- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

Easter is a time for reflection. Reflection can lead to questions, mysteries even — such as that of the mystery of why exploiting Christianity in thrillers is all the rage.

As with all tricky recipes, the art to this literary genre consists in making the cooking look simple. Take a long-standing, but preferably only vaguely understood, theological conundrum. Add a talented, bright hero and heroine. Pit them against an all but omnipotent organization with a long, deep history and limitless resources. Contrive for them a struggle involving detailed tasks rife with history that also are easy to skim. Conclude with a victory that enables the good guys to be magnanimous and the reader to feel vindicated, justified and a wee bit smug.

It has been open season on Christian mysteries the past few years. The easy target for the genre’s critics is Dan Brown. The more difficult culprit is our own apparent readiness, evidenced in the millions of copies sold, to swallow whole sweeping, increasingly far-fetched Bible-related conspiracy theories.

The credulity being exploited by these tales is more than the normal suspension of disbelief that is essential to any storytelling. For many readers, and some authors, this is about confirmation that the Church and Christianity are as corrupt as they’ve always suspected. This is fiction as proof, thriller as testament.

We’ve seen “The Da Vinci Code” clones centered on the Shroud of Turin, the fatherhood of Christ, Gnostic Gospels, the Knights Templar, Mary Magdalene, the veracity of the Old Testament, the Cathar heresy, the Last Supper and, of course, underpinning them all, the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday.

The appeal of the genre isn’t that hard to discern. We live in an age of paranoia, especially about all-powerful bodies with deep secrets. Add to this our relish for trivia of all kinds and politically correct targets, and you have guaranteed mass appeal. There is money to be made, lots of it, mocking, caricaturing or simply feeding into people’s prejudices about Catholics, Christians and Christianity.

But even if the genre continues to thrive commercially — and given the publishing industry’s periodic salivating about “the next Dan Brown,” there is no sign of fading — the obvious question remains: How many Christian mysteries are left to be done?

As with any maturing trend, the low-lying fruit has been plucked already — after all, debunking the God in Jesus is by far the biggest undertaking. Granted, there are endless variations on the nature of the conspiracy pushing the idea of Jesus as God, but after awhile, the idea grows repetitive, the literary equivalent of been there, done that.

Maybe the focus should shift from basic theology and venture deeper into Church politics. Where’s the thriller based on the intrachurch conspiracies that were really behind Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg — with its delicious subplot of whether he actually ever nailed them and why the story was spread that he did. The narrative potential for a centuries-old plot coming to fruition today is huge.

Or maybe the attention should move further from the mainstream Christian churches. Where’s the noir take on the visitations of the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith in 1823? Why hasn’t some genre author tackled the possible fundamentalist-capitalist cabal hiding the truth for nearly 200 years while secretly manipulating genealogical research? The set scenes of the final conflict in Moab, Utah, seem irresistible.

There’s also the relatively unplowed ground of Buddhism. Who was Siddhartha Gautama anyway? What happened to the dynasty he abandoned in search of enlightenment? Has it remained a secret pan-Asian government with its ambition set on conquering the West? Let your imagination roam, and the vision of a young Jerry Falwell-like superhero taking up the defense of Chrisitanity will make the nerves tingle and the studio execs salivate over the prospect of their own Narnia or Left Behind franchise.

To date, Islam has its own form of the religious mystery, but books such as “The Last Jihad,” “The Afghan” and “The Faithful Spy” are really war-on-terror-novels. You’d imagine that the split between Sunni and Shia, the Prophet’s ascent into heaven atop the White Stallion from Al Aqsa Mosque, or the prophesied coming of the Madhi all would make great source material for a would-be Islamic Dan Brown.

Of course, part of the inevitable reaction to this new line of “religious thrillers” will parallel the response to the Da Vinci Code. Serious clerics and sober theologians will leap to the defense of the faith and quick observations about the secularization of society at large. For as many clones of the Dan Brown tome as there are, there are an equal number of books demonstrating why Dan Brown is wrong, misguided or mischievous. So when the first conspiracy novel about the Zoroastrian plots to subvert the United Nations and seize Iran as a homeland hits the stand, count on a backlash.

It would only be fair, right? This is at least partly an age of religious pluralism. All religions supposedly are entitled to equal respect. Every faith’s truth claim is as valid as any other.

The odds are this isn’t going to happen, or at least not soon. The Christian thriller isn’t about fairness; it is about money and cynicism. Christians are easy targets; that the thrillers debase the language of and respect for the Church is just gravy. It feeds the genre, justifies the next text. Tackling the other faiths requires too much imagination, too much effort.

Peter Kavanagh is a senior producer with CBC Radio in Toronto.

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