Compared to The Da Vinci Code hype in 2006, Angels & Demons has barely registered a blip on the pop culture radar. With the new Dan Brown adaptation opening in theaters May 15, director Ron Howard attempted to stir up controversy when he accused the Roman Catholic Church of obstructing his filming. The usual suspects have obliged movie publicists with anti-Brown polemics. But so far the Vatican has resisted the urge to join the fray. The semi-official Vatican weekly L'Osservatore Romano declined to cite the movie's many historical inaccuracies. Instead, a reviewer described it as a basic big-budget action flick with stereotypical characters. At least this time the church sides with Brown's good guys, namely Robert Langdon, played once again by Tom Hanks.

Strategically, it's hard to argue with the Vatican's approach. Vocal Christian opposition to The Da Vinci Code largely served to stoke reader and moviegoer interest. Much the same happened, of course, when the Anti-Defamation League, The New York Times, and others faulted Mel Gibson for The Passion of Jesus Christ. By contrast, agnosticism breeds apathy. A little culture-war controversy might have bolstered the bottom line for The Nativity Story. America magazine blogger Michael Sean Winters captured this mood when he urged Catholics not to expect historical accuracy from Angels & Demons.

"So, go to the movie or don't go to the movie," Winters wrote. "Your soul, and the soul of our culture, is not at stake here."

Mark Moring echoed a similar sentiment for the Christianity Today Movies blog.

"Nobody's forcing anybody to watch the movie, or even believe anything that's being portrayed," Moring wrote. "If it's not your thing, skip it. If it is, then enjoy it for what the Vatican's newspaper is calling it: 'harmless entertainment.'"

The staff of Christian History magazine wrestled with these same issues in 2003 when considering response to The Da Vinci Code novel. We ultimately decided to capitalize on the opportunity to teach readers about church history. We explored what happened at the Council of Nicea and how the New Testament documents were compiled. Intense reader interest made this little primer the site's most-read article between November 2003 and the movie's release in 2006. I received hundreds of e-mail messages commending and condemning the article. Some scoffed at me for treating a thriller novel seriously. Others thanked me for helping them learn about Arius, Gnosticism, Constantine, and other key figures and issues from the early church.

But many, if not most, accused me of participating in the church cover-up Brown has exposed in his novels. Brown has a brilliant talent for mixing fact and fiction in a compelling narrative format. Those who dismiss him as a mere novelist underestimate the medium and misunderstand his stated, explicit intent. In an interview about Angels & Demonsposted on his website, Brown repeatedly appealed to "many modern historians," "many historians," and "most academics" to bolster his arguments. "It is historical fact that the Illuminati vowed vengeance against the Vatican in the 1600's," Brown claimed. He explained that he got the idea for the book when touring secret tunnels in Vatican City.

"According to the scholar giving the tour, one of the Vatican's most feared ancient enemies was a secret brotherhood known as the Illuminati–the 'enlightened ones'–a cult of early scientists who had vowed revenge against the Vatican for crimes against scientists like Galileo and Copernicus," Brown recalled. "I was fascinated by images of this cloaked, anti-religious brotherhood lurking in the catacombs of Rome. Then, when the scholar added that many modern historians believe the Illuminati is still active today and is one of most powerful unseen forces in global politics, I knew I was hooked...I had to write an Illuminati thriller."

Before the book had circulated widely, readers began writing Brown in shock as they learned the supposed facts behind his fiction. Brown himself encourages this pursuit. "My goal is always to make the character's [sic] and plot be so engaging that readers don't realize how much they are learning along the way," Brown wrote.

To be sure, not many moviegoers want or expect to learn from a summer action flick. Angels & Demons certainly isn't worthy of the church's ire. If anything, discerning Christians might take the opportunity to explore the complex history of the relationship between faith and science. They might wisely choose to ignore Brown altogether. But they should not misunderstand his motives or the powerful effects of popular media on an uninformed audience.

Angels and Demons production photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.