The Lost Symbol

Although my reading taste typically runs to non-fiction, occasionally I like to dip my toe into popular fiction.  That is how I came to read The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown.  It probably is the last time I read a fiction bestseller without a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader.

I had read The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons and I didn’t think either of them was particularly compelling, so I probably should have passed on The Lost Symbol.  My rule, though, is that once I start to read a book I am obligated to finish it.  Therefore, after I started The Lost Symbol, I soldiered on to the end.  It didn’t take long for it to become a struggle.  I think part of the problem, for me, is that I just don’t care for the “thriller” genre, where the hero possesses an improbable combination of immediate knowledge and skills and events unfold at breakneck speed.  I think The Lost Symbol describes the period of about 24 hours, and for most of the book the characters are racing from place to place in Washington, D.C., all the time having meaningful expository or puzzle-solving conversations.  We are taken from the Capitol to the Library of Congress Reading Room to the National Cathedral to various other D.C. landmarks, and in each location we learn in weird, often extraneous detail about its construction, symbology and Masonic influences.

The writing and plotting seemed very pedestrian to me.  We have the athletic, able-to-immediately-call-to-mind-encyclopedic-knowledge academic who can promptly identify obscure symbols and paintings, remember the makeup of buildings, and recall the various teachings of ancient brotherhoods.  We have the brainy female scientist from the rich family of brainy public servants who is on the threshold of a great discovery.  We have the shadowy government figure, the mysterious brotherhood whose members occupy virtually every powerful position in the country, and the ultra-capable villain who overcomes every obstacle but then is stupidly tricked at the end.  Each of these figures had their one character trait that differentiates them from the masses of cardboard cutouts.  Academic?  Claustrophobic — check.  Scientist?  Motivated by desire to stay up with her brilliant brother — check.  Government figure?  Ball-busting and intimidating despite her small stature — check.  Helpful priest?  Blind — check.  Villain?  Tattooed and sadistic — check.

I frankly thought the identity of a the villain was totally predictable.  Whenever a supposedly dead person is described as “beyond recognition” — be it burned beyond recognition, beaten beyond recognition, crushed beyond recognition, dropped in a vat of acid and fried beyond recognition — my suspicions are raised.  Show me the body!  And in this case, I don’t understand why the villain wanted to kill the scientist or destroy her ground-breaking experiments; it seemed completely extraneous to his goal to find the secret knowledge that would give him unimaginable power.  Finally, when I saw that the book was about the Masons, I groaned inwardly.  Like Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark after he looks down into the Well of the Souls and sees by torchlight a writhing mass of asps, my reaction when I see the Masonic Order in a novel is to roll over on my back and groan:  “The Masons!  Why does it always have to be the Masons?!”

As I read the book I began to notice the verb choice in each sentence, which is a pretty good indicator of less than stellar writing and plotting.  In this book, everyone seems to be striding to and fro. No one moseys, or saunters, or sidles, or even just walks.  I also hate it when characters talk to themselves in italics.  Did I just see that wall move? It is almost as annoying as the decision to print every statement by Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany in capital letters, LIKE HE WAS SHOUTING ALL THE TIME.  Ugh.

So, I can’t recommend The Lost Symbol.  I am sure there are good thrillers based in Washington, D.C., but this isn’t one of them.

Sunday’s Sermon

Well last Sunday the church was filled with plenty of poinsettias and we sang all of the traditional Christmas carols. When it came time for the sermon I figured it was going to be your typical run of the mill story about the birth of Jesus, but it wasn’t.

The popular story told every year is that there were three wise men who traveled from the East to see the baby Jesus. These wise men followed a bright and shining star, the “star of Bethlehem” as they traveled westward and came to a stable or manger above which the star hovered. Mary, Joseph and the shepherds who came in from the fields watched as the wise men presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh as he lay wrapped in torn strips of cloth in a manger, or animal trough.

As our preacher said “this is a wonderful story, but it’s not what the Bible says”. Only the gospel of Matthew gives a narrative of the birth of Jesus.

There is no mention in Matthew as to the number of wise men that came to visit Jesus, but Matthew does refer to them in plural so there were at least two, but because three gifts were given it was probably assumed that there were three wise men. According to eastern tradition it is likely that there were a dozen or more men traveling together at that time and probably not just three.

Who were these men ? Were they really wisemen or kings ? Most scholars believe that these men – the Magi – were highly educated eastern astrologers well versed in manuscripts from around the world, including Old Testament manuscripts, so they were well aware of the prophecies of the coming Messiah. 

And the “star of Bethlehem”, that star was likely not a bright and shining star or King Herod would not have had to ask to speak with the Magi to try and determine from them when the star first appeared. There is also no mention that the Magi were led to Jesus by a hovering star because such a star would have been quite noticable. Thus, the star was probably not out of the ordinary and would have only been noticed by the trained eye of the Magi. 

Since the star first appeared to the Magi when Jesus was born it would have taken several months or a year or more after the birth of Jesus for the Magi to follow the star and find him. As the gospel of Matthew says “and when they came into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother”. 

So Jesus wasn’t a baby at the time the Magi saw him, but was probably a few years old and he wasn’t in a stable lying in a manger because the Magi came into a house. So there were definitely no wise men at the stable, but there were likely shepherds, however since Jesus’ exact date of birth is not really known, it probably was not during the winter months because shepherds didn’t sleep in the fields with their flocks during the winter because it was too cold.

So does this mean that this story isn’t true because of a few factual errors, not at all ! This story is just like any story where someone added little here and someone else added alittle there to make it more entertaining, nonetheless it’s still a very good story.

An Extreme Christmas

While we here in the Midwest hope that we might see a white Christmas, over in Europe they are battling a winter storm of epic proportions.  Some areas have seen up to 20 inches of snow, and in parts of Austria, Germany and Finland temperatures have fallen to 33 below zero.  Plane, train, and road travel have been disrupted, and a number of deaths have been reported due to exposure.

Over the years Kish and the boys and I have occasionally talked about traveling to Europe over the Christmas break, to see firsthand how the holiday is celebrated in the Old World and to look at the continent in winter.  I’m glad we didn’t do that this year.