All you 33rd-level MeFite Masons, holla back.
October 11, 2009 2:18 PM   Subscribe

So I've just finished "The Lost Symbol," and would like to pick the brain of all of you Masonic MeFites. Spoilers aplenty within.

Just finished the new Dan Brown book this morning. (Yeah, I know.) It was, as I expected, a really fun ride that raised a lot of interesting historical issues without giving footnotes for any of them. Most of the ones I'm interested in deal with freemasonry, so I'd love to hear from any Masons that could offer an opinion.

My dad was a Mason, so I grew up understanding the mystery and the secrecy and all that. I was fascinated by his books, but I always had the gut feeling that the secret was, "There is no secret so we pretend we have a secret." The Lost Symbol kinda bears this out, but kinda doesn't.

So I'd like to hear general thoughts from Masons/family members of Masons/researchers/etc. on the book and its subject matter, but also am interested in some specific points:

* Is there really a belief within the Masonic communtiy - and without, I suppose - that the Bible is a coded document with deeper wisdom than it suggests on the surface? (I remember that "Bible Code" nonsense from 10 years ago, but this book hints at something much more grand/metaphorical)

* The video described toward the end of the book - the one with the fake murder sequence and all - does that stuff really take place?

* Are there any things ascribed to Freemasonry in this book that are particularly egregious in how inaccurate they are? On the other hand, are there things that Brown got right that the public is hearing for the first time?

* The book portrays Freemasonry as being intensely devoted to the pursuit of higher knowledge and spiritual growth. Everything I've encountered about the movement from my (localized) first-hand experience tends to be very social. What is the modern Freemason experience like, and what does it emphasize?
posted by jbickers to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
There are many beliefs in esoteric secrets. Many (most?) occultists view the Bible as a coded document; Kabbalah is an esoteric sect; and Gnosticism was (and is) founded around the idea of hidden and revealed truths. Even secular writers like Leo Strauss—who heavily influenced neo-Conservatism—espouse esotericism. Masonry certainly has its secrets, as well.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:31 PM on October 11, 2009


I think that when Harvard eventually gets around to setting up a Department of Symbology based on Dan Brown's original concept (duh! what took them so long?) they'll probably offer a directed reading seminar in Dan Brown studies, which should answer your questions.

Until then, there's always The Centre for Research into Freemasonry.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:40 PM on October 11, 2009


My personal experience is somewhat distant by now (grand-grandfather was some sort of low-ranked mason according to family lore), but it might interest you still. Around here in South America, masonry and other similar "occult associations" have a long history of being political vehicles for persecuted groups. In that current, their occult component tended to be minimal except for a few people. They tended to help each other when dealing with the plutocratic/kleptocratic establishment that persecuted them and every other opposition group with any demands of proper democracy, freedom and such. Judging from my gramps, not a few anarchists used the masonic trappings to find each other and survive better. This was probably the case from the '20s to the '50s or so. Things seem to have changed a lot after the Cold War started, and the underground politics shifted to insurrection, guerilla, and other associations that while secret, had nothing much in the way of occultism. Interestingly, at least here in Argentina and neighbour countries, the '60s/'70s brought about a separate current of extreme right-wing masons that had a general plan of worming their way into the government pies all around. In that other current, their masonry was little more than a way of trafficking influences and amassing huge fortunes by every dirty way they could safely get away with (but mostly, it seems from my few readings on our local history of such groups, import/export businesses, construction, and parasitizing government contracts or companies). This doesn't mean that the right-wing masons took the occult part lightly, some of them were heavily into it, constructing their own complex theories about the universe and its hidden forces, and particularly as to how such things related to political activity and the Cold War mess around here. Check around for Lopez Rega, the AAA, Licio Gelli, P2, Admiral Massera and other such lovely specimens of inhumanity.
posted by Iosephus at 5:11 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


I am a third degree mason, which means I've gone through the basic "blue lodge" levels and have the title of master mason. I did not choose to go through the additional degrees available in York Rite or Scottish Rite. I did this in a year or so during graduate school several years ago. I haven't been active in Freemasonry since.

So bear my inexperience in mind when I answer your questions. (Many people who think Freemasonry is a conspiracy tell me I'm not high enough to see the truth :).) I'm not active and not too steeped in the lore. I did, however, read more about Freemasonry than most of my masonic tutors.

1. Besides having a Bible in the lodge present for oaths, the Bible as a text doesn't seem to have any particular significance to Freemasonry. You can even switch out the Bible for another sacred text if you choose. However, the lessons of Freemasonry itself, which are rarely written down, are very symbolic and figurative.

2. I haven't read the Dan Brown book. But I assume it purports to be a film of a masonic ritual? You won't get a Freemason to confirm or deny those details.

3. Freemasons are taught not to answer charges against Freemasonry. So even if the book contains inaccuracies, most Freemasons won't attempt to correct them.

4. Freemasons are supposed to seek knowledge and enlightenment, but in my limited experience it is primarily a social and civic organization. However, the lessons of Freemasonry, taught through the rituals when a member rises through the degrees and expounded upon in classic supplementary texts are moral and spiritual in nature.

Perhaps Freemasonry was a more significant organization in the past, but I can't see why people still make a big deal about it. It isn't really a "secret" society. Many members are proud to be so and proclaim their membership via bumper stickers and rings. The lodges are clearly marked and the member rosters are usually public. The only thing secret about Freemasonry are the rituals. But the rituals really wouldn't have the impact they have (and they are quite dramatic) if potential members and members knew what to expect.
posted by Anephim at 6:38 PM on October 11, 2009


Erg. The second sentence of answer 2 makes no sense. It should be:

But I assume the film mentioned in the book purports to be a film of a masonic ritual?
posted by Anephim at 6:41 PM on October 11, 2009




http://www.freemasonlostsymbol.com/
posted by mrbill at 10:43 PM on October 11, 2009


Another third degree Mason here. I haven't read The Lost Symbol yet so I can't address all of your questions specific to the book, but I'll take a stab at some of them, with a caveat:

It's a good idea to take anything you read about Freemasonry online with a grain of salt, even straightforward factual posts from Masons, because there are so many different flavors of Masonry out there; I believe the US alone has at least one Grand Lodge in each state, and the lodges under each of those Grand Lodge's jurisdictions all do things just a little bit differently from lodges under the other Grand Lodges... add to that traditions that evolve at the local lodge level and it's not uncommon to read conflicting statements about various details of rules and rituals. Add to that the six-blind-men-and-an-elephant phenomenon among Masons themselves and you're also going to find an endless number of opinions about what Freemasonry is or "is supposed to be."
Is there really a belief within the Masonic communtiy - and without, I suppose - that the Bible is a coded document with deeper wisdom than it suggests on the surface? (I remember that "Bible Code" nonsense from 10 years ago, but this book hints at something much more grand/metaphorical)
Anephim has it. The Bible's role in Masonic ritual is largely symbolic, sometimes referred to as the "Volume of Sacred Law"; in the US it's probably the most commonly used volume, but a Jew could take his obligations on the Torah, a Muslim on the Qu'ran, et cetera. When I toured the House of the Temple earlier this year there were at least half a dozen different volumes displayed on the altar. As to whether there are deeper, hidden truths in Masonic ritual itself, you could ask a dozen different Masons and get a dozen different answers all across the spectrum from "No, the ritual lays out some nice moral principles to live by, but that's it" to "Yes, Freemasonry is tens of thousands of years old, descended from the ancient Egyptian mystery schools, and most of these guys calling themselves Masons nowadays don't have a clue and are ruining it for us real Freemasons looking for ultimate truth encoded in our rituals!"
Are there any things ascribed to Freemasonry in this book that are particularly egregious in how inaccurate they are? On the other hand, are there things that Brown got right that the public is hearing for the first time?
I've only read the prologue and first chapter that were published for free - but this blog post does a nice job of dissecting the whole drinking-wine-from-a-human-skull business. Basically: Yes, that is an accurate description of "actual Masonic ritual", but it's a ritual that was used by a fringe group 100 years ago.

More generally, I'd be very surprised if there was anything in the book that the public was reading for the first time; with a little digging you can find all of the Masonic secrets there are to know online.
The book portrays Freemasonry as being intensely devoted to the pursuit of higher knowledge and spiritual growth. Everything I've encountered about the movement from my (localized) first-hand experience tends to be very social. What is the modern Freemason experience like, and what does it emphasize?
In my experience (a year and a half as a Mason in central Massachusetts) the idea of a monolithic "modern Freemason experience" is overly simplistic. It's definitely true that you will find a lot of guys who go through the degrees and show up to meetings without giving the ritual a second thought beyond the fairly straightforward symbolism it uses... some guys will join only so that they can become Shriners; they pay their dues every year but never show up to lodge again. But there are guys in the fraternity who do think there's a little more to it than aprons and secret handshakes. People who join expecting to find every lodge full of erudite guys who discuss philosophy over single-malt scotch and cigars are going to be sorely disappointed, but those guys are out there.

One of my favorite succinct illustrations of what Freemasonry is all about is the venn diagram accompanying John Belton's essay Freemasonry Is?. The most interesting Masons I've met all reflect that balance of social, ritual, intellectual, and spiritual.

Might I also recommend:

- Are Dummies and Idiots Wrecking Freemasonry?
- What is Freemasonry? (Audio) The Masonic Central podcast is in general pretty informative and covers a wide range of subjects.
posted by usonian at 5:54 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


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