Dan Brown’s Langdon: The Anti-Indiana Jones (Joe)

26 May

It occured to me halfway through Dan Brown’s latest novel turned film, Angels and Demons, as the pace began to quicken with Professor Langdon racing against the clock from one ancient cathedral to another, and as the moody theme music began to build almost to a crescendo of anticipatory notes that for all intensive purposes I could I have been watching an Indiana Jones flick.  All that seemed missing was the famed fadora over Tom Hank’s receding hairline.   But if I may be so bold, Dr. Langdon is still a contrast with Dr. Jones.  Sure, they both are presented as extremely knowledgeable, skeptical academics who moonlight as adventurers, but there is where the similarities end.  

 These are fictional characters of course, so why should any of this matter?  Well, what’s most striking to me about the contrast of Langdon and Indiana Jones is what it tells us about the kind of figures Westerners admire these days.  The more I think about it Dan Brown’s Langdon is a reflection of the times we live in, an ode to the zeitgeist which prides skepticism over belief.  Langdon is a trimmed down Jones, shucking the showmanship and swagger of the charismatic archaeologist who had a way with women.  The most obvious contrast between these two figures is the narrative arch of their journeys in each of their films.  As Langdon discovers the hidden story behind the Holy Grail and the illuminati’s relationship with the Vatican, he seems to move from skepticism with some knowledge to skepticism with more knowledge.  Each layer of history and meaning uncovered reveals more questions which Langdon, or the audience watching him, must now invest with answers and meaning of their own.  

 Jones on the other hand, courtesy of Lucas and Spielberg, seems to move from skepticism to a tentative state of belief, the deference always being given to the power of the mystery as an objective reality.  For Jones then, the ark of the covenant and holy grail far from being mere myths, become actual objects of supernatural power.  The destructive power of the sankara stones must be used objectively if Indy is to save himself and others.   In the universe of Indiana Jones these archaeological mysteries are not completely decoded or deconstructed, but their presence endures even as the credits roll.  In the end, the respective characters of Dan Brown and George Lucas ask us what meaning we will make of the these so-called “mysteries.”  For Brown the question is framed by what we do when the illusion of faith or mystery has been stripped away.  Yet for Lucas, the question is framed by we do when mysteries of various cultures are affirmed and ultimate understanding is elusively beyond the horizon. 

I must say I have an affinity for the Indy Jones route, but Dan Brown has certainly caught a whiff of the angst of the 21st century West.  Post 9/11, post Iraq, Post market bubbles, we are quickly becoming a people who feel we have been deceived, and sense in these crises a veil of safety (and ignorance) being removed.  Slow are we to build up trust in new institutions, leaders and ways of life.  Even the Hopemonger himself, President Obama, cannot wave this cynicism away overnight.  Brown is capturing this reality, and through his prodigious Prof. Langdon muddling through the possibilities in order to build some future on philosophical terra firma.   

Ross Dowthat, recently wrote a column dissecting some of the do-it-yourself, mash-up, theology for the 21st century that Brown’s novels are showcasing.  To experiment with such reconstructive theological possibilities is not a crime of course.  It may even be necessary.  It is simply disingenous that Brown is not more candid in conceding that this is indeed his objective.  Brown is not just a chronicler of history, secret societies and religions, he is an interpreter as well.   Instead, on his website he refers to himself as a skeptic.  Familiar word there.  But of course the preponderance of evidence makes him alittle more sure of his thesis about Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Da Vinci Code.  Another revealing tidbit from Brown’s website is this comment on his own Christian faith

if you ask three people what it means to be Christian, you will get three different answers. Some feel being baptized is sufficient. Others feel you must accept the Bible as absolute historical fact. Still others require a belief that all those who do not accept Christ as their personal savior are doomed to hell. Faith is a continuum, and we each fall on that line where we may. …and we’re each following our own paths of enlightenment. I consider myself a student of many religions. The more I learn, the more questions I have. For me, the spiritual quest will be a life-long work in progress.

What’s revealing here is the way Brown’s characterization effectively limits the choices available in the rich tapestry of Christian thought.  The continuum he sights is highlighted only either by those who feel their baptism makes them what is in essence a cultural Christian, or by those who are conservative “biblicist.”   If there are alternatives to these options, Brown seems either unaware, or more likely, uninterested in them.  Brown seems to prefer to graze among the helpings of many of the world’s religions to decode Truth as his Prof. Langdon does.  Though, I may quibble with the notion that Christian faith can bring “enlightenment” (more on that in another post), again, to seek wisdom and knowledge from the various cultures and religions of the world is not a cardinal sin.  Even I find it necessary.  But Brown hardly addresses what his ethic is for doing so.  How he picks and chooses, how he interprets may be more important than the fact that he picks and chooses in the first place.   The first task in such an ethic would be to do what Indiana Jones does time and again in his adventures, submit to the reality of the mystery in front of you.  Don’t attempt to jump over it or swing past it.  Deal with the mystery as it is.  Alittle friendly advice for Prof Langdon from the Department of Archaeology.

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