Questioning Faith in “Angels and Demons”


by Marc T. Newman [critic]

When Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code premiered in the spring of 2006, Sony Pictures delivered the Church an unexpected gift. People who never would have attended a week-long evening series on Church History were flocking to seminars promising to expose The Da Vinci Code! As a result, millions of people learned more about the history of the Church, and delved more deeply into Christology than they otherwise might. A little confrontation is often just what the Church needs. Nothing raises the blood like battle – even in academic issues.

No one expected the prequel/sequel, Angels and Demons, to do anything like the box office of its predecessor, but the film did finish on top of its opening weekend, posting respectable numbers. As a piece of cinema, it is a much better thriller than The Da Vinci Code, though it is nowhere near as theologically confrontational. As a thriller, its story involves the kidnapping of four leading cardinals just as a conclave is about to commence to choose the new pope. The kidnapping is complicated by a threat, signed by the Illuminati, to annihilate most of Rome. Of course, apparently lacking symbologists of their own, the Vatican must call upon the services of Professor Robert Langdon to sniff out the clues and save the Church whose history and theology he has so recently maligned.

The controversy “revealed” in Angels and Demons (if it can even be called such) is that the Catholic Church has had an unfortunate history of persecuting scientists, and now (apologies for adapting the words of Reverend Wright) its “chickens have come home to roost.” Unfortunately for Catholic bashers, the chickens in question never really left the coop.

Enough has been written setting the record straight about the relationship between science and the Church that any interested person can find it by mounting even a cursory investigation. In How Should We Then Live, Francis Schaeffer explains how the development of the sciences was informed by a Judeo-Christian worldview.

What is of greater interest is the way that Angels and Demons identifies, and then glosses over, Professor Langdon’s responses to explicit questions regarding faith in God. Debates over the historical treatment of science by the Church are questions of fact that, with enough research and open minds among the participants, can be resolved. The results make for poor reading for the conspiracy-minded. But identifying the focus of an inquiry into the existence of God, recognizing the limits of the human mind, and determining the requirements for faith are essentials for every Christian wishing dialogue with unbelievers in the West. All three of these issues make an appearance in a single scene in Angels and Demons.

Focus on “Religion”

When Professor Langdon is ushered into the offices of the recently-deceased pope, he is met by Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, who is overseeing the pope’s office until the conclave selects a new pontiff. Langdon is seeking admission into the Vatican’s archives, but needs McKenna’s permission. Prior to rendering a decision, McKenna and Langdon have the following conversation:

McKenna: Do you believe in God, sir?

Langdon: Father, I simply believe that religion…

McKenna: I did not ask if you believe what man says about God, I asked if you believe in God.

Langdon: I’m an academic. My mind tells me I will never understand God.

McKenna: And your heart?

Langdon: Tells me I’m not meant to. Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive.

The first important element in the conversation is topical focus. McKenna wants to talk about God as a Person; Langdon does what many people do: he conflates the person of God with “religion.” When postmodern theorists began their project to identify morality, ethics, and metaphysics as cultural constructions, and to deny the connection between language and reality, barriers to belief were erected that are difficult for those with a postmodern academic mindset to overcome. If “God” is nothing more than a cultural construction of religionists, then we no longer have to deal with the messy problem of God’s objective existence. God ceases to be Someone with whom we interact, and becomes something that we examine, like an object in any other theoretical realm of study.

The common objections to a belief in God — that He is invisible, does not audibly speak to me, etc. — belie the fact we have evidence that He has spoken to people, and that He has appeared to, and interacted with them throughout history. Attempts to downplay these historic accounts, by (for example) attempting to render the Bible as nothing more than literature, violate the explicit claims of the book about itself. As Allan Bloom notes in The Closing of the American Mind, doing so demonstrates the rift that has occurred in the postmodern academic community between subject matter and the conception of truth. Bloom notes that the rationale for regarding the Bible as cultural object as opposed to transcendent revelation is that such people “wanted precisely to render the Bible, and other old books, undangerous.” The academy does not want to wrestle with truth claims that would stand in judgment over it.

The writer of Hebrews was very specific. Getting to God requires a belief in His objective existence: “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (11:6). So the question is not whether you believe in what people have proclaimed about God, but it is more fundamental. Refocusing away from religion and directly on the existence of God is where discussions of faith must begin. Langdon’s response to McKenna’s rejoinder reveals a second layer of resistance.

The Academic Dodge

Once McKenna clarifies the controversy, Langdon’s second response is that he is “an academic,” and that he will “never understand God.” As an academic myself, I take exception to the way Langdon begins his argument, as if announcing that you are an academic indicates, at best, agnosticism. Academics, viewers are meant to conclude, do not believe in God. Obviously history is replete with millions of people who were both believers and academics. The great majority of major European and American universities were founded by Christians. Up until the Enlightenment, when atheism became more “fashionable,” most physical scientists argued that their faith provided a foundation for their work. George Marsden, in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship explains the modern resurgence of explicitly Christian scholarship in the academy, and provides a blueprint for increasing success. Christians have never disappeared from the academy.

The second issue, that the mind will never understand God, is true in a sense, but not in the exclusionary way meant by Langdon. As a professor, Langdon appears to be arguing that because his mind cannot understand God, he cannot believe in God. The opposite condition would appear to be more of a problem. If a finite mind (and I am assuming that everyone believes that the human mind is finite as it is, at the very least, bounded by death) could grasp an infinite God, this would pose the problem of contradiction (the finite encompassing the infinite), and would lead to dismissal. Our default position, once we grant that part of the definition of God is omniscience, is that the human mind will never understand God. Nothing in the Scriptures requires that human beings fully understand God in order to believe in Him.

Conversely, we are not relegated to a blind leap of faith in the dark, either. There are plenty of reasons that are sufficient (if not exhaustive) to a belief in God. Unfortunately, just as ignorance about Church history made openings for the ridiculous pseudo-history of The Da Vinci Code, ignorance of apologetics makes way for the kind of claims Langdon makes in Angels and Demons. One of the problems plaguing the Church has been an incursion of “lifestyle books” replacing theology of the mind and apologetics in the lives of too many believers (and, unfortunately, into the curriculum of too many Sunday schools and Bible study groups). A couple of good, accessible remedies would be J.P. Moreland’s book, Love God With All Your Mind and Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics.

Lacking Faith?

The final question offered by McKenna is unfortunate. He asks Langdon to look into his heart, by which we are to assume he means into the seat of his emotions. First, the concept of the mind and the heart are generally indistinguishable in Scripture. At the very least, if distinctions are to be made, the emotions should follow knowledge, not the other way around.

McKenna also squanders a great opportunity. When Langdon admits that his heart “Tells me I’m not meant to. Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive,” the obvious response would have been: “Meant to by whom?” It is persons who mean. And even if you argue that faith is a gift reserved only for a few (I am making a distinction between general faith and what 1 Corinthians identifies as the specific “gift of faith”), doesn’t it presuppose God’s existence to indicate that you recognize it as a gift? A gift presupposes a giver.

How much faith is required to believe in God? As Jesus points out, it is not the size of a person’s faith (a mustard seed faith can remove mountains); it is the object. Langdon, in many respects, represents a literary character who has embraced the role described by Paul in his letter to Timothy, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). In The Da Vinci Code Langdon “discovers” evidence that rendered Jesus wholly human, rather than divine. In Angels and Demons he mixes truth with error to concoct an unreliable history of the Church which serves as justification to reject the claims of God on his life. The primary reason most people reject faith is not rampant unbelief; it is pride – the desire to be the final arbiter of all things and to bow the knee to no one. Langdon’s character is softened a bit in the film adaptations of Brown’s novels, a sop to believers who see the film. But he still leaves Angels and Demons with unbelief intact.

The Value of Bad Theology

The great advantage of Dan Brown’s novels and their film adaptations is that bad history and bad theology open the door for their counterparts. These are “event” movies that draw on patrons’ familiarity with the books to drive the box office. Christians who ignore the opportunity presented by such films are missing out on an opportunity to make “the most of your time because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). Doing so will require work, preparation, and study. The rewards of doing so are priceless. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 Marc T. Newman

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of and is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to

One Response to “Questioning Faith in “Angels and Demons””

  1. Johann Says:

    “…violate the explicit claims of the book about itself.”

    And you would have us start out by assuming that the book in question has an unquestionable authority which is in no need of substantiation or verification.

    That’s not what one does when interested in finding out the truth, Marc. Seems to me that you are the one who wants people to “turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” – so long as they are your myths.

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