In The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown distorted Scripture and history to discredit Catholics. In Origin, he distorts science to discredit God and it needs to be debunked.
“The great mass of people will more easily fall prey to a big lie than a small one.” – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)
The study of the origins of words has always been fascinating to me, and it has been awhile since I have subjected you to it. So before delving into the claptrap and bunk of Dan Brown’s popular novels, those term’s need a little background.
“Claptrap” is often mistakenly used to refer to faulty logic or insincere babble, but that is not its only usage. Coming from the early days of modern theater, “claptrap” refers to a line or opinion inserted into a play for the sole purpose of generating applause. Thus a “claptrap” might be something like a subtle political reference for which some in agreement might spontaneously applaud. In turn, the rest of the audience would applaud because they did not want to appear that they missed the point. Claptrap is highly manipulative prose.
A similar modern day application is the laugh track on any one of several popular television sitcoms. The laugh track is subtle and often unnoticed, but if you listen carefully you will hear pre-recorded laughter from a non-existent audience. It’s your cue that it’s time to laugh. The laugh track seems manipulative and irritating. Once you hear it, you can’t NOT hear it.
I characterize some of Dan Brown’s novels as claptrap because they undermine Catholic traditions and beliefs at a time when the news media and pop culture have Catholicism squarely in their sights for ridicule. In 2003, the Catholic Church in America was embroiled in a credibility crisis. Dan Brown chose that time to take advantage of its momentum by publishing The Da Vinci Code. I’ll get around to debunking it in a moment.
But first, “bunk” and “debunk” are the other terms I want to explore. To say that some piece of information is “bunk” is commonly used to mean that it is false or contrived. Thus to “debunk” something is to expose its-falsehood. There is more to these terms, however. The word “bunk” comes from a source where, inarguably, lots of bunk has originated: the floor of the United States Congress.
During the 16th Congressional Session from 1819 to 1821, Congressman Felix Walker represented Buncombe County, North Carolina. One day, he held a captive audience when he droned on for hours with an incomprehensible speech despite protests from his colleagues.
Congressman Walker’s district, Buncombe County, was sometimes spelled “Bunkum” County by the less literate, and it was often referred to in conversation simply as “Bunk.” So both the word and the place became associated with that one nonsensical speech. Thus, “bunk” came to refer to a drawn out, illogical display of nonsense with no real conclusion. However, the remedy for bunk was delayed for a century in North Carolina. The word, “debunk” did not appear in any official document or literature until 1923.
THE LEGEND OF THE HOLY GRAIL
The premise of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, is that the famous 15th Century painter, Leonardo Da Vinci, embedded within his art a set of symbols for some enlightened future generation to find and interpret. It’s really Dan Brown’s Code because there is nothing in the field of art history to support it.
The principle character and interpreter of the “secret” symbols in this and several other Dan Brown novels is Robert Langdon, a Harvard “Symbologist.” Brown does not make it easy to critique Langdon and his interpretations because the field of Symbology does not exist at Harvard or anywhere else.
And what these secret symbols supposedly reveal to Dan Brown’s characters is bunk. His characters uncover a conspiracy through which the Catholic Church has for centuries suppressed the truth that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and that together they gave birth to a bloodline. That bloodline, the supposed descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, became the Merovingian Dynasty of French kings. This was all known to a secret society called the Priory of Sion and covered up by a more sinister secret society called Opus Dei. It is, as I wrote earlier, pure bunk.
But it’s bunk that sold over 35 million copies to a generation of readers all-too-receptive to claptrap in a world poised to applaud and embrace anti-Catholic propaganda. Dan Brown’s books have sold 200 million copies worldwide. In 2005, after a year with The Da Vinci Code topping all the bestseller lists, Brown was named one of the most influential writers in the world by Time Magazine.
A clever part of the allure of Dan Brown’s fiction is his use of a literary device called “verisimilitude.” Injected into his prose are true historical facts that lend credence to an otherwise fictional, even preposterous story to give it an aura of historical truth. Brown begins The Da Vinci Code with a series of facts:
“The Priory of Sion” [Brown’s “secret” cabal] – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as ‘Les Dossiers Secrets’ [French for ‘The Secret Documents’ – give me a break!] identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo Da Vinci.”
One of the principal characters in The Da Vinci Code is Leigh Teabing who is presented as a multi-millionaire British Royal Historian and world-renowned expert on the Holy Grail. Of course, Teabing does not exist. He is a fictional character, and his historical conclusions from the pen of Dan Brown are also fictional.
By giving the character of Leigh Teabing history credentials, however, Brown blurs the line between truth and fiction. “The marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is part of the historical record,” says Teabing (The Da Vinci Code, p. 245). Over the next few ridiculous pages in the book, the “Royal Historian” presents his proof which boils down to nothing more than the fact that the Gospels do not directly and specifically say that Jesus was never married. They also never specifically say that Jesus was not an extraterrestrial. Hmmm… I wonder!
I wrote a post awhile back entitled “Mary Magdalene: Faith, Courage, and an Empty Tomb.” It was faithful to both the historical and Scriptural truths about her identity and her presence in the Gospels, and the reality of how she became distorted over the centuries. But what Dan Brown does with her twists the distortions into truly bizarre and unfounded bunk.
One of these conclusions is that history and the Catholic Church have suppressed and replaced a hard and demonstrable truth that Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail. The prose is laughable Looking at Leonardo Da Vinci’s late 15th Century masterpiece, The Last Supper, Brown’s characters spot a secret symbol hidden for centuries from less enlightened eyes:
“‘The Holy Grail is a woman,’ Sophie thought… ‘You said you have a picture of this woman who you claim is the Holy Grail. [Teabing] wheeled suddenly and pointed to the far wall. On it hung an eight-foot-long print of The Last Supper… ‘There she is’” (p. 242)
The characters of The Da Vinci Code then conclude that the figure to the right of Jesus in Leonardo’s painting may be a woman, then conclude that the figure “must” be a woman, then conclude that she “must” be Mary Magdalene, that she and Jesus were married. They then conclude that legend holds that the Holy Grail was in fact at the Last Supper. Then finally they conclude that the Grail must actually be Mary Magdalene and not the Chalice. “So this is the woman who singlehandedly could crumble the Church!” said Sophie. (p. 243)
Sophie and Teabing then go on to “discover” that the Apostolic tradition and the See of Peter was an enormous mistake. Christ “must” have intended that the Church be in the hands of His “wife,” Mary Magdalene.
The alternative history of The Da Vinci Code entirely overlooks the fact that the Holy Grail was not a term at all familiar to the early Church. It first appeared in literature in the late 12th Century in Chrétien de Troyes’ romance novel, Perceval. From then on the term was solely a reference to the vessel containing the blood of Christ at the Last Supper. Another medieval legend was that Joseph of Arimathea acquired it after using it to contain the blood of Christ at the crucifixion.
By the early 13th Century, the Holy Grail became attached to the Arthurian legends as a symbol of holiness and perfection sought by the Knights of the Round Table. In every source from medieval times to the present, the Grail refers to the cup of Christ’s blood sacrificed at the Last Supper or sacrificed on the Cross, or both.
Dan Brown’s “claptrap” revelation that Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail intended by Christ to found His Church was followed in the book by another one. This one unmasks the real reason why Brown chose that moment in time – 2003 – to publish his barely shrouded anti-Catholic bigotry:
“Yes [said Teabing] the clergy in Rome are blessed with potent faith, and because of this, their beliefs can weather any storm, including documents that contradict everything they hold dear. But what about the rest of the world?… Those who look at Church scandals and ask, who ARE these men who claim to speak the truth about Christ and yet lie to cover up the sexual abuse of children by their own priests?” (The Da Vinci. Code, p. 266).
DAN BROWN’S ORIGIN
Dan Brown’s knack for bunk has not diminished with time. According to the official DanBrown.com website, his 2017 book, Origin, addresses the two most important questions for humankind: “Where did we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The book already tops the best-seller lists, but reviewers do not seem as enthused as Brown’s ready-to-be-misled-again readers. Here’s how The Week magazine summarized a review by Ron Charles in The Washington Post:
“Dan Brown is back, along with his Vatican-flouting, code-breaking hero, for another thriller so moronic you can feel your IQ points flaking away like dandruff. Symbologist Robert
Langdon – Mickey Mouse watch still ticking – has joined a gathering where a computer genius is about to announce a discovery that will invalidate all existing religious doctrine. But before the secret is revealed, the speaker is taken out by an assassin, and with 300 pages to go, I wondered, ‘why couldn’t it have been me?’”
Janet Maslin, in a somewhat gentler review for The New York Times, referred to Brown’s “cringe-worthy prose,” but applauded his “clever use of settings” and “legitimately intriguing musings about the intersection of science and religion.” That caught my attention because the intersection between science and religion is something I have written a good deal about. In Origin, Dan Brown replaces the intersection with a collision.
The gist of Origin’s plot is that an M.I.T. physics professor named Jeremy England has “identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life.” The discovery is an earth-shattering disproof of every religious story of creation. The discovery threatens to render religion obsolete and God irrelevant.
Dan Brown sets this latest bunk in motion with such blatant disregard for the bigger picture that something never before heard of in the world of literature has taken place. One of Brown’s own fictional characters has refuted him and in no less a public forum than The Wall Street Journal. This is from the real M.I.T. physics professor, Jeremy England.
“My actual research on how lifelike behaviors emerge in inanimate matter is widely available, whereas the Dan Brown character’s work is only vaguely described. There’s no real science in the book to argue over.” (Jeremy England, “Dan Brown Can’t Cite Me to Disprove God,” WSJ.com Oct. 13, 2017)
But in addition to debunking Dan Brown’s science in the book, Professor England’s op-ed reveals a wider rift that causes me to wonder whether Brown did any homework on his own character. The real M.I.T. professor Jeremy England wrote,
“I’m a scientist, but I also study and live by the Hebrew Bible. To me, the idea that physics could prove that the God of Abraham is not the creator and ruler of the world reflects a serious misunderstanding – of both the scientific method and the function of the biblical text… Disputes like this never answer the most important question: Do we need to keep learning about God? For my part, in light of everything I know, I am certain that we do.” (Jeremy England, WSJ.com)
No person of either faith or science should pick up Dan Brown’s Origin without first reading Professor England’s “Dan Brown Can’t Cite Me to Disprove God.” It made me want to stand up and cheer, not only for Dan Brown’s comeuppance but for another profound observation by the real Jeremy England:
“Encounters between God and the Hebrew prophets are often described in terms of covenants, partly to emphasize that seeing the hand of God at work starts with a conscious decision to view the world a certain way.”
Dan Brown seems to have made his conscious decision in the opposite direction and has misled millions of undecided souls along the way. The challenge for us is to make the conscious decision to see the world as Jeremy England does because real science cannot pretend to replace faith – Dan Brown’s claptrap and bunk notwithstanding.
Note from Fr Gordon MacRae: Please visit and share these other “bunk free” posts on the intersection of science & religion:
- Misguiding Light: Young Catholics Leaving Faith for Science
- Father Georges Lemaître, Father of the Big Bang
- Does Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?
- The Science of Creation and a Tale of Two Priests