Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Harper One (September 8, 2009)
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A week ago Dan Brown released his much-hyped new novel, The Lost Symbol, which will no doubt jump to the top of the best sellers list. It is a follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, but this time focused on Freemasonry, Masonic secrets, hidden history and arcane Masonic-related symbols. It will no doubt cause a big spike in interest in Freemasonry, so this should provide a boost to Kinney’s book, released just three weeks ago.
Freemasons have been the target of suspicion, wild speculation and accusations for some three hundred years now, with supposed links to the occult, satanic rites, The Knights Templar, the American and French revolutions, a shadowy network of elite power brokers and so much more. It’s a movement which is clouded in secrecy and this has helped to fuel the fires of the conspiracy theorists. Kinney’s book is subtitled “Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry”, and it aims to set the record straight about Freemasons.
Does it achieve that? Well, maybe, kind of, but not really.
One trouble is that Kinney is himself a practicing Freemason. That gives him direct access to a wealth of historic material and documents and rites that others cannot see, so it can be argued that what you get from him is the real story. But if you are a conspiracy theorist or someone with grave doubts about the purpose and methods of the movement, then you are very likely to discount everything he says. Why believe a member of a secretive society when he claims he’s telling you the truth about that secret society? There’s something wrong with that picture.
Personally, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I have no reason to doubt Freemasonry and I am just a little bit curious about them. So I decided to read the book and I think I approached it with a free mind. But here’s the next problem. According to Kinney much of the history of the movement is lost in the mists of time. No-one is quite sure where they came from, how they started, what influenced them, what led to the complex rites and ceremonies, where the complex symbology came from, how it ought to be interpreted, and why they are so secretive. This is exacerbated by a code of secrecy which means that many things are not written down and can only be passed on verbally. Paradoxically, it is further exacerbated by the fact that a huge amount has been written about the Freemasons, most of it apparently highly speculative, poorly researched, guesswork, or flat out deceptive. Much of this “history” is of course contradictory, and it seems that whatever accusation you want to throw at Freemasonry, there are likely documents you can point to that appear to support your views.
Here Kinney does a good job of debunking a lot of the outrageous claims and theories. He provides context and logical arguments that serve to show how silly many of the claims are, and throughout he undermines the silly claims by pointing to a total lack of evidence supporting them. The trouble is that when he comes to laying out his own beliefs about the organization and its history, he can’t point to much evidence either. So what he writes comes across as eminently plausible, but ultimately it seems like it’s just his view which is based on his personal logic and his interpretation of a mess of documents and possible alternative “histories”. This wasn’t very satisfactory for me. I feel like he’s effectively chopped out a lot of the outrageous stuff, but we’re still left with a wide range of possibilities and what he postulates is credible but still just one possible viewpoint.
Moving on from the history and the whacky claims, what do Masons actually do and how are they organized? Here the book is informative, although some of it was tough to fathom and other bits were just a bit difficult to accept. What was the book like to read? The jacket claims “the excitement of a thriller with the benefit of being factual”. I’m not sure which thrillers the writer of that sentence reads, but I hope I don’t have to read them! Thrilling is one thing this book is not. I started going a bit glassy eyed about a third of the way through, but I stuck with it and got through to the end. It was kind of interesting though. I’d give it two stars.