be, "No."

I think, though, that you might underestimate the amount of controversy that exists, or more precisely the number of people who believe that the core myth of The DaVinci Code is or might be true.

Any why would people believe such absurdities might be true? Because Dan Brown says they are.

Whether he truly believes in this alleged "secret that remains protected to this day by a clandestine brotherhood" is harder to say, but it is clear at least that he wants people to believe that he does.

Was the book written "with the express intention of destroying faith in Jesus Christ and replacing it with neo-pagan goddess worship"? I don't know; I would have taken that as an example of Mark's hyperbole.

But Brown has said, in a FAQ on his website, "Two thousand years ago, we lived in a world of Gods and Goddesses. Today, we live in a world solely of Gods. Women in most cultures have been stripped of their spiritual power. The novel touches on questions of how and why this shift occurred…and on what lessons we might learn from it regarding our future."

That, perhaps, explains the neo-pagan Goddess worship. And "destroying faith in Jesus Christ"? To the extent he wants people to believe, as is evidently claimed in his book, that Jesus was a "mortal prophet" whose divinity was only declared in AD 325 by a close vote... well, yeah, that's close enough to the repudiation of the orthodox Faith for me to let Mark's comment go without comment.

(In that same FAQ, Brown claims, "Much of the positive response I get from within organized religion comes from nuns (who write to thank me for pointing out that they have sacrificed their entire lives to the Church and are still considered 'unfit' to serve behind the altar)," which perhaps speaks to the the putative dangers of reading Brown's book.)
Scott Carson said…
Tom,

I think you might be missing my point, or else I'm just not making it very clearly. I don't doubt that there are people who believe the stuff in The Da Vinci Code. Their number may even be Legion, for all I know. And Dan Brown may really believe what he writes in his FAQ. Who knows.

But I don't think any of that matters.

First, there have always been lots of suckers out there who will believe anything, and it hasn't hurt the Church one bit. There are not more such people nowadays than ever before, they've always been quite abundant. It does not matter what such people believe about anything, let alone what they believe about the Church.

Second, Dan Brown can say whatever he likes, and it may be true, or it may not be true. He may be saying it because he believes it, or he may be saying it because he wants to generate publicity for himself. I believe I covered both of those possibilities. Whatever the truth is regarding his own personal beliefs, it does not make his book more dangerous than it is. And it is not dangerous. Not even a little bit.

Or perhaps what I should say is, I would like to understand a little better in what sense it is dangerous. Surely it is always a bad thing when people believe false things, but that will happen whether or not they read Dan Brown's book, and I'm not at all convinced that Brown's book will significantly increase the belief in False Things. I just don't see any real danger to the Church itself if people believe false things about it, convinced as I am of Our Lord's promise that the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
Tom said…
It does not matter what such people believe about anything, let alone what they believe about the Church.

To hell with them, then?

I apparently have completely missed your point. I thought you were criticizing Mark Shea for exaggerations and overblown rhetoric, criticism which for the most part is valid, if perhaps beside the point (e.g., regarding "X makes you more stupid," one of Mark's stock tropes).

But if your point is that we shouldn't care about The DaVinci Code because it won't cause the utter destruction of the Catholic Church, then the best I can say is that yours is a more phlegmatic temperament than mine.
Scott Carson said…
To hell with them, then?

Come on now, Mark is supposed to be the sophist here, not you.

one of Mark's stock tropes

Well, as far as I'm concerned, words either mean certain things or, if you're a sophist, they mean what you want them to mean. If all you're saying is that you agree with me that Mark used the words sophistically, then fine. The one thing I won't let go, though is the suggestion that it is a mere pedantic interest in "philosophical rigor" that prompts folks--even non philosophers--to wonder whether people really mean the things they say. It is a rather base sort of ad hominem to suggest that, because I am a philosopher, any attempt of mine to hold someone responsible for what he has actually said is nothing more than a kind of philosophical pedantry. Well, it's either ad hominem, or it's desperation. The fact is, it's letting people get away with that kind of meaningless hyperbole that has tended to "make people more stupid" in our culture. We're losing a sense of rationality and proportion because we're living in a Rush Limbaugh kind of world where you say whatever you need to say to get your point across.

yours is a more phlegmatic temperament than mine

If by "phlegmatic" you mean "realistic", then I agree. But if you have some kind of evidence to the effect that reading this book really is dangerous in any way at all, please let me know. Until then, I don't see any reason to think of the whole thing as anything more than it is--marketing.
Tom said…
Come on now, Mark is supposed to be the sophist here, not you.

What is sophistic about it?

If, as you wrote, it doesn't matter what such people believe about anything, then it doesn't matter whether they have the faith in Christ necessary for salvation. so it doesn't matter if they go to hell.

Well, as far as I'm concerned, words either mean certain things or, if you're a sophist, they mean what you want them to mean.

You must meet a lot of sophists, then.

In my experience, people use words all along a continuum from strict, Webster-parsing prescriptivism to full-bore Humpty Dumpty fungibility, with most attempts at conversation in the "dictionary with idiosyncratic excursions" range.

I don't have any objections to idiosyncratic excursions (I shouldn't, since I make them often enough myself), as long as the speaker is aware of his idiosyncracies and I can figure out where the excursions wind up. It's when one or both of us is unaware that he is using words to mean something they don't mean to me (which for the most part is what they mean to lexicographers) that serious problems arise.

That said, I don't mean to defend Mark's hyperbole as such, merely to suggest that it is not altogether meaningless.

If by "phlegmatic" you mean "realistic", then I agree.

Ah, no, I wasn't being so idiosyncratic. But when you ask for "evidence to the effect that reading this book really is dangerous in any way at all," I'm still not sure we agree on what constitutes danger. In particular, I'm not sure you agree with me that it is dangerous to cause people to have false ideas about Jesus.

If you do agree, the question becomes whether The DaVinci Code causes people to have false ideas about Jesus. On that, I have only third-hand anecdotes. And even if you accept the historicity of the anecdotes, I'm not sure you would accept that they constitute evidence that the book actually caused a false idea.

So I'll just refer you to the archives of Amy Welborn's blog, where she deals with the "C'mon, it's just a novel" objection.

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