Feature: Mysteries of the faith

By CYNTHIA GRENIER  |  June 19, 2003 at 1:00 AM
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NEW YORK, June 19 (UPI) -- Today in the United States we have more than enough angst to go around: The Iraq war, terrorism, the bleak clouds of 9/11 still hover heavy over us. At such times deep in our anguish, traditionally we reach out to traditional sources of comfort. Church. Religion. God.

Indeed, according to Publisher's Weekly, this summer we'll be seeing the publication of some 560 new religious and spiritual guides in our bookstores. Back in December, a Gallup poll found that nearly 25 percent of all Americans are likely to pick a book about spirituality when choosing a book to read.

Does this go to explaining why two works of fiction involving spiritual issues -- however non-traditionally -- have been riding at the top of the bestseller lists of the land? "Heavenly Bones" by Alice Sebold shot to the number one slot shortly after its publication last summer and has stayed high on the list some 49 weeks on.

The story is fairly simple. Narrated in the first person by 14-year-old girl who recounts her rape and death from the Great Beyond as well as observing her family and friends as they continue their lives on earth. Now, Heaven is referred to in the most generic sort of way. There is no mention of, or encounter with, the Supreme Being, let alone His son who sits at His right hand to judge the quick and the dead. You don't need to be the most devout of church-going Christians to be somewhat startled by this. The "comfort" the book offers borders positively on the obscene.

Susie, our heroine, spends her teens in a kind of halfway house, Purgatory, as it were, but where teenage girls get to read all their favorite fashion magazines and never have to study. Eventually she makes it to Heaven, a pretty nebulous sort of place where she gets to meet her beloved grandfather again and the family dog bounds up joyously to greet her. In this Heaven, as Susie opines, "We have fun."

Well over 2 million copies have been sold to date, as well as movie rights and foreign rights to 18 countries. First serial rights went to "Seventeen" magazine, almost too poetically ironic to be true. How much soul's ease readers have found remains open to debate. "Heavenly Bones" is surely a major testimonial to just how much P.C. thinking has been absorbed by America's book-buying public.

The thirst for fiction dealing with some aspect of the spiritual is apparently though unquenchable, as this spring a mystery novel, "The Da Vinci Code" by one Dan Brown virtually leapt to the top of the bestseller list and is holding the place of honor handily. Its publishers, Doubleday, are dispensing a small fortune running full- page dithyrambic ads in the New York Times and the like for the 499-page novel.

The quotes from the ads talk of it in very large bold-faced type as being "hugely entertaining," "epic thriller," "fascinating and fun," and from the New York Times: "Wow. ... Not since the advent of Harry Potter has an author so flagrantly delighted in leading readers on a breathless chase."

Buying "Da Vinci Code" readers don't get a hint they're about to enter a profoundly, madly feminist world vision that chucks out 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on its ear. Mr. Brown's extravagant imagination beats Ms. Sebold's hands down. Oh, he has a place for our Savior to many in this world as Jesus Christ First Feminist.

Paring his plot to its barest bone, leaving aside the Opus Dei, Gnostic gospels, Mother Goddesses, sundry secret societies, the Holy Grail, King Arthur, Jean Cocteau, the Louvre and a hulking hit man of an albino monk, we learn that Leonardo Da Vinci painted Mary Magdalene into his celebrated Last Supper to transmit a supposedly secret message to the ages.

Why? Because she was not only the wife (coming of course from a high-class Jewish family) of Jesus Christ, but He had chosen her as his lead disciple to carry his message to the world after his departure from this earth. We all know how most males are supposed to think about women in leadership roles. So naturally Peter, Paul and Church fathers reacted as true males and did their best to wipe all traces of their Lord's spouse out of history. Of course the Heavenly couple had progeny.

One of the big reasons for all the high-faulting mystery down through the millennia has been to keep these descendents concealed from the Vatican. According to Mr. Brown's book they are with us still. The curious can go to the website thedavincicode.com and for some puffery about the author to danbrown.com.

The hero is a Harvard symbologist (in the days when I was at Harvard they didn't have such things as symbologists), so is supposed to be conversant with such matters. The novel in its final pages takes such a turn that it's going to be hard for the author to use his symbologist in any other book (he's featured in an earlier work about tangling with the Illuminati and a would be pope -- "Angels and Demons" - that is now on the paperback bestseller list.)

Apparently readers driven by their concern about their lives and/or yearning for a message that will fit tidily into their politically correct worldview are wonderfully undiscriminating. For what it's worth, to date there seems have been no cries of indignation or protest from any of the faithful. Ban Harry Potter all right, but raise a voice against a book that claims Jesus Christ selected a woman to carry forth his mission on earth? Forget it.

The book is jam-packed with all manner of arcane detail, but I worry as to just how freely Brown is playing with fact when you find he has his characters getting from the Louvre to the American Embassy by having them dash up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and down again. Six minutes straight down Rue de Rivoli from the Louvre gets you to our embassy there nice and easy. Trivial, you say, compared with Mary Magdalene superseding Peter as the rock upon which Jesus founded his church, but significant in its own way.

It's no accident that Brown chose to give Mary Magdalene such a place of honor. Check out his page of acknowledgments: "And finally, in a novel drawing so heavily on the sacred feminine, I would be remiss if I did not mention two extraordinary women who have touched my life." They are his mother and his wife. Come to think of it, wasn't there some study a while back that established women were the biggest buyers of novels? One small light of true comfort in these PC-ridden days: "God's Secretaries" is slowly and steadily working up the non-fiction bestseller lists. It recounts how the King James Bible came to be complied in the 17th century and does make for livelier reading. Not very PC though.

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