REVIEW: 'Angels & Demons': Book raises questions; Bible has the answers
Interestingly, Angels & Demons has almost nothing to do with angels and demons! Except for some angel statues cryptically pointing out the next clue, the title of the movie and book is more metaphorical than substantial. The movie and book are more about the Roman Catholic Church (and Christianity in general) versus science.
Novelist Dan Brown wrote Angels & Demons three years prior to writing "The DaVinci Code." So, although the book is a prequel, the 2009 movie version presents Angels & Demons as a sequel. Confused yet? The movie depicts protagonist Robert Langdon as persona non grata at the Vatican due to The DaVinci Code caper, but in the book sequence it has not yet happened.
The book Angels & Demons is vintage Dan Brown. He belittles the beliefs of Christianity, distorts the history of Christianity, makes absurd claims and promotes science as the ultimate religion. Throw in some conspiracies -- everyone loves conspiracies -- and some nude dead bodies (what is it with Dan Brown and nude dead bodies?), and one has a formula that has so far been very lucrative for Dan Brown.
The good news is that the movie Angels & Demons does not bash Christianity nearly as much as the book does. Thankfully it also tones down the book's fornication, has a smaller dead body count, and more of the corpses are clothed than in the book! The bad news is the movie still has torture, murder, some cussing cardinals and some Christian bashing.
So, most of this article will be about the book Angels & Demons rather than the movie. In the book is where the most problematic theology lies. This article will focus on the faulty theology and church history and leave it to movie critics to denounce the faulty plot lines and analyze Tom Hank's haircut and to the Discovery channel to note the incorrect historical and artistic facts (such as the angel monuments pointing in directions other than where Brown claims).
This reviewer believes Brown writes faction: fiction masquerading as facts. He begins Angels & Demons with four pages of facts, such as the existence of antimatter and a map of Rome and the Vatican (pp. vii-xi; citations in this article are from the paperback version of Angels & Demons; N.Y.: Pocket Star Books, 2001). Brown then sprinkles his novel with facts, such as the location and historicity of certain monuments. The problem comes when he treats pagan dogma and inane claims as facts that characters in the novel believe.
Dan Brown and Ron Howard both answered criticisms of The DaVinci Code book and movie that they were simply works of fiction. This would not be as troubling if the world Brown created were clearly a fictional world. Yet, in interviews Brown presents his writings as full of accurate portrayals of reality, and his criticisms of Christianity are definitely real.
Belittling Christian Beliefs
Although fictional characters make the statements below, Brown presents them as truth. Here is a list of theological problems in the book along with a biblical or historical response (little of this is in the movie):
1. Angels & Demons: All religions are the same (110) and all gods are the same (72). Yet, the Bible says there is only one true God (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) and there is only one way to know God: by a personal relationship with Jesus (John 3:16, 14:6; Acts 4:12).
2. Angels & Demons: Every person is a god (484). However, the Bible says that God created humans, who are finite creatures and definitely not gods (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:7,21-25, 18:27).
3. Angels & Demons: The Bible is a collection of legends (109) and ancient fables (452). Yet, the Bible says it is God's special revelation to humanity: inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). The Bible is truth. It is inerrant and infallible.
4. Angels & Demons: The church has manipulated truth, such as murdering those it disagreed with (152). La purga is the prime example in the book -- supposedly the Roman Catholic Church brutally murdered four Illuminati scientists in 1668 and dumped their bodies throughout Rome (155-56). This alleged crime was the impetus for the imaginary revenge of the nerd scientists in Angels & Demons. Yet, la purga never happened! Nor did the short-lived Illuminati exist in 1668 -- it was over a hundred years later that it started in Bavaria.
5. Angels & Demons: The church borrowed most of its message from other religions -- "very little in any organized faith is truly original" (243). The Lord's Supper supposedly came from an Aztec practice of transubstantiation, and the idea of Christ dying for His people was allegedly borrowed from the story of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (243). Yet, the differences in the details and meaning of these Aztec practices and beliefs on the one hand and the Lord's Supper (Matthew 26:26-35) and Jesus' atoning death and resurrection (Matthew 27:33-28:20) on the other hand are substantial! Of course, since the Aztec civilization existed over a thousand years after Christianity began, it was impossible for Christians to borrow anything from the Aztecs.
Brown is correct on some minor points: 1) halos are present in artwork of other religions prior to Christianity (242), 2) Dec. 25 was a pagan holiday for sun worship prior to becoming Christmas (243) (and we're not giving it back -- yet some recent studies claim Christmas predates the pagan holiday sol invictus), and 3) Christian artwork depicting God as a kindly grandfather is reminiscent of ancient pictures of Zeus (244). These, however, are criticisms of some Christian artwork and customs -- not of the Bible or the tenets of Christian faith!
6. Angels & Demons: Stories about Jesus are fables (153). However, the Bible gives many internally consistent proofs of Jesus' existence, verifiable by eyewitnesses contemporary to when the accounts were written. First, the Bible says Jesus was born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:20-25; Luke 1:26-38). This event is unique in history, but it upholds the fact that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Second, Jesus was fully divine (Matthew 8:29, 14:33, 16:16, 27:54; Mark 1:1, 3:11, 15:39; Luke 1:35, 4:41, 8:28, 22:70; John 1:1,34,49, 3:18, 6:69, 20:31; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1). Third, Jesus was fully human (Acts 2:22; Romans 5:15; 1 Timothy 2:5). He was physically born (Luke 2:11-12; Galatians 4:4); He grew (Luke 2:52); He got hungry (Matthew 4:2; Luke 24:41-43); He experienced weariness and pain (Matthew 27:26-46; John 4.6); He was tempted (Matthew 4:1-11); He wept (John 11:35); and He died a physical death (John 19:30-34). Fourth, He resurrected from the dead on the third day, as attested by many witnesses (Matthew 28:1-7; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
7. Angels & Demons: Jesus' resurrection is just a fable (153, 243). Yet, the Bible verifies the reality of Jesus' resurrection. First, Jesus predicted His crucifixion and resurrection several times (Matthew 12:40, 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19; John 2:19). Second, Jesus presented Himself to others as having resurrected, and Jesus always told the truth (John 8:40-46, 20:26-29). Third, Jesus' tomb was empty (Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-9; John 20:1-10). Fourth, some of His followers were doubtful of His resurrection at first, demonstrating it was not a hallucination or wish fulfillment (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:37-38,41; Mark 16:11). Fifth, many people saw the resurrected Jesus over a period of 40 days, and as many as 500 people saw Him at one time (Acts 1:3; 1 Corinthians 15:3-9). Sixth, eyewitnesses interacted with the resurrected Jesus in various ways: 1) physically saw Him (Matthew 28:17; Mark 16:14; John 21:4; 1 Corinthians 15:6); visited with Him (Luke 24:13-35; John 20:15-18, 21:5-6,12-23); walked with Him (Luke 24:13-27); touched Him (Luke 24:39; John 20:17,27), heard Him teach (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:27,45-49), and ate breakfast with Him (Luke 24:41-43; John 21:12-14).
8. Angels & Demons: Prayer is just an altered state or a sense of higher consciousness, like an "aha" moment -- certainly not communication with God (484). However, the Bible says prayer is God's appointed way to communicate with Him (Matthew 6:5-13, 7:7-11).
Doubt and Distortion
Brown's character Langdon (the epitome of all things "factual" in Angels & Demons) says it is rumored that all 14 unpublished books of the Apocrypha are in the pope's private vault (537). This claim is ludicrous. First, there are ancient copies of the Apocrypha already available to scholars, such as in Codex Vaticanus. Second, although Protestants correctly deny the canonicity of the Apocrypha, saying these writings are not Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church claims they are canonical. So, it would be in the Roman Catholic Church's best interest to show whatever ancient copies of the Apocrypha they allegedly own rather than hiding their existence. However, Brown loves to float the idea of Christian conspiracies of concealing information.
Along with these Apocrypha scrolls, supposedly the pope's private vault contains "those items the church deemed too dangerous for anyone's eyes except the Pope's (537)." Perhaps the vault has Jimmy Hoffa's body, some Area 51 memorabilia, and the conversation from the 18-and-a-half-minute gap in Richard Nixon's White House tape recording as well! Such conspiracy nonsense is as easily dissipated as the wisps of smoke that emerge from the Sistine Chapel's chimney during the cardinals' conclave when choosing the next pope.
Science Versus Religion?
So, what is Dan Brown's religion? It is likely the religion of his protagonist Robert Langdon, Harvard symbolist (Tom Hanks in the movie). He made most of the above statements in the book. Early in the movie Langdon said that he is not anti Catholic Church. He is anti vandalism (a reference to Pope Pius IX cutting off the "manhood" on some Vatican statues, 126). Yet, he is clearly not a Christian. Science is the god in which he places his faith. He believes enlightenment brings salvation (174).
Aside from the straw man arguments about Christianity that Dan Brown offers, Angels & Demons actually has some interesting discussion between science versus religion or faith (377-384, 525-526, 538-539). Although most of the characters see it as a war between science and religion, some characters see the two as compatible (Leonardo Vetra, 44-46; the former Pope 539). Although their arguments contain holes through which one could drive a Mack truck (i.e., "New Physics is a surer path to God than religion itself," 45), the topic is timely in a world of stem cell arguments, Intelligent Design debates and cloning conundrums. Surely science and Christianity are compatible since science is the systematic study of the natural world and God made everything (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 8). For a better grasp of the subject, read "Science & Christianity: Four Views," edited by Richard F. Carlson; "Three Views on Creation and Evolution," edited by J.P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds; or "Science & Faith: Friends or Foes?" by C. John Collins.
In a word: skip the movie and the book. Do not encourage Dan Brown to write more. He is already coming out with a sequel in a few months. Instead, look for opportunities to discuss with non-Christians the issues mentioned above. Use the hubbub over the movie as an opportunity to share your faith in Jesus with others. By all means, do not be afraid of the movie or the book. Dan Brown raises many questions. Let the world know that the Bible contains all of the answers.
Jim Wicker is associate professor of New Testament and director of web-based education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.