Lost Symbols, Mystery Cults, and the Christian Faith
Stephen Langdon is at it again. Described as Indiana Jones in a tweed jacket, Langdon is hard at work in Dan Brown’s latest novel, unraveling the secrets left behind in Washington, D.C. by America’s Founding Fathers. He races against time to prevent an international crisis, save a dear friend from meeting an untimely demise, and uncover secret truths that will help men become gods—all in a day’s work for the fictional Harvard symbologist.
Ten months after its release, The Lost Symbol still hovers near the top of the N.Y. Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction. Like his previous novel The Da Vinci Code, Brown once again delves into unorthodox religious viewpoints. In The Da Vinci Code, Langdon stumbles across a society that includes Gnostic beliefs and goddess worship. His latest thriller finds the principal character bringing up the ghost of the ancient mystery cults in his encounter with Freemasonry. While Brown does not take orthodox Christianity head-on as in previous novels, he does offer something of a historical rewrite of the ancient religious landscape.
Brown refers to the ambiguous “ancient mysteries” constantly throughout his book, but does not specify exactly what he means. It seems to be a general description of esoteric wisdom found in ancient religion ranging from the mystery cults to the later Gnostics, but also includes universal spiritual truths found in all the world’s religions. Unfortunately for Brown, his attempt to lump Christianity in as a participant in these mysteries not only shows his lack of familiarity with Christianity, but with other religions and the ancient mystery cults as well.
Brown asserts that Christianity is home to the same religious teachings found in other religions, all tracing back to ancient esoteric wisdom like that of the ancient mystery cults, which are labeled as such because of secret ceremonies (Nash, 1992, p. 115). The problem with this is that Christianity was not secretive. It was celebrated openly and quickly reached the ears of government officials ranging from regional governors to the emperors of Rome. Official persecution of Christianity began only a few short decades after the death of Christ. Within 80 years, the Roman governor Pliny the Younger of Bithynia (in modern day Turkey) complained to Emperor Trajan that the Christian influence in his territory was so strong that pagan temples had been nearly deserted due to a lack of worshippers (Letters, 10.97).
The task of the apostles was to preach the message of Christ crucified for all (cf. Acts 4:9-11), while Paul discusses the “mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3; cf. Ephesians 3:3-7) in epistolary form, intending his work to be read aloud and shared with others. In the Eleusinian mysteries, celebrated near Athens, death was the punishment for anyone who revealed its secrets. The Greek playwright Aeschylus was attacked and nearly murdered by an Athenian mob while acting in one of his own tragedies because the audience suspected him of revealing the cult’s secrets.
Through the mouth of the character Peter Solomon, Brown says, “The Bible is one of the books through which the mysteries have been passed down through history. Its pages are desperately trying to tell us the secret.... The ‘dark sayings’ in the Bible are the whispers of the ancients, quietly sharing with us all of their secret wisdom” (p. 491). This vanilla spirituality quickly runs headlong into a particularly thorny problem, often referred to as the “scandal of particularity.” Simply put, this is the idea that a particular God has revealed Himself to particular people at particular times and has a particular way of doing things.
Brown asserts the basic similarity of all religions to the point of stating that all religions are little more than cosmetically altered versions of the same spiritual truths. The blending of religions in Brown’s novel is not something foreign to Christianity only, but to other world religions as well. Each one makes mutually exclusive claims that cannot be reconciled with other faith traditions. Christianity claims Jesus is the Son of God; Islam says He is a mortal man. Religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity claim belief in a personal God, while Buddhism is an “atheist religion” of sorts with no belief in any deity. In order for Brown’s reconstruction to be true, each religion must give up so much of what makes it unique that essentially they all become nondescript and amorphous.
Brown seems to read modern notions of religion and spirituality backward into history. Presenting America’s Founding Fathers as believers in some kind of universal spirituality would no doubt have been strange, if not offensive, to many of them. While a few of them may have been deists, even these believed in a personal God who was active in America’s founding (cf. Miller, 2005; Miller, 2008). The vast majority of the Founders, as well as the population at large, professed Christian belief (see Bancroft, 1837, 2:456; Morris, 1864).
As in previous novels, Brown commits several major blunders, which seems to have become standard operating procedure for his writing. One of these concerns one of America’s most famous works of art. A fixture of the novel is a fresco in the Capitol Rotunda titled The Apotheosis of George Washington. Completed in 1865, artist Constantino Brumidi’s masterpiece shows Washington ascending to heaven, surrounded by figures reminiscent of the Muses from Greek mythology. When viewing this scene, the protagonist Langdon says it describes Washington “being transformed into a god” (p. 84, ital. in orig.). This point will later shed light on the purported beliefs of the Freemasons—taken from the ancient mysteries—that humanity has within it a spark of the divine and is capable of virtual self-deification. In doing so, Brown seems to confuse the differences between the definitions of apotheosis as they are used in theology and art. In theological parlance, the term does mean to attain the status of deity. In art, it means to depict a subject in exalted fashion. Figures so depicted are often those who have become immortalized as national icons and who are revered because of their personal virtue and importance in the national consciousness. Other great works of art apotheosize historical figures ranging from the Greek poet Homer to Venezuelan statesman Simon Bolivar to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, yet no one is arguing that the artists of these works were trying to conceal secret spiritual truths in their masterpieces.
America’s Founding Fathers are a favorite target of critics who deny the role of Christianity in the country’s origins. Another of Brown’s historical errors is his claim that Jefferson’s version of the Bible was presented to every member of Congress in the first half of the 19th century (p. 491). He makes a point of mentioning Jefferson’s excision of the virgin birth and the resurrection in an attempt to illustrate his point of saying that America’s Founding Fathers all believed in the hidden spiritual message of Scripture and warned of interpreting the Bible literally. While Jefferson is famous for combing through the Bible and excising anything that hinted of the supernatural, his version of the gospel accounts was presented to first-time congressmen in the first half of the 20th century—not the 19th—because it distilled the essential moral teachings of Christ. This is clearly evident in its full title: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Writing in a letter to John Adams on October 12, 1813, Jefferson indicates that his motive for assembling his version in this manner was because he wanted to offer the “pure principles” of Jesus’ teaching, which constituted the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man” (1813). It should also be noted that in this letter, Jefferson demonstrated knowledge of Gnostic beliefs, which he called “nonsense.” It is that very knowledge which several of Brown’s novels praise.
One of the best examples of Brown’s gross religious ignorance is his connection of the word “amen” to the name of the Egyptian god Amun (p. 358). Brown is not the first to make this assertion. This kind of connection is typical among third-rate Bible critics who fail to do meaningful research and try to make connections simply based on the sounds of words. The standard Greek lexicon defines the Greek word amen as “let it be so” or “truly” (Danker, 2000, p. 53), which comes from the Hebrew word ’amen, also meaning “truly” (Brown, et al., 1906, p. 53). The word is thoroughly Hebraic and has absolutely no connection to the Egyptian god, whose name means “hidden” (Allen, 2010, p. 186)
One On-line review of the book says Brown “loves showing us places where our carefully tended cultural boundaries—between Christian and pagan, sacred and secular, ancient and modern—are actually extraordinarily messy” (Grossman, 2009). The relationship between paganism and Christianity is indeed messy for those unwilling to examine that relationship with clarity and precision. It seems to be en vogue to simply ignore the distinctive elements of particular religions, lump them together into an amorphous blob, and declare them all virtually equivalent, regardless of any claims to historicity.
The distinctive truth of Christianity will not permit itself to be classified among mythological writings because it is not mythological in character. Though the gospel accounts are routinely described as “myth” their character is closely related to ancient biographies and is distinctly different from mythology, which never concerned itself with recent historical figures (Keener, 2009, pp. 75-76). Even the ancients generally believed that their myths had no connections to actual history.
Dan Brown is an inventive writer. His stories are fast-paced and engaging, and his conspiratorial plots are entertaining. Though he is a skillful author, Brown continually presents an axe to grind against Christianity. As was seen in The Da Vinci Code, Brown is willing to manipulate the evidence to make his case. Brown’s carefully crafted language is similar to a conspiracy theory: the reader is guided along a predetermined path that offers no room for alternative explanations. Like all good conspiracies, each piece of evidence hangs tenuously upon another. Each interpretation is precariously balanced on the next. Should any one piece be removed, the entire edifice comes crashing down. The Lost Symbol, like Brown’s previous work, is similarly vulnerable at many points where he has misinterpreted or manipulated the evidence. In each of his books the “fall of the house of Brown” is inescapable, and The Lost Symbol presents no exception.
Allen, James P. (2010), Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Bancroft, George (1837), History of the United States (Boston, MA: Charles Bowen).
Brown, Dan (2009), The Lost Symbol (New York: Doubleday).
Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs (1906), The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson).
Danker, Frederick William, ed. (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), third edition.
Grossman, Lev (2009), “How Good is Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol?” Time, September 15, http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1923182,00.html. Accessed March 3, 2010.
Keener, Craig S. (2009), The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Jefferson, Thomas (1813), “Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 12, 1813,” The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Library of Congress, [On-line], URL: http://tinyurl.com/38dmuqm.
Miller, Dave (2005), “Deism, Atheism, and the Founders,” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/650.
Miller, Dave (2008), “The Founders: Atheists & Deists or Theists & Christians?” Reason & Revelation, 7:45-R, December, http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/240010.
Morris, Benjamin (1864), The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007 reprint).
Nash, Ronald H. (1992), The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow From Pagan Thought? (Richardson, TX: Probe Books).
Pliny the Younger (no date), Letters, trans. William Melmoth, http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_plinyltrstrajan.htm.