Angels & Demons

We’ve been doing an occasional film & discussion group at church, and we did Da Vinci code recently, which was fun, and gave me an excuse to get history nerdy and point out where things went far adrift of reality. Anyway, as A & D was just being released in the cinema we took a group to go and see it. I’ve been reading the book too. Well, the film was fun (and actually hangs together better than Da Vinci Code – once again the preposterous plot is ably assisted on its way by a very capable supporting cast) but I’m now unsure whether it’s worth meeting up for a discussion of it. There just doesn’t seem to be much to discuss from the film. As presented, the whole science & religion thing is distinctly downplayed, the Illuminati are a bit of a red herring, and the Catholic church do kind of what you’d expect them to do in the circumstances (with the exception of one character, the weirdness of whom is fairly central to the story). All in all, the church come fairly well out of it – given the feather-ruffling caused by Da Vinci Code Brown presents a suprisingly humane and sympathetic church here.

So, a bit of fun with not much real food for thought. That’s what I thought, however, until I finished reading the book. Now, I’m not a huge Dan Brown fan, and I feel at this point obliged to have a rant about his novels, so you may find it easiest to skip to the next paragraph when I’ve got this off my chest. He does just enough research to make the inaccuracies he includes very plausible to the innocent reader, and as a natural sensationaliser of history he tends towards the most entertaining and shocking interpretations of events. And (especially in the case of TDVC) the images he is presenting will linger long in people’s minds. The blue-tinted ‘history’ images from that film, depicting events that never happened will have an impact on the popular imagination that will not easily be undone. Just when Pagans were starting to concede that the myth of the Burning Times was exactly that, Dan Brown firmly underlines it in people’s minds. He’s also not the greatest writer. Robert Langdon has more than a touch of Mary Sue about him. He’s a good-looking sophisticated, witty, wealthy, Harvard professor with a world-wide reputation, seems to attract sexy smart women, and is also incredibly physically fit and a former champion swimmer… Then there’s the fact that Brown appears to only have one plot: academic is murdered with arcane symbols on his body, leaving a smart and sexy orphaned daughter to accompany Robert Langdon in following a series of clues in which they are hampered by a policeman who looks like a bad guy but turns out to be a good guy, and helped by a guardian angel who looks like a good guy but turns out to be the bad guy who has manipulated the whole thing. Oh, and they dodge some really weird psycho assassin on the way. I can only guess that it was to avoid making the overlap too obvious that Hollywood chose not to make the love interest the victim’s daughter this time, and made the assassin a conventional hitman for hire rather than a sadistic descendant of the cult of Hassassins (that and the fact that no-one wants to add a murderous muslim character just for ‘colour’ these days).

Anyway, I wasn’t overly impressed by the book as a piece of writing, but I did find the handling of the science/religion thing a lot more interesting than they chose to present it on screen. Although the villain is clearly nuts, he has a definite grasp of some interesting tensions between the church and modernity, understood in a more subtle form than is normally the case. The science/religion debate is often presented as being simply a clash between competing world-views, between rationality and superstition or faith and godlessness depending on your position. Commendably, Brown steers clear of this. He makes much of the fact that the two have never been entirely separate. Vetra is priest and scientist, seeking to prove God’s existence with science. And Janus is not a stereotypical advocate of religion alone. He embraces technology and progress. His issues are more subtle (though disturbingly he still feels drawn to take extreme measures to fight for them): the rate of scientific progress being allowed to outstrip growth in moral reflection, and a scientific mindset that encourages a search for answers even when reverent appreciation of mystery may be more appropriate. His problem is actually one of pace: the sense that the rate of scientific progress is pushing human beings beyond their ability to morally develop, that we are literally rushing in where angels fear to tread. This is a not uncommon feeling. Setting aside the trappings of the thriller (not many people feeling like this decide the answer is to provoke a war between science and religion by killing a few cardinals and threatening to blow up the Vatican), this is something well worth exploring.

It is certainly true that the pace of scientific and technological progress is accelerating. Moral codes and legal frameworks struggle to keep pace with scientific development that sometimes raises genuinely new questions: eg what is the moral status of life created from human genetic material but which is not in itself capable of becoming human life? It is likewise true that as a species we seem to find inventing ways to destroy easier than inventing ways to heal or create. Environmental issues as well as the legacy of warfare have left us very aware of the consequences of immoral and thoughtless applications of science in our world. In many ways the whole ‘modern world slipping further away from morality’ idea rings true. But there are some hidden assumptions in this line of argument, however congenial it may seem. Not least of these is that science is not permanently wedded to the idea that there is a single comprehensible answer to everything.

So, there’s probably something to discuss, but only if people have read the book, and to be honest I’m not sure I could in all conscience force people to do it…