Ross Douthat expresses his concern about the state of American religion by giving us marketing advice about why Dan Brown’s work (and his latest film, Angels and Demons), is so popular:

[I]f you want to sell a 100 million [books], you need to preach as well as entertain — to present a fiction that can be read as fact, and that promises to unlock the secrets of history, the universe and God along the way.

Was equating religion and marketing intentional or a Freudian slip? At least Douglas Adams’, Life, the Universe, and Everything, had verve and a sense of humor. Mr. Douthat writes like Marvin in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

If Ross is correct about what it takes to sell 100 million books, his logic should apply to the works of J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. Imagine how that would reassure the religious audience Mr. Douthat writes for. Ross also takes Dan Brown’s self-promotion at face value. I’m sure Mr. Brown is grateful. But that he can so mesmerize a NY Times pundit explains his ability to sell books better than does Ross Douthat’s claim that it requires "unlocking the secrets of history, the universe and God".

Not knowing his politics, I can’t say whether Brown would agree with Douthat that his work has parallels with that of Ayn Rand and Deepak Chopra. To say that he has more verisimilitude than Rand and more depth than Chopra would be damning with faint praise. For Mr. Douthat, though, it’s all about marketing religion: Brown’s success comes from how his stories mirror Americans’ religious views:

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true.

Now why would a successful novelist (or a political strategist) mix fact and fancy and themes from popular culture in order to create a fictional world of heroes and villains, damsels and the damned? Is Douthat angry because of Brown’s commercial success, because he isn’t writing speeches for Michael Steele or because Americans have an eclectic religiosity that’s becoming divorced from any single, exclusive religion? Or is he just confused that novelists write fiction.

The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of Christ that Brown is peddling…nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.

That’s quite a mouthful, starting with how different the first three gospels are from John. One could carry it forward to how different is the historical Jesus from the Christian churches’ Christ. (A premise of Brown’s fiction.) In the end, though, Douthat fails to explain Brown’s popularity and simply rails against it.

The buried lede is the continuing power of films (such as Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code) to distract us from a dangerous, disappointing, fearful reality. Fortunately, Bob Herbert doesn’t bury his ledes. Today, he writes about the toll that war and repetitive tours of duty are having on the men and women in our armed forces, how little that seems to affect us, and how wrong that is:

A CBS News survey found that veterans aged 20 to 24 were two to four times as likely to commit suicide as nonveterans the same age. A Time magazine cover story last year disclosed that “for the first time in history, a sizable and growing number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

We’re brutally and cold-bloodedly sacrificing the psychological well-being of these men and women, which should be a scandal. If these wars are so important to our national security, we should all be engaging in some form of serious sacrifice, and many more of us should be serving.

Now that’s a column – and an argument – worth reading.