Quote Unquote: ORIGIN by Dan Brown

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This week’s attempt at escapism was even lazier than usual, since it required no actual reading on my part but rather dipping in and out of the Audible app on my phone during the emptier moments of the day. You might call it “tactical” escapism, though I suspect it’s still just another tired synonym for procrastination. This week I decided to go for a writer I have somehow managed not to read thus far, that being Dan Brown, author of the best-selling Da Vinci Code. What can I say? The film came out before I got around to reading the book, and Dan Brown doesn’t exactly cut to the chase. Origin, one of his more recent works, does not yet have a film adaptation in the works, so it was one that had to be read. The fact that it takes place in Spain had nothing to do with it.

And on that humongous white lie, let’s dive in. Oh, and before you read on, I might add ***SPOILER ALERT***  (because it’s not an easy book to pick apart without giving away some pretty critical spoilers).


 

If you’ve read/seen The Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons, you’ll already be familiar with Brown’s clever plots. Expect the same in Origin. In fact, expect a lot of what you’ve seen before: a highly suspicious bishop, a strong, silent-type hit-man with an agenda, a glamorous female sidekick, a mind-blowing secret that you have to wait until the end to discover, and Doctor Who levels of sci-fi explanation. Edmond Kirsch, a billionaire futurist and Elon Musk by another name (Musk even gets a nod at one point), announces to the world that he is going to change what it means to be human (another moment Doctor Who fans might be familiar with), but is shot by a hidden assassin before he can make his ground-breaking reveal. It’s up to Robert Langdon, Kirsch’s one-time mentor, and the director of the Guggenheim Museum and future queen of Spain, Ambra Vidal, to finish the job, racing against the clock to deliver Kirsch’s discovery to the world. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the novel is Kirsch’s supercomputer, a sentient AI known as Winston, who guides the protagonists towards their goal with godlike success.

I’ll admit, I expected a little more from Origin than I got. I wasn’t actually all that bothered by the familiarity of the storyline, but for a book dealing with religion on Spanish soil, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed when the Muslim and Jewish characters were killed off early on and nothing was made of this. Fair enough, Spain is a primarily Catholic country, but Angels and Demons made such an exciting use of the spectre of the Illuminati that I went into Origin expecting some dark vestige of Spain’s bloody history to raise its head. Instead we got the Palmarian Church – an innovative introduction to most of us, but given its role in the story, hardly the most threatening or thought-provoking of obstacles. All the same, I enjoyed Brown’s modern, pop-culture-imbued writing style, as it is so far-removed from my usual material, which I am increasingly coming to see as verbose and out of touch (though the travel writings and adventure novels of the late 1800s and early 1900s will always hold a position of glory in my heart for the lexical skill of their writers).

I haven’t mentioned the role played by the Royal Family of Spain, largely because it is so insignificant to the main plot that it might as well have been a soap opera flickering away on a TV in the background. The ghost of Franco was conjured up – but for just a moment. Barcelona loomed into view – but nothing was made of the Catalans. The Spanish Inquisition was mentioned several times, and a terrorist attack on Spanish soil was explicitly detailed – but there was only ever one religion truly under fire all along. Brown has always been good at misdirection in his plots, and he was subverting expectations in Origin like Rian Johnson did with the new Star Wars movies.

The big reveal? Not as mind-blowing as I anticipated, I guess – but then, Kirsch set the stakes very high. When the truth came out at the end, I was surprised it unsettled the Parliament of the World’s Religions so much that they considered prematurely sabotaging his discovery before it could go public. I’m not all that firm a believer myself, but I didn’t find myself questioning my faith once: Kirsch’s expositions on the seventh kingdom and the origins of mankind were insightful, but not exactly earth-shattering. By this point in our history, a future where we share the world with, or perhaps even cede it to the silent sentience of artificial intelligence is more or less inevitable. What started out as a plot device for a 1970s sci-fi nightmare is now almost a matter of fact. My question is, why should that kind of knowledge shake the foundations of the faithful?

My journey with Catholicism is still in its infancy. That comes from growing up in a country which threw off the “shackles of the papacy” a long, long time ago. Though I live and work in a Catholic enclave, it is precisely that, an enclave. It’s easy to forget that, beyond the bubble, most of my countrymen don’t go to Mass on a Sunday, meatless Fridays aren’t the norm, and many of the rules and expectations that seem so normal seem out of date if not alien. Everybody has their own take on their own religion. For me, it’s a family affair. It’s my way of reaching out to my grandfather, a man I never knew, and to my cousins, uncles and aunts in Spain. It’s a way of sharing in that rich and beautiful legacy of ages. Futurists and scientists like Brown’s Edmond Kirsch take great delight in tearing down the temples of the ancients, but what are they doing if not building glass temples of their own in their stead, just as humans have delighted in doing for all time? Religion isn’t about rules and false truths. It’s about love.

My experiences as a student at a Kent grammar school, where daggers-drawn atheism was almost a state religion, actually gave me more of an appetite for a faith of my own. Ironically, my highly opinionated contemporaries pushed me towards God more readily than any beaming, hot-chocolate touting, guitar-strumming Christian Union friends ever did. I suppose what I objected to more than blind faith and the endless four-chord songs about some heavily distorted Western Jesus was the hostile rejection of hope, which has ever been my most treasured of core values (there’s a modern buzzword if ever there were one). And yes, in case it isn’t clear already, modern Christianity and I aren’t exactly a match made in heaven. Somebody once put it to me that Christian music adapted to suit a modern audience. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d take a hymnbook over guitar worship any day. I appreciate the staggering irony in that statement as a devotee of Gospel music, and I’m afraid I’ll have to hold up my hand as an all-too-human hypocrite on that count. For me, Gospel music has never been about a white Jesus who loves everybody, rather about bridging the gap between worlds and reveling in the rage, the sadness and the hope together with the joy of faith. Because that’s what faith is: perseverance in the face of insurmountable adversity. Kirsch, like many characters from my own past, went head to head with the world’s believers with a smug smile, believing he could sweep away the dark religions so that sweet science could reign. In doing so, he betrays his humanity: there are many for whom the most bitter of blows fall like rain upon their faith. Faith is not founded on facts. It comes from a deeper well.

I am one of those for whom the great questions – where do we come from? Where are we going? – have never held all that much interest. For most of our history, mankind has sought to make itself master of all things, seeking the logic and the reason behind everything in an attempt to bend it to his will, to subjugate it, for knowledge is power. And while I love to learn new things, I am no Kirsch. For me, the real beauty of faith is in the great mystery. There are some things that will forever be beyond my understanding. And I’m ok with that. It’s not so much “Jesus, take the wheel”. It’s more of a “I’m mysterious, folks. Deal with it.” Sometimes – as Rowan Atkinson’s character says in the 2005 film Keeping Mum – all we need is a little grace.

 


Favourite scene:

The chase scene in the Sagrada Familia was pretty spectacular. Brown knows how to pick a good setting, that’s for sure. There’s always something terrifying about the idea of fleeing from a searchlight – some “flight” instinct, buried deep, from a time before flashlights when we ran, ducked and weaved to get out of eyesight of predators who were after our blood, perhaps. Those were always the levels in video-games that scared me the most (Zelda: Wind WakerMetroid Fusion, Harry Potter etc). I digress. Brown’s assassin had a gun and had just killed a man with his bare hands, but that torch in his hands was his most frightening weapon by far. To survive, Langdon and Vidal had to keep in the shadows. Add that to their escape taking place within a cathedral as bizarre and unorthodox as the Sagrada Familia and it makes for a truly terrifying pursuit.

 


Favourite character:

Winston is far and away the standout success in Origin. Think HAL voiced by Stephen Fry. Educated, intelligent and eerily human, Winston is immediately likable from his first appearance. In fact, I found him such an interesting character that I felt a real sense of loss when Langdon and Vidal lost contact with him at a certain point in the narrative. I had my suspicions about the whole monte@iglesia affair, but the twist that he was the mastermind behind it all hit me like a sucker punch. I didn’t stop liking him for it. In fact, I found him an even more interesting character by far. And that recurring trait of his awkward laugh was a stroke of genius: endearing in its first appearance, terrifying in its last. Origin could be criticised for being a recycling of Brown’s old plots, but his Oxford-educated HAL makes it worth every page.


Favourite Quotes:

“The devout can always benefit from listening to non-believers. It is in hearing the voice of the Devil that we can better appreciate the voice of God.”

Zeus, more than any other god, resisted his own extinction, mounting a violent battle against the dying of his own light, precisely as had the earlier gods Zeus had replaced.

“I’ve been taking confessions for fifty years. I know a lie when I hear one.”

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God in the High Places

“You can’t help but wonder what compelled anybody to build a monastery way up there on the mountain.”

For just a moment in their hour-long conversation about real estate, American sitcoms and friends who had near scrapes with cancer, a Californian woman on the train remarks to her companion on the mystery of the world heritage site they have been visiting, as it speedily slides out of sight as the train turns a corner. It lasts but a moment; within seconds they’re discussing Ellen DeGeneres’ Instagram and Oprah’s twitter feed.

I’ve always been amazed by karst ever since my first visit to El Torcal when I was a kid. It affected me so much that it became the setting for one of the main episodes in my book, and I have spent much of my adult life dreaming of finding similar geological wonders around the world. But if El Torcal was beautiful, the jagged mountains of Montserrat were impressive on a whole other level. The name itself – serrated mountain – tells of its stark, toothlike appearance, standing high above the lowlands around Barcelona. That on a clear day you can see them from the city itself only adds to their majesty.

Small wonder, then, that the monks of eleventh century Catalonia saw fit to build a monastery there, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

There was a rush for the first train at 8.35am, but on arrival in Monistrol, the town at the foot of the mountain, they all herded straight onto the cable car and rack railway services without a second’s thought. Alone, carrying my lunch under one arm and my sketchbook under the other, I began the two hour climb up the mountainside.

It was quiet on the way up. The kind of quiet I haven’t heard since the last time I climbed a mountain, now almost two years ago. Cirl buntings and greenfinches chattered in the bushes, treecreepers and blue tits sang from the woods, and every so often the croak of a raven came in on the wind. Only the intermittent rattle of the train in the valley below broke the spell. It was an old place, and it felt that way for much of the climb.

The mid morning bells were ringing as I rounded the last bend in the track and began the final ascent towards the monastery. It was, of course, like most scenic places of worship, completely crawling with tourists. Three coach-loads of French schoolkids arrived just as I did, and a huge Chinese group of over a hundred-strong with their pike square of selfie sticks made getting up the narrow walkway to the monastery grounds a slow and uneasy business. Never mind the obnoxiously loud Americans, the even louder Italians, and the ridiculously dressed young Briton, almost as red-faced as his bright red shorts as he wandered around with his sketchbook. That is, of course, me.

Not for the first time I found myself wishing I could step back in time, to a time before mass tourism, when you could stay in the monastery for around the cost of a single euro (or equivalent). When, looking out across the hills of Barcelona towards the sea, you wouldn’t see motorways and industrial sites, but green hills and church towers lining the Llobregat river. In my very British way, I pined for the pastoral glory of days long gone.

I could not find God in the monastery itself, so I gathered my things and set off up into the mountains instead. Only twenty minutes out, with the monastery still in sight, it was calm again, and I was back in the silence. Which, I suppose, is precisely why the Benedictine monks of Montserrat chose to build such a wonder so far removed from society. To retreat is to escape from the world. Perhaps that’s why it struck me as so strange that a place of reflective retreat had become such a magnet for mass tourism. But mankind is all alike, in some respects; what occurs to one wandering mind must also occur to a dozen others. And who is to say any one person has more of a right to go?

Nowadays there’s this widespread notion that God is everywhere. He loves you, so naturally he is everywhere. He resides in every man and woman, every street corner, every kiosk, every artificial tree. Is it because he’s become so much a part of the everyday that so many people have forgotten him? When was the last time you really took stock of a kiosk?

The ancients believed that God could be found in the holy places: a high mountain, a desert oasis or a tree said to be older than time itself. I wonder whether if we stopped imagining that he is everywhere for a moment and instead went to seek him in the wilderness, as the ancients did, we might at least find that small measure of peace that resides in the high places of the world. For if he is the God of love, so too is he the God of peace. The Monastery of Montserrat might have sold its peace in part to the tourism industry, but wander a little higher up into the mountains beyond and you might begin to get a sense for why it is that God of old chose the wilderness. BB x

Searching for God

I’m not a Christian. At least, not in the truest sense of the word. Insofar as my upbringing is concerned, I guess I don’t fall under any category other than Church of England, but when the occasional questionnaire gets handed my way, I tick the box marked ‘agnostic’ without a second’s thought. Only if that’s not an option, and it usually is, Christianity gets my vote over the ‘no religion’ box. Why does this matter? Because today I found myself, once again, in a position where it made more sense to come down on one side of the fence. ‘Christian’ simply makes a lot more sense than ‘no religion’. Strong words for a not-so strong belief, don’t you think?

Let me explain (you’d better get comfortable). I was baptised as a Christian. Church of England. Standard fare. I had a fairly regular English upbringing. I attended a Church of England primary school. I went to church every Christmas and Easter, like almost everyone else. The only minor difference was that my parents both had various musical roles in their respective churches, which meant that I probably spent more time in church than most kids my age. It just so happened that one of them was Canterbury Cathedral, where my dad was a lay-clerk. I guess you get a little blasé about that kind of thing when evensong is a biweekly venture. Not to mention all the school carol services held there. It certainly made the local church back home seem a little small by comparison, though I have warmer memories of that. When I was little I went to church every other Sunday, or at least when Mum played the organ. The memories get a little fuzzy sometimes; this is reaching quite a way back into my childhood. I remember only that I used to sit behind the choir near the organ pipes, and you could hear the organ humming long after everyone had filed out of church and Mum took her hands off the keys. Between that and the old gas heater glowing a dim red in the corner, I have this musty image of your run-of-the-mill Church of England parish tucked away in my head. That’s my strongest memory of the early days, at least. Nothing particularly special. I wasn’t even old enough to sit in the choir then, but I knew most of the hymns well enough, especially the ones they used to roll out on the projector at school. Morning has Broken, for one.

Fast-forward on a few years and it gets a little more interesting. Moving back to England from a year abroad in Spain finds me singing in the church choir in my new home town. It’s nothing more than something to do, I suppose, as I have little else to do at the weekends but go birdwatching down at Stodmarsh or Sandwich Bay – I’m still too young to be thinking about girls or going out – but it pays my first wages, and it feels ‘sort of right’. Right enough to take that next C of E step and decide to get ‘confirmed’. It’s not as big a deal as it is over in Spain, with the sailor suits and all the bells and whistles that go with it, but like I said, it seemed like ‘the right thing to do’. And the other kids in the choir were a lovely bunch, too.

Then along comes my early teenage years, a girlfriend and the beginning of a new approach: evangelicalism. She got me into it, I suppose, but it was something I took to with relish. Prayer and worship, spiritual healing, speaking in tongues… It was a brand new world and I loved every second of it. Ever heard of Soul Survivor? That kind of thing. It was a far cry from ‘open your hymn-books to Hymn no. 348‘ or what-have-you, at the very least. I might even go so far as to say that, for a little while, I even believed it. But it was the people that really made it for me, not the spiritual side of it. Just like playing the violin, the practising of which I had come to loathe, it was more the sense of community that went with it that I craved: the orchestra over the recital, and the worship group over the prayers. I guess you could say I built my house on the sand. Little wonder, then, that it all came crashing down with the end of that relationship. Coincidentally, it was raining that night, too.

I wandered for a while. I asked a lot of questions. I even stopped saying prayers at night, realising that most of them had been selfish anyway – especially the later ones. If not selfish, then love-blind at the very least. Eventually I returned, somewhat shame-faced, to my local church youth group, whom I’d abandoned for almost a year and a half. That was where I met Seth and Jenny Cooper, the Walmer Parish, and Katherine, that everlasting beacon, who showed me that there was more to life than a constant search for answers. For a little while longer, I continued to carry the flag, stronger than before. I was happy. But it was not to last. A series of unfortunate events came as the second hammer blow to my faith. I started to read about the Empire, and all the horrors that had been wrought in the name of God. My brother was assaulted on the way home from school. And Katherine, ever the kindling flame, went out of my life. A few weeks later, I gave up altogether.

As a true Christian, that was my final chapter. I had another fling with the Church in Uganda – ain’t no party like an African Baptist Prayer and Worship Party – but that was little more than a dalliance. Back in England, on the gap year that seemed like it would never end, faith eluded me. Mum, on the other hand, found her way to the Catholic Church and embarked upon what she has described as the ‘road her whole life had been leading towards’. I coveted that, I suppose. It wasn’t her new-found happiness of hers that I wanted, but that contented state of mind. Structured. Ordered. At peace. At one. Something that I’ve struggled with in all the hypocrisies of my life for the last seven years. Her faith gave her life a new meaning. I’d been looking for that meaning for a while with no such luck. People say that ‘finding yourself’ is the first step on the road to that level of understanding. If I could have ‘found myself in Africa’ as so many jokingly think I did, I’d probably have more of an idea as to where exactly I am right now. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, as God knows how lost I’d have been – I didn’t, and the search continues. Right up until last night, when I found myself sitting in an Iraqi church, listening to a Californian preacher explaining the meaning of John 3:16 whilst a translator conveyed it to the congregation in Arabic. Talk about a new way of looking at things!

Now we come to the heart of the matter. I’m not a Christian, like I said at the start. I might have been once, but for a token gesture or two of late, I’m not labelling material at the moment. I can go through the motions like a mynah bird, of course, but that’s got more to do with habit and observation than anything else. That, and a burning desire to believe, whenever that day comes. Until it does, everything seems false. To pray to a God you don’t believe in with all of your heart, with all of your soul – does that not seem a bit ingenuous? That’s not to say I’m not religious, though. Given the choice I’d rather be spiritual than to disbelieve entirely. I’ll put it this way: there’s a hole in my heart that’s waiting for faith. I just haven’t found it yet.

I’ve had this discussion/argument with Andrew recently. I put it to him that I’d be happier not knowing all the answers; that sometimes it’s better to stop asking questions and to have a little faith in what you can’t see; that some things, like as not, are necessarily beyond our understanding. It goes against a great deal of my character, and I think he took umbrage at that, but it’s a principle I try to stick to, and as far as I’m concerned it’s connected to the most fundamental principle of all: hope. I swear by it. There is no greater sin in my book than despair. I might not have the staying power that others prize – indeed, if something is beyond my capability (or, more often, interest) I’m more likely than not to throw up my arms and walk away – but I never truly give up on the inside. And as long as that’s the case, I’d like to believe I still have a chance.

Faith lies somewhere along the road, of that much I’m sure. Wherever it may be is, for the time being, beyond my understanding. And that’s not a bad thing. I tried to find it out here, but for all the strength of the community and the goodwill of the people, it continues to elude me. Maybe I’m being picky. Maybe I’m looking too hard. I don’t know. I’ve just got to keep trying.

I leave you (and this gargantuan post, which is approaching essay length as the clock strikes twenty minutes to midnight) with the only Bible verse I’ve consigned to heart, as it speaks to me on much the same level as it ever did five years ago, when first I found it:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5

I wonder whatever happened to Katherine? I hope her light is still shining brightly for the rest of the world, wherever she is. BB x

Not All Those Who Wander Are Flossed

It’s just taken me about an hour and a half to wade through the latest Arabic text for tomorrow’s class. With a night of karaoke at the Marriott Hotel on the cards for this evening, I don’t exactly have the ‘I’ll do it later’ gambit at my disposal.

First off I want to apologise for a very rocky week or two of bipolar posting (some of you noticed, I gather…). The mid-term fury is over and things have settled back to the way they were before, helped along the way by much meditation, H.R. Haggard and Karl Jenkins. Ouch, that’s a painfully middle-class sentence. Life in Amman rumbles slowly onwards, the daily Arabic homework’s still coming in thick and fast and the Versailles branch of the British Council still haven’t told Andrew where he’s going. Business as usual. I took an entire weekend out to deal with my restless psyche and it seems to have paid off. It meant missing out on a couple of parties, but for the sake of my bleeding heart, it was worth it. So if you were feeling the strain of my sine-wave posts over the last week or so, fret not; the dust has settled. It should be a little easier on the eye from here on out.

It’s been a fairly productive couple of days, which means we haven’t had that many adventures; but that’s no bad thing. I saw our first clouds in a month or so the other day, and what a sight for sore eyes that was. You’d be surprised how uplifting it was to see a speck of grey on the horizon for once. Blue skies are lovely and all that, but when you’ve had temperatures balancing out over the high thirties for almost three weeks without cease, a cool breeze is a welcome miracle. There was supposed to be a thunderstorm, which we all got super excited about, but it never came. Instead, the sky went a very queer shade of brown and a mild sandstorm swept through the streets. No rain. One of the strangest weather phenomenons I’ve ever seen. We got the full force of the stifling storm heat, though; the temperature soared up into the mid forties. My insides felt like they were being cooked every time I stepped outside and there was a weird charge in the air. Mostly we found ourselves retreating to our various homes to sit like idol-worshippers before the air-con until the sun decided to call it a day. Even then it often carried on long into the night, that stuffy, all-pervading heat. The blankets had to go. How they’ve lasted this long is anyone’s guess. BBC Weather’s been getting an unnatural number of hits from our flat, at any rate. They say there’s a 51% chance of precipitation tomorrow. Good news takes the strangest forms…

I finally got around to sending off an email to the school I’ll be teaching at in Extremadura. I’ve had it written for the best part of a week and a half, but for some reason I never hit the send button. I guess I wanted to be dead-certain on the grammar, but in the end I just had to be happy with what I’d written, bite the bullet and hit SEND. With any luck, I’ll get a reply at some point before I arrive in September. So that’s pretty cool. In the meantime I’m keeping my teacher senses trained with this project of ours at the Iraqi church Andreas got me in on last week. The last session must have gone down well enough, because we had double the numbers this time. We’ll have to call in reinforcements at this rate. Parts of the body this week, following on from the previous lesson on going to the hospital. Getting the groups to use the vocab to compliment each other was a great idea, and also highly amusing. Apparently eyebrows are a valuable commodity. Or maybe they were just trying to get their heads around the pronunciation. I’d like to believe the former. Having to explain the difference between diarrhea and constipation in the politest possible way is definitely going down as one of the most entertaining moments of my teaching career. Something along the lines of ‘let’s say you eat a bad falafel, and it goes right through you… and for the other one, well, it doesn’t quite go right through you…’. British humour. It never gets old.

This church is just about the best thing that’s happened to me out here, though. It’s the one thing I’d return to Jordan for, given the chance. Maybe this is the beginning of a spiritual journey, maybe not. I hope so, at any rate. I’ve been waiting for my chance for so very long now, ever since I left that world behind almost six years ago… I’ll be dropping by three times a week from now on, twice for class and once for the service, so things should start to look up. And that’s a real slice of good news.

Bummer, I’m out of toothpaste. Looks like I really will have to resort to this weird Arab brand I picked up in the corner shop last week. At least it smells nice. After Morocco I’m none too keen to follow up on any of these traditional Arabian dental practices. BB x

The moment we thought Andrew’s placement might have come through…