Wednesday, July 12, 2006

O Trite Heresy!

Why the DaVinci Code is “Emergent”

Lately, I’ve been somewhat pensive about the impact of Dan Brown’s book (the DaVinci Code--from hereon “DVC” for sake of space). What was the 15 minute appeal of Dan Brown’s book all about? I can think of several reasons, some that make me question what is truly behind the Emergent Christian movement. The DVC may be a poster-child of “emergent faith”. I’m not stating this as a “post-emergent” malcontent, here. I posit the comparison because it usefully clarifies questions I have with the both the Emergent movement and the movement to understand the Jewish underpinnings of the New Testament. I sympathize and participate to some degree in both movements, and I find that the DVC appeals to my loyalty similarly (though not at all convincingly of course). Anyway, here are the reasons:

Reason #1) It reconstructs authentic faith.

The alternate faith history of “authentic” Christianity in the DVC has, I believe, an ambient appeal because it is a palliative response against the insipid faith, contemporary hypocrisy and a spotty popular history of the Church. This has, broadly speaking, an “Emergent” appeal. Of course, that attack was present even before Luther, but I’m referring particularly about the framing of (what today is called) a spiritually bankrupt “narrative” of historical Christianity. This critique paints a picture of Church history as an unmoored drift of the Kingdom of God away from its “authentic” beginnings in Galilee, because of the worldly concerns of the Church, namely its political aspirations. To his credit, Dan Brown uses this appeal against Church worldliness to great effect. Who can blame him for exploiting this tug on our faith-seeking culture, in the wake of church sex scandals and cover-ups, to sell his cheesy, paint-by-numbers mystery novella?

Reason #2) Post-9/11 nostalgia for good ‘ol fashioned Westernism.

But it’s not the “authentic” beginnings of the Church that is the real concern of the DVC…I mean, who are we kidding here? Overall, I’m proud of our ability to immediately spot the DVC’s spongy attack on Christian orthodoxies. What I’m not so proud of is that we have failed to see its underlying target: a wimpy postmodern Westernism that is no longer able to convince and innovate and have some roots and self-pride for once. If we could only throw off the shackles of effete Kantian wallowing or nihilistic deconstructionisms and all that emasculated pop cultural wash! Let’s rescue the Renaissance by God!

The only critiques to have spotted this subtle obsession in the DVC that I have heard thus far are Anthony's (posted on his blog a while ago), as well as Ingrid Rowland's "Pop Esoterica" review in the New Republic(published about two years ago). Reframing old values in the guise of poetry, current causes, and peacenik ideals, like emergent bands, just gives people wounded by the transgressions of organized religion great succor. It’s just nice to see that the human condition can be analyzed in a few simple, aphoristic lyrics that fit better with our bedtime story views of Jesus (the only Jesus we intellectually know). Though Dan Brown does a bad job at presenting anything about Christ’s message at all, notice that (except for the sex stuff) he is not out to do any real harm to teddy-bear Christ.

Reason # 3) We rather like our insipid faiths and shallow philosophies

One of the things that is true of Americans and probably always will be is that we have an approach to faith and values that is irrepressively individualistic. Some may try to pin this way back to American transcendentalism or Thoreau’s cult of the Individual, but the truth is Americans have always had and will always have a great distrust for anything formalized, organized, hierarchical, etc. I hate to say it, but it’s our backwater “don’t tread on me” waspy heritage. This is why American intellectuals have always had a profound ambivalence towards urbanism, industrialism, commercialism, social utopianism, nationalism, and any phenomenon whatsoever that involves the aggregation of more than two people (in Thoreau’s case, more than one). “And as well we should!,” you say, quoting the Bible. But who we really need to credit for this position is not the Kingdom, but Immanuel Kant’s “Two World Ontology”, which posits that we poor industrialized/commercialized masses are fundamentally alienated from our souls. If the German response to Kant was national socialism - the beehive model (John Dewey called it right – Nietzche and Heidegger had little to do with what happened to Germany in the 1930’s), the American response has been Emerson’s transcendental individualism - the hedgehog. Don’t get me wrong, I much rather prefer the hedgehog model myself. But, thankfully, most of us are both “men of valor” and “men of the committee”. (Forgive the archaic language…I’m not leaving out you women-folk by any means). The values of 21st century are risk, innovation and individualistic opportunism but also good ‘ol fashioned back-scratching and hard-nosed pragmatism. Likewise, the noumenal forays of American intellectuals have tended to keep their pragmatic nose to the ground. But every once in a while, we hanker for something more Emerson-like, especially in moments of national crisis, and we stumble about for some private metaphysical juice to suck. I’m not post-modern enough to be opposed to this, but what I think very sad is the pop-cultural tendency to look for it in some pseudo-philosophy or New Age religion that remains fundamentally mysterious and unavailing. The DVC’s goddess-worshipping, mystery cult may offer a cheap veneer of this, but really it is its appeal to a mythical Renaissance “Westernism” that tugs effectively at us…call it “Metaphysical Westernism”, oh, DaVinci our free-thinking savior. The real mission of the DVC and books like it (e.g. The Rule of Four, where Westernism is rescued, how appropriately, in a Princeton eating club) is to replace Christianity with Heretical Westernism and if this is not really possible, then to marry Christianity with the West once and for all.

Pointing out our rampant metaphysical shallowness to our contemporaries, fellow critics, may be much more effective criticism of the “pop-esoterica” of the DVC’s vein. Why, at the very least, we may do our contemporaries a favor by accidentally inspiring a return to the spirited American metaphysical bravado of the 19th century – we’d be doing our forebears a favor if nothing else. Kabbalah, please!…Emerson and Thoreau would be ashamed. Is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the best we can do, people?

For example, just look at how badly Dan Brown’s airhead Westernism authentically bungled even New Age values. Lets begin with his obsequious loyalty to the “open-specificity” of Americans’ world-views, which claims that organized religion must be distrusted at face value, analyzed and then retrofitted to reflect contemporary trends and values (this is Immanuel Kant’s victory). The DVC is tentatively innovative but somehow always remains shallow, contrived all the more for its blanket strive for irresolution. In its predictable fair-handed open-endedness, Mr. Brown wants to claim that his book is a celebration of the value of “faith”. And the DVC would attempt to replace the insipidness of faith with a reconstructed Christianity….only (thank you Anthony Smith!) it is exactly in this task that the book ultimately proves not only to be a literal royal disappointment but a bore. The hidden history of a goddess worshipping European family is simply offensive to our sensibilities (religious or otherwise). Christ’s descendants are (white) elites obsessed with Gnostic-sexual rites of Messianic primogeniture (“Gnostic-sexual” is oxymoronic, but not to Dan Brown). The concept is not only un-Christian but wholly un-New Age. To whom is this version of Metaphysical Westernism not distasteful to?…A weed-smoking skinhead cult? Stupid and Insipid.