I haven’t been writing posts lately about most of the popular fiction I read. I read mostly for enjoyment, and in the case of the audiobooks, to occupy my mind while driving. There’s not a lot to say, really, about a book like The Last Templar in terms of plot or characterization. It’s interesting, and I enjoyed the historical aspects of the book (while being grateful that it wasn’t as graphic about the tortures inflicted on the Templar leader, Jacques de Molay, as one of the books I read a year or two ago) as well as the mystery and adventure of the present-day story.
But it is the thematic aspects of the book that I reacted strongly to. At the center of the action is the quest to find (or prevent from being found, depending on which side a character is on) a valuable object hidden by the Templars before the destruction of their order. (Note: the rest of this post discusses the object and its significance, which aren’t revealed until the latter part of the novel, so don’t continue reading if you don’t want to know what it is.)
The object turns out to be a journal, allegedly written by one Jesus of Nazareth, and believed to be proof that he was just a man, not the divine Son of God. How such a journal could prove that I don’t know. A man who did not believe himself to be divine would not write things like “I do not believe I am divine” because it would not occur to him that anyone would think he was. And according to orthodox Christian belief, Jesus was fully human (as well as fully divine), so if he had written a journal, it could easily read much like the journal of any other Jewish carpenter (if they kept journals).
But the characters all seem convinced that the appearance of the journal would disprove the central doctrines of the Christian religion, destroy the faith of millions of people, and bring down the Catholic Church. For one man, bitter at the tragedy in his life which he blames on the Church he once trusted, that is precisely the goal. For a small group of cardinals at the Vatican, that possibility must be prevented at all costs. Both sides will stop at nothing, even murder, to accomplish their goals.
The main characters, an FBI agent and an archeologist, each have conflicting interests in the matter. The FBI agent needs to capture the man he thinks responsible for several murders, while also doing what is right in terms of his Catholic faith, which has been a very important part of his life. The archeologist deals in facts, not faith, and has trouble understanding why the FBI agent, who also must deal in facts in his job, is able to accept the unverifiable assumptions at the heart of his religion. She is interested in the search for the Templars’ treasure because it would be the biggest archeological find in decades. And of course the two develop a romantic interest in one another which further complicates matters.
All that makes for good character development and meaningful conflicts for them to work through. But I couldn’t help being repeatedly surprised that no one challenged the notion that the discovery of a journal supposedly written by Jesus would devastate the lives of Christians worldwide as they realized that their faith was meaningless. I am sure that many Christians would dismiss it as a forgery, no matter how many experts claimed to have authenticated it.
And there are many theological liberals who do not consider Jesus’ divinity to be at the center of their faith. I grew up in such a church, and was welcomed as a member at age 14, despite my statement (in a personal credo I had to prepare as part of the confirmation process) that I did not believe Jesus was God. People of that church would not be considered Christians by many theological conservatives, but they consider themselves to be Christians, and I’m sure there are many like them whose faith in God would not be particularly troubled by a discovery such as this novel describes.
I have no idea to what extent, if at all, any of the religious ideas expressed in the novel reflect the personal views of author Raymond Khoury. There’s obviously an audience for books that purport to reveal secrets that have been hidden for centuries, and a lot of readers probably don’t care much how much historical accuracy there is. Khoury does mix in enough facts to make it sound realistic, and no doubt many readers are already convinced that the New Testament writings are more fiction than fact, quite apart from any new discoveries.
And one character’s contention that it would be better for people to believe in themselves than in the God of ancient religious texts would certainly appeal to many people today. Though exactly what is meant by “believing in themselves” is not made clear. Often the beliefs about God and Jesus that are rejected by people today are more of a caricature of Christian belief, and such caricatures are rightly rejected.
What bothered me most, though, was the idea that it would be better to let people go on believing a lie because it has done so much good for them and it would do more harm than good to tell them the truth. Faith, it is supposed, is a positive thing in and of itself, its benefits independent of the truth or falsehood of the beliefs that gave rise to it. And there was a time, when I was a teenager, when I probably would have agreed. But that is having faith in faith, not faith in God.
I doubt that anyone’s mind is likely to be changed by reading Khoury’s book. Those who agree with his ideas will applaud them, those already doubting will find fuel for their doubts, and those who have a good background in apologetics will see the weaknesses in the arguments made against the historicity of the Gospels. But the fact that such novels are so popular must say something about the spiritual condition of our culture.