Last week, American author Dan Brown published The Lost Symbol, the third in a series of thrillers featuring Harvard professor of religious symbology, Robert Langdon. The other two are Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code. Riding on the back of the huge success of The Da Vinci Code, which sold 81 million copies worldwide, including 1.7 million in Australia, no doubt The Lost Symbol will also be a bestseller.
To promote the book, the reclusive Brown has done one extended television interview, conducted by Matt Lauer for the Today Show on the US NBC network. (Continues below)
The nine and a half minute interview is neither probing nor critical. Rather it's a comfortable chat set in a rather strange room in Brown's home which he calls his 'fortress of gratitude'. It's a trophy room dedicated to his books, which contains all their foreign editions (they've been translated into over 50 languages) and props from the movie versions, including the cryptex from The Da Vinci Code and the tube of anti-matter from Angels and Demons.
It's interesting, and useful, to see in the interview something of the man, his appearance and demeanour, the way he talks and expresses himself. Along with J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, in the realm of books and movies, he is a major influence on popular culture and the contemporary imagination. What's notable is his ordinariness; he seems a nice enough chap, articulate, intelligent, perhaps a bit drab, even a touch nerdy.
The Lost Symbol is set in Washington DC, and in it Brown turns his attention to Freemasonry. In a review in The Los Angeles Times, Nick Owchar says the narrative 'solves puzzles, analyses paintings and reveals forgotten histories — all so that Brown's tireless hero, Robert Langdon, can find a legendary Masonic treasure despite special ops squads that are dogging him and a bizarre killer who has kidnapped his dear friend and mentor'.
So, more of the same, but this time the intrigue is woven around the Masons rather than the Catholic Church.
The popular triumvirate of Brown, Rowling and Meyer all feature strong religious and spiritual themes in their books. As Neer Korn, a commentator on popular culture, said last week in The Sydney Morning Herald, 'They might be writing about angels, demons, vampires and wizards, but in Australia now, especially among the young, there is a huge interest in the mystical and the spiritual, though not in its customary forms.'
Brown's presentation of 'customary' religion in the first two Robert Langdon books ruffled ecclesiastical feathers. The plots of both hinge on connivance and corruption in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. The Da Vinci Code challenges the traditional Christian story. It was widely condemned as being anti-Catholic, even prompting Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State in the Vatican, to denounce it as 'a sack full of lies'.
But the Masons seem to be taking a different tack in responding to their starring role in this latest book. In the US and Australia they are using it as an opportunity to promote their organisation and activities. For instance, last week the media were taken for a tour of the United Grand Lodge of NSW, and Grandmaster Gregory H. Levenston spoke openly with journalists about their arcane and, till recently, secret practices.
This seems a more effective response than heavy-handed criticism and defensive condemnation. After all, Brown is only writing thrillers. He shouldn't be taken too seriously. But he is tapping into a spiritual hunger in readers, and perhaps less hostile engagement by his Catholic critics, coupled with open exposition of their point of view, might direct this hunger towards more traditional religious expression.
Peter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.