I’m not gonna talk about any of the plot twists in terms of who’s on whose side, what their motivation is, etc. So if you do wanna read the book, none of the thriller stuff is gonna be ruined for you save what you get told from the back cover blurb. What i’m interested in talking about is the theology.
The author is so hostile to orthodoxy, specifically the Church hierarchy, and yet... the bottom of the Dedication page says:
Thanks to God our Creator
Her strength and His inspiration are behind these words
As we progress through the novel, we get a lot of Mother Goddess stuff. I recall encountering that a while back and learning that the anthropology is suspect. I really haven’t done research into this, though.
In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Perdue says, “The Catholic Church is not alone among modern religions in its abject fear of women and rejection of them in spiritual or dominant roles. Most of the Roman Catholic characters in this book could have easily been cast from among the leaders of Judaism, most Protestant religions, and Islam. All of these (save an unfortunately very few) would kill before admitting that a woman could be an equal, much less a savior” (421). I think Perdue seriously overstates the case here. And throughout the novel i felt like the Catholic Church officials protecting the secrecy of the second Messiah thing felt too Secret Service cult kind of, felt too over-the-top, too willing to elaborately plot and murder to protect their secrets/power. Though i suspect Perdue would say that’s part of the point, that we think this doesn’t/couldn’t happen anymore but it does/could.
And more generally, i was frustrated that so much of the issue seemed to be “Oppression of Women OMG.”
“It seems . . .” His eyes looked inward. “That this secret Messiah is evidence that perhaps God sends us messiahs all the time. Our salvation rests on following them. But we fail to recognize them. Or worse, we kill them.”I loved this idea of multiple messiahs, but no, it’s all about this second messiah from Constantine’s time. Because She was a woman OMG. I get that a female Messiah would seriously cramp the Catholic Church’s “No women in positions of church authority” thing, but it being All About this second messiah negates the really interesting “perhaps God sends us messiahs all the time” idea. Plus, recognizing a second messiah even a male one seriously messes with Christian ideas about salvation, redemption, etc. The Big Bad Catholic talks about how knowledge of this second messiah would throw the community of believers into an insane upheaval, but he passes over the fact that a second messiah throws everything Christians believe about the first Messiah into question in order to focus on the OMG Women question.
The American looked at the cardinal, tilted his head, and said: “So God tests us to see if we are ready for redemption? When finally we recognize the Messiah in our midst . . . without killing him, we are all redeemed?”
Braun nodded. “Her.”
“You man, the second shroud contains on its surface an image as well. It is the image of the second redeemer . . . a female image.”
-pages 32-33 (Chapter 3)
According to the story:
“Constantine was paranoid about unity,” Seth said. “He came up in a time when the Roman Empire had four Caesars who fought among themselves. He spent most of his career in wars and campaigns to reunite the Roman empire—something he saw as vital for survival against the barbarians who were hammering on every gate and against internal dissent. When he finally became the undisputed emperor, he was determined to rule a united empire no matter whom he had to remove to do it.”And in his Author’s Note, Perdue says:
“But Constantine is known as the first Christian emperor,” Zoe said.
“Only on his deathbed,” Seth said. “Sol Invictus, the Sun God, was his main deity until the last hours of his life. For most of his life, Christianity was a potential power tactic for Constantine, a method of governing rather than a religion.”
“Not very original.”
“No, but I think he was the first true master at shaping religion to help consolidate governmental power. He saw that is new religion wasn’t going away, and that over the previous three centuries it had been a destabilizing influence on the rule of the empire. He saw it as clearly a growing force, so instead of fighting it he co-opted it. He controlled the church for his own purposes and shaped theology for the sake of political expediency. So many things that people today think are divinely inspired were actually Constantine’s political edicts enforced by the power of the sword.”
Seth thought for a moment. He sipped at his wine and turned toward the window to gaze at the setting sun. Finally, he turned back toward Zoe and said: “How about something that is so fundamental to the Christian church as you can get: the Trinity.”
“There was absolutely no unanimous agreement in the Christian church that Jesus was to be worshiped on a basis equal to God. Indeed, you would find a lot of solid evidence that Jesus himself would not be happy with this.
“But back in 324 or so a.d. the issue came to a head with a bishop named Arius, the presbyter of Alexandria, who was preaching that Jesus ‘the Son’ had been created, begotten, by God ‘the Father’ and, therefore, was not quite as divine. Others disagreed and there were riots in the streets all over the empire caused by this and maybe another half dozen major theological issues. This doctrine spread like wildfire and with it more riots and bloodshed.
“Riots in the street are not something an emperor likes to see. The whole thing baffled him. He called the issue ‘truly insignificant’ and was astounded when all the feuding parties ignored his directive to stop arguing. That’s when he called the Nicean Conference. Church theologians today put a spin on the conference as a divinely inspired gathering of holy men guided to a common decision by the Holy Spirit. In reality, it was Constantine’s way of calling them all to a meeting behind the woodshed.”
As Seth spoke, sunset faded, filling up the room with deeper and deeper shadows. Neither of them moved to turn on a light.
“Constantine had the steel swords of his army to back him up,” Seth continued. His story of the past played in Zoe’s mind brighter and brighter as the gathering darkness gradually erased the detail from the present.
Zoe broke the silence. “As far as I can remember, this wouldn’t be the first time theology was written with the sharp point of a sword.”
“And not the last.” Seth smiled. “So when all the bishops got to arguing during the conference, Constantine had had enough. He was still an unbaptized pagan but he stepped in and declared that Jesus and God were ‘consubstantial’ and ‘of one substance with the Father.’ And what’s more, anybody at the conference who didn’t sign the declaration attesting at that this was the word and will of God wouldn’t leave the conference . . . at least not alive. Not surprisingly, all but two signed and those two were excommunicated and their writings ordered to be burned.” He paused for a moment. “And so it is that the Trinity—the undisputed centerpiece of the Christian religion—was legislated at the point of a sword by a fellow who wasn’t even a Christian at the time and it was not for the faith but to restore civil order.”
Zoe gave him a wry smile and shook her head slowly. “So, the Nicean Creed was just Constantine’s way of having everybody get their stories straight, to spin things the same way.
“Hmmph,” Zoe said as she got to her feet and walked over to the window and looked down at the lights around the lake. “That old saying . . . the one about there are two // things the public should never see being made: sausage and the law?” She turned to face him. “I guess there ought to be three. Theology.”
“It’s not pretty.” Seth agreed as he got up and went to her side. Together they looked out over the lake.
“I just don’t understand why you keep on believing when you know this stuff.”
Seth sighed loudly. “Sometimes I wonder myself, but I keep thinking that underneath all the theological lies and church bureaucracy there are still some bits and shreds of truth to believe in.”
“But what good are the shreds if the whole remains a mystery?”
“Maybe the mystery is the point.” He shrugged. “Maybe the mystery has to remain because we’re looking at the infinite through finite eyes. Maybe what God really wants is not blind acceptance of dogma but a lifetime of searching . . . discarding what is obviously false, testing the rest.
-from pages 15-18 (Chapter 2)
there was an Emperor Constantine who put an end to spiritual squabbling with bureaucratic decrees enforced by the blade of a sword. It has been true throughout religious history—regardless of religion—that matters of faith are decided by political expediency rather than affairs of the spirit. The sections of this book dealing with the Nicean Conference and the events and religious controversies leading up to it are true and far better documented than any of the scriptures in the Hebrew or Christian Bible or the Muslim Koran. (420)
In the novel, the Catholic hierarchy (well, most of it) takes the “You can’t handle the truth” stance.
“Like Constantine, we guard the unity of the church,” Braun explained. “But the strongest and most comforting faith is that which is united, unequivocal, unreserved: in other words, faith must be black and white with no shades of gray. But like Constantine, we know very well that our holy Scriptures and the history of our faith and religion have been rewritten, edited, and altered to fit the exigencies of many different times. In reality, there may be many different interpretations of the truth. There are authorities which seem equal and yet disagree; there are relics and Scriptures and historical proofs that we find compelling and yet, if known, would shatter the unanimity of the church’s theology and create uncertainty. Without unanimity the church would never have survived. It would have splintered into a million little footnotes in the history of faith.Of course this snowballs and the book is filled with murders.
“What’s more, uncertainty offers little solace in a tumultuous world. For ordinary people to receive hope, they must have a certainty to believe in. If there are doubts about matters of faith or religion, it is our duty at the CDF to wrestle with the devil so they don’t have to. If there seem to be two roads to faith, it is our duty to travel them both and then to blockade the wrong path so that the faithful do not have to wander. We fight with the doubts and then create an answer for the church, to be sure that answer is consistent with all other decisions and then with the prayers and blessing of the Holy Father, to declare those answers the unassailable word of God. Unified belief is far more important than the contradictory truths that must remain secret because most people cannot cope with them without falling victim to Satan’s influence.”
-28-29 (Chapter 3)
His mind, his intellect, everything he had lived for so far, told him they were right. No truth was valuable enough if it would cause the violence, death, and upheaval that this would cause.The book clearly prizes truth over, well, everything else. It also does the interesting thing of having the subplot also connect thematically -- said subplot is about art smuggling and includes issues of forgery. While an interesting authorial choice that didn’t feel heavy-handed, i found the art forgery concerns problematic. I’m huge on owning what you say and also on citing, so basically sum up as “credit where credit is due.” But a beautiful work of art is still a beautiful work of art even if it isn’t actually by whom you thought it was by.
But his heart refused to listen.
-175 (Chapter 14)