The Magazine

Novel Gods

A pair of bestsellers roll their own religion.

Sep 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 02 • By CYNTHIA GRENIER
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Brown's earlier novel, "Angels and Demons"--which features a pope committing suicide in a burst of flames on a balcony in St. Peter's Basilica--shows an equal disregard for historical accuracy and a marked hostility to the Catholic Church. But it has risen high on the paperback-bestseller list this summer, thanks presumably to the success of "The Da Vinci Code." It's really very naughty of Brown and his publishers to try to pass this gallimaufry off simply by sprinkling actual historical names and details here and there.

MEANWHILE, this year's other religious bestseller, Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," has the partial merit of being reasonably well written, a small cut above most pop-thriller fiction. Fourteen-year-old Susie, the narrator, was brutally raped and murdered, but she can stay around Earth, observing and growing up, and even experiencing a wonderful vicarious sexual encounter.

While Susie keeps an eye on her beloved family, she and some other young women who also met untimely ends go to high school in a sort of vague Purgatory, but a nice high school that every teenage female in Sebold's world no doubt dreams of: no schoolbooks, no homework, but lots of pretty women's fashion magazines to browse through. When Susie finally makes it to Heaven (a fairly nebulous process, incidentally), she declares, in case any of us here on earth might have any doubts: "Heaven is fun." And Susie--not God, as He is nowhere present in this work--deals out punishment herself, finally wreaking vengeance upon her rapist.

There is, it must be said, something frankly obscene about these works offering their jejune comfort in the world as we find it today. Early in the twentieth century, Max Weber regretted a world from which "the ultimate and sublime values" had been withdrawn. Where are those "ultimate and sublime values" today when we need them more than ever?

Cynthia Grenier is a writer in Washington, D.C.