May 23, 2006

Dan Brown, evangelist?

Laurie Goodstein, in the May 21 2006 NYT, explains that "It's Not Just a Movie, It's a Revelation (About the Audience)":

Even Tom Hanks, the lead actor, called the plot "scavenger-hunt-type nonsense." But it is doubtful the uproar will disappear.

The reason is that "The Da Vinci Code" is, in the sweep of Christian history, a historical marker — encapsulating in one muddled movie an era in which many Christian believers have assimilated a whole lot of new and unorthodox ideas, as well as half-truths and conspiracy thinking, into their faith, while still seeing it as Christianity. Call it Da Vinci Christianity.

In support of this view, Goodstein quotes an evangelical pollster, George Barna, as saying that

25 percent of those who had read the book said it helped them achieve personal growth or understanding.

More exactly, according to the article that Goodstein seems to have been working from, which is posted on the Barna Group's website as "Da Vinci Code Confirms Rather Than Changes People's Religious Views":

Among the adults who have read the entire book, one out of every four (24%) said the book was either “extremely,” “very,” or “somewhat” helpful in relation to their “personal spiritual growth or understanding.” That translates to about 11 million adults who consider The Da Vinci Code  to have been a helpful spiritual document.

To place that figure in context, the Barna study revealed that another recently published popular novel about Jesus Christ – Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt , written by Anne Rice – was deemed to be spiritually helpful by 72% of its readers – three times the proportion who lauded Dan Brown’s book.

On the other hand, I imagine that about 300 times more people have read Dan Brown's book, yielding 100 times or so more spiritual influence.

Goodstein also quotes some of Barna's other findings, for example:

"Few people said that reading the book had actually changed any of their beliefs," he said. "That was only 5 percent. Most people said that it essentially reinforced what they believed coming into the book."

Again, 5% of 44 million is more than two million. "Changed any of their beliefs" is a pretty low standard, but comparing apples and oranges, we can observe that the Campus Crusade for Christ, the "largest evangelical organization in the United States" according to USA Today (cited here), says on its website that "Over the past five years, more than 37,900 students made a decision to become a Christian".

The Barna Group article makes the same point in a different way:

“On the other hand,” [Barna] continued, “any book that alters one or more theological views among two million people is not to be dismissed lightly. That’s more people than will change any of their beliefs as a result of exposure to the teaching offered at all of the nation’s Christian churches combined during a typical week.”

Let me suggest a different point, which is plausible though not supported by any polling: TDVC has made more of an impact on Americans' models of literary style and plot construction than exposure to all the teaching offered in all of the nation's English courses over the course of a decade.

The Barna Group article continues:

The people most likely to have altered their religious views in response to the book’s content were Hispanics (17% of those who read the book), women (three times more likely than male readers to do so), and liberals (twice as likely as conservatives). Upscale adults were also much more likely than downscale individuals to shift their thinking based on the novel.

I'm almost ashamed to say that I still haven't read it. It's starting to feel like an unpleasant but unavoidable civic duty to do so.

Goodstein's "Da Vinci Christianity" thesis -- that in America, "many Christian believers have assimilated a whole lot of new and unorthodox ideas, as well as half-truths and conspiracy thinking, into their faith, while still seeing it as Christianity" -- seems consistent with the theme of Harold Bloom's 1993 work The American Religion, which the Publishers Weekly review on describes this way:

Without knowing it, American worshipers have moved away from Christianity and now embrace pre-Christian Gnosticism. ... In his most controversial book to date, the Yale professor defines "the American Religion" as a Gnostic creed stressing knowledge of an inner self that leads to freedom from nature, time, history and other selves. Every American, he writes, assumes that God loves her or him in a personal, intimate way, and this trait is the bedrock of our national religion, a debased Gnosticism often tinged with selfishness. The core of this odd, ponderous book focuses on Pentecostals, Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and especially Mormons and Southern Baptists--the two denominations Bloom believes will dominate future American religious life. He argues that mainline Protestants, Jews, Roman Catholics and secularists are also much more Gnostic than they realize. He identifies African-American religion, mystical and emotionally immediate, as a key element in the birth of our home-grown Gnosticism around 1800. Bloom is not likely to win many converts to his viewpoint.

I don't know -- with Laurie Goodstein on board, and Dan Brown at the throttle, that train seems to be picking up speed even without Bloom's name on it.

[Update: Laurie Goodstein is not the only one who apparently wasn't paying attention to Bloom's theories and arguments. Adam Gopnik, in his review "Renaissance Man" (New Yorker, Jan. 17, 2005 -- unfortunately not available on line), writes:

A cultural anthropologist, a hundred years from now, will doubtless find, in the unprecedented success of "The Da Vinci Code" during the time of a supposed religious revival, some clear sign that, in the Elvis mode, what a lot of Americans mean by spirituality is simply an immense opennness to occult superstitions of all kinds.

I'm skeptical that this characterization of my fellow citizens is a fair one, but in any case, it's odd that Gopnik didn't make the connection to Bloom's presentation of a similar set of ideas, not a hundred years later, but a dozen years before. I guess that Bloom's interest in American vernacular religion seemed so out of the mainstream, in 1993, that even an omnivorous intellectual like Gopnik simply ignored his book.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 23, 2006 05:50 AM