A Conspiracy of Dunces 

Dan Brown vs. Jesus vs. Tom Cruise vs. Madonna

National Review’s Stanley Kurtz is swell times, no doubt, but a person worries about his health. Being perpetually aggrieved, after all, must eventually take some sort of toll on a man. Vigilant cultural warrior that he is, Kurtz lives in a state of endless agitation, ready at the slightest sign of a skirmish to raise the banner and fly off into the fray; prepared at a moment’s notice to take up his weapon astride the field of battle — and shoot himself in the foot. He is, in my humble opinion, the most tedious writer this side of Skip Bayless, and if his colleagues in the conservative media are not at this very moment cracking jokes about him behind his back, well, then, they’ve considerably worse senses of humor than I’ve given them credit for.

The latest outrage taking years off Kurtz’s life is, of course, The Da Vinci Code. The movie, he wrote a few weeks back on NR’s website, was “a salutary kick in the teeth for conservatives.”

“I might not be a professor of ‘symbology’,” he went on, “but I have taught at Harvard and studied religious symbolism. So I feel in a particularly strong position to reveal the entirely unsecret conspiracy against patriotism, tradition, and religion hiding in plain sight on our movie and television screens, in our universities, and on the pages of the mainstream press.”

He finished by alerting fellow conservatives to the gathering menace that is Tom Hanks, commenting darkly that the star of Saving Private Ryan and executive producer of Band of Brothers is, “clearly one of the captains of the not-so-secret conspiracy.”

It was, in other words, pretty much the sort of awesomely paranoid performance those of us familiar with Stanley have come to love and expect.

Now, granted, the man does have some faint glimmer of a point. No one would deny that the Catholic Church — particularly in the developed West — doesn’t quite have the juice it once did. The whole business is treated with considerably less reverence than it was back when, say, Boys Town was being made. But even if Opie found himself making The Da Vinci Code with Bill Donohue’s blood pressure only vaguely on his mind, Kurtz’s “kick in the teeth” quip is still more than a little absurd. As a rule, summer blockbusters rarely, if ever, aim for their audience’s teeth — more typically it’s the pocketbook they’re after. Dan Brown’s book sold roughly a gazillion copies, and so Dan Brown’s book became a movie. Simple as that — “not-so-secret” conspiracies had nothing to do with it.

In fact, instead of getting riled up (and by and large, the faithful have, in marked contrast to Kurtz, maintained an admirable indifference to the whole enterprise) the Church might just as well consider Brown’s book something of a marketing lesson. In a world full of hot competition for the public’s spiritual dollar, Brown has picked up on something his combatants would do well to notice. The man’s prose might be deadly, but it’s a rich vein he’s managed to strike nonetheless. Hidden meanings, shady cabals, long-concealed knowledge brought finally to light — it’s just the sort of stuff people want in their beach reads. It’s also, if a glance around the current scene provides any indication, just the sort of stuff people are looking for from their metaphysics.

There’s long been the notion out there that as science progressed and we came to a more complete understanding of the physical world, our interest in the spiritual would wane. We’d spend our afternoons lolling about in fields of genetically engineered dandelions, surfing the internets on postage-stamp-sized laptops while murmuring to one another the more romantic bits of the third law of thermodynamics. It all makes a certain amount of sense — the more space man occupies, the less there would seem to be for God. It hasn’t, however, quite worked out that way.

Your more established religions might not be doing so well, but “spirituality” as a general concern is puttering along just fine. Kabbalah water, Scientology, reiki centers, the ever-expanding ranks of the “born-again” — the supply of Irish priests might be dwindling, but there’s no shortage of people looking to get their souls straight. Or take the entertainment industry — we’ve got Omens and Mediums and Ghost Whisperers and shows with teenage girls who talk to Jesus through strangers on the street. Now, one might shunt much of this stuff to the side as hopelessly ersatz, and I’d be more than a little inclined to agree, but all the same, it’s out there, and it’s everywhere.

The unifying thread to it all, or, so I’d suggest anyway, is an emphasis on revelation — the pervasive notion that some secret truth, some muted voice, is out there trying to reach us — the idea of religion less as a faith and tradition one is raised in than a search for some sudden epiphanic instant — a Paul to Damascus moment — wherein one’s understanding of the world and oneself is irrevocably changed. What sort of thrill can a baby feel at joining the church through baptism? A grown man, on the other hand, convinced that he’s been born again — well, that’s a touch more exciting. No doubt Kabbalah’s recent popularity is due in large part to the air of mystery and exclusivity surrounding the tradition. The kind folks at your local Scientology temple keep people coming with promises of new spiritual prowess around the corner. Scales falling from eyes, true workings made clear — wheels within wheels within wheels.

It’s spirituality as conspiracy theory — the belief, seemingly rampant, that the world, if we are good enough, or pure enough, or wise enough, or lucky enough or whatever, will with perhaps a flash of blinding light reveal to us its hidden ways. Brown’s book is based upon a not dissimilar conspiracy theory. Instead of the world, he gave us the Church. Bad luck for the Church, but big money for Brown. And truly, how can one hold it against him? He was merely tapping into the spirit of the age.

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