Cracking the masonic code

the_lost_symbolI say that if you either enjoy Dan Brown's novels or believe them to be true, you get whatever you deserve. Okay, I'll give you Angels & Demons out of generosity but other than that, you're on your own. And yet . . . people, particularly those with close to zero knowledge of church history, found his DaVinci Code to be a compelling indictment of Christianity. The bigger scandal, in my view, is that they found the writing itself compelling. But I digress.

Apparently the man has a new book coming out next week and holy hell is going to break loose when it does. People think they've figured out that the topic will be freemasonry. My own prediction is that this is just what the freemasons needed. As the granddaughter of not one but two freemasons (and my mom was a "Daughter of Job," too!), I've been well aware that the once proud secret society has seen much better days. I don't mean to get all Pauline Kael about it, but I know only one freemason who is still living. (And I should mention that my mother and grandfather left their respective masonic affiliations upon becoming Lutheran. More on that below.)

The novel, it is rumored, will take place in Washington and so the Washington Post has a piece about how DC is about to get "Dan Browned." That's the term of art for the likely arrival of eleventy billion Dan Brown afficionados:

When Dan Brown comes to town, things get a little bit nutty.

Just ask Colin Glynne-Percy, director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, the rural Scottish church featured in "The Da Vinci Code," which Langdon believed to be the location of the Holy Grail.

"Before the book came out, we had about 40,000 visitors a year," Glynne-Percy says. "It went to 80,000. Then to 120,000. Then to 175,000. We had very small facilities. We had only two restrooms. We could survive on that for 40,000 but . . ." They've put in temporary bathrooms and added several new staff members.

The story is fun, co-bylined by Monica Hesse, and quotes various sources speculating about the book's plot. Some think that maybe there will be something about cloning Jesus using parts of the blood-stained cross held by the secret society of Rosicruceans. And yes, writing that last sentence makes me want to weep for the country. Anyway, the Post's accompanying tour of masonic sites is even breezier and more fun. Although there are some troubling spots dealing with religion:

The Masons are cagey about their rituals, but otherwise they don't seem all that secretive. Docents give free tours of the temple. Let's pause for some Masonry 101.

Masons first appeared in Britain in the early 1400s as members of craft guilds. Their "secrets" included how to square a corner and build a cathedral. Claims of a connection to the Crusades and the Knights Templar -- as suggested in "The Da Vinci Code" and the "National Treasure" movies -- are the stuff of fable, historians say. In the 1600s, non-stoneworking gentlemen began joining, and Masonry became fashionable. The Masons encouraged free thought and religious tolerance. They helped invent America: George Washington, Ben Franklin, nine signers of the Declaration of Independence and 13 signers of the Constitution were Masons. Both Presidents Roosevelt and 11 other presidents besides Washington were, too. Also J. Edgar Hoover, Will Rogers, Ty Cobb, John Wayne.

For the roughly 1.5 million Masons in the United States today, Masonic life involves socializing, self-improvement and raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year for charity, Masonic leaders say.

But you only have to visit any number of anti-Masonic Web sites to find the darker claims of conspiracies to rule the world and undermine religion. A persistent rumor involves secret symbols in the map of the city.

Okay, it may seem silly to think of masons as undermining religion when the society has relatively little influence over the hearts and minds of anyone these days. But to describe them merely as supporters of "religious tolerance" gives precisely no weight to the claims and reasoning of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and many other churches that oppose masonry on religious grounds.

Which brings me to this fascinating Religion News Service piece on the same topic -- Dan Brown's new book and masonry.

As members of a secretive brotherhood, Freemasons are no strangers to conspiracy theories. They've heard it all before: that they're child-sacrificing cult members, or religious zealots plotting a New World Order with the Jews, or satanic anti-religious alien spies. . . .

Even though Brown (of "The Da Vinci Code" fame) and his publisher, Doubleday, are being tight-lipped about the book's contents, some Masons are preparing for an onslaught of negative press. And because Brown is known for tying religious themes to his thrillers' plots, Masons are carefully addressing common misconceptions about their religious affiliations.

"There is the basic question asked: Do you believe in God?" said Richard Fletcher, executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association of North America. "Beyond (requiring a belief in God), we're not a religion, and we don't pretend to be."

The RNS piece is fantastic and well worth a read but it reminded me that if we're all going to be Dan Browned and subjected to an onslaught of media discussion of masons, I just want to remind reporters that religious opposition to masonry is not actually related to child-sacrificing, alien-spying conspiracy theories. Also, there's a difference between claiming not to be a religion and having religious views that Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and other Christians find false. Without a shared definition of religion or religious, it means little to quote one side or the other. Maybe an exploration of actual views of masons and of their critics will be in order as we continue down this media juggernaut.

On that note, did you know the Amazon page for this book has a four-minute video of how the jacket for this book was made? Seriously. If there's that much interest in this schlock, the least we can do is have some good in-depth reporting on masons and Christianity's widespread objections to it.

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