New York Times columnist Ross Douhat (who does not look at all like David Brent … well, maybe just a little) believes that Dan Brown’s novels are successful not just because the books are cheesy page-turners, or because the notion that the Vatican conceals nasty little secrets is inherently interesting (especially to many Catholics), or even because, well, corny thrillers often sell huge, but because The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons (the film of which just opened to big numbers) present an alternative vision of faith, one more attuned to modern life:
Brown is explicit about this mission. He isn’t a serious novelist, but he’s a deadly serious writer: His thrilling plots, he’s said, are there to make the books’ didacticism go down easy, so that readers don’t realize till the end “how much they are learning along the way.” He’s working in the same genre as Harlan Coben and James Patterson, but his real competitors are ideologues like Ayn Rand, and spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. He’s writing thrillers, but he’s selling a theology.
For millions of readers, Brown’s novels have helped smooth over the tension between ancient Christianity and modern American faith. But the tension endures. You can have Jesus or Dan Brown. But you can’t have both.
Jesus and Dan Brown, then, are kind of like cake and cookies – you can only pick one.