Bible-reading lessons from Sherlock and Father Brown

A few months ago I re-read all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I’ve recently finished all the Father Browns. While the characters and methods of Conan Doyle’s acerbic, deductive sleuth and Chesterton’s kindly, intuitive cleric are almost polar opposites, they do have one thing in common – a profound mistrust of the obvious answer.

Time and again both Holmes and Brown reinforce the message that the plain surface reading of events and circumstances is often not the right one – or at least does not reveal the full story. All the obvious clues seem to point one way (or several ways at once), but by applying keen observation, deduction and intuitive insight the good detective can unlock the truth and reveal that, read rightly, the significant clues always pointed another, less obvious, way.

There’s a nice moment in The Man with Two Beards when Father Brown commends another detective for his watertight reasoning, before going on to reject it: ‘Mr Carver, you have certainly worked out a very complete case in a very masterly way… I never guessed you would link everything together so quickly… It’s only fair to you to say that I don’t believe a word of it.’ The construction the official detective has put on events and evidence is entirely reasonable and plausible, but it’s also entirely false.

Counterintuitive reality

Of course, these are carefully-crafted detective stories, not real life where the plain straightforward reading is usually the right one. Or is it? Even merely physical reality – what we can see and touch – is surprisingly complex, paradoxical and often counter-intuitive.

We feel like we stand on a motionless ‘terra firma’, yet the Earth’s surface is spinning beneath us (at nearly 1000km/h in London), and the Earth is travelling through space at over 100,000km/h. The idea that we’re on a spherical surface, and that we are standing upside-down from the viewpoint of people on the other side of the planet, is also highly counter-intuitive.

The fundamental nature of reality too is deeply unexpected. Solid matter turns out to be mostly made up of space, and visible order is composed of quantum chaos. Changing the motion of one particle can apparently affect the motion of another particle thousands of miles away. Gravity can bend space and time. Light seems to have a dual nature, sometimes acting as a particle, sometimes a wave. A bewilderingly large proportion of the universe is composed of undetectable ‘dark’ matter and energy. I could go on.

In short, even fundamental and familiar things generally aren’t how we’d expect or predict, or are far odder than they at first appear. If this is true for the physical world which we can see and touch and measure, how much more so for the spiritual realities which we can only dimly apprehend? If everyday reality is full of mystery and paradox, why should God or the Bible be any less so?

The Bible as mystery

I wonder then whether Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown might not have something to teach us about the way we read the Bible, and indeed the whole way we approach faith. Perhaps in some respects reading Scripture can be like reading a detective tale; maybe Christianity itself has aspects of a mystery story. (There’s an established theory about the detective story being an ‘allegory of the search for God’, but I’ve not yet been able to discover who originated the idea.)

The evangelical (and particularly the fundamentalist) reading of Scripture is generally the obvious, plain, surface reading of the text. It’s the way most of the clues seem to point, especially if you gloss a few crucial details and ignore some interesting anomalies. But I’m far from convinced that it’s always the best or truest reading of the text; the one that provides the fullest and best picture of God and of his ways and will.

The Bible isn’t a volume of systematic theology, and nor is it an answer-book of clear and unequivocal truths or universally-applicable commands and promises. It’s not that it’s arcane or esoteric, with ‘occult’ hidden knowledge only revealed to the mystic or adept. Nor is it so complex or abstruse that you have to be a professional philosopher or theologian to understand it. But it also isn’t simplistic, univocal or one-dimensional.

The Bible is completely unlike anything else we would normally read. Yes, we can just read it as we’d read a modern textbook, taking its words at face value as literal statements of historical, scientific and theological fact. If we do that, we’ll still derive benefit and insight from it, but we’ll also miss out so much.

The Bible is of course a set of ancient documents, ranging from nearly 2000 to perhaps 3000 years old, from cultures and ages almost unimaginably different from our own. And these gloriously multifarious documents encompass national and religious history, love poetry, wisdom literature, prophetic and apocalyptic writing, religious and legal code, biography, correspondence. We can’t do justice to the Bible by reading it as though it were all the same thing, or as though it were today’s news report or a modern textbook.

Crucially, we have to interpret the Bible; we’re never simply reading it ‘just as it’s written’. To read the text literally is still to impose a particular hermeneutic upon it, one which may not fit with the actual nature or purpose of the text. However we read the Bible, we place a particular construction on it, just as the detective must place a construction on the factual evidence to build a case.

Food for the whole journey

Engaging with the Bible then requires work, imagination, searching, time. It’s food for the whole long journey of life, not just a breakfast snack. Some of its truths reveal themselves easily and quickly, so a child can grasp them. Others come more slowly and with more difficulty; some at first seem counter-intuitive, or contradictory to what we think we already know, challenging our views of God and his will and ways. And some passages of the Bible which seem so clear to us as new Christians take on new levels of complexity and shades of nuance as we grow.

Take some of the ‘clear’ passages about hell, or homosexuality, or the role of women. Many of these appear unequivocal and unanswerable; it’s just ‘what the Bible says’ and so (we think) our job is to accept it, whether we like it or not. But if we read more closely and more widely, and with an eye to context and alternative interpretations, we often start to find a different story.

We may find that apparently clear passages are not as clear in the original language as they seem in our translation (the 1 Cor 6:9 verse on homosexuality is a good example). Or we may find that a strong, clear message in one passage is countered or moderated by an alternative view in another part of the Bible.

We also find that if we understand the culture and idiom of the original writers and their intended readers, a new perspective often emerges, shedding a whole different light on a familiar story. And we find that passages we’ve only read literally may have an alternative, more symbolic or figurative reading.

I’m not saying that the simple, straightforward reading is ‘wrong’ or false; just that it sometimes misses out the fuller story or picture. Like reading a detective story, we shouldn’t be too quick to settle for the obvious answers.

The God who hides

But why would God hide the truth in this way – wouldn’t a loving Father make his will and ways plain? Yet the Bible speaks of a ‘God who hides himself’ (Isa 45:15), as well as a God who reveals. God does not very often show himself or speak audibly; in general he seems to prefer working silently and invisibly behind the scenes.

R.T. Kendall talks of God sometimes almost playing hard to get, or playing hide-and-seek with us. Perhaps like any father he enjoys playing games with his children. If Song of Songs is anything to go by, he also plays like a lover with his beloved. He woos rather than coerces, whispers rather than shouts. It seems he would prefer us to seek him actively and on our own initiative, rather than having to impose his reality and will upon us.

Furthermore, having everything spelt out and worked out for us isn’t the best way for us to learn and grow and mature. Jesus tended to answer questions with further questions, or with parables that required effort to think through. It seems that God would like us to work things out for ourselves, in the time and manner appropriate for us.

There’s a great section in the final Harry Potter book where Harry realises at last why his now-dead hero and headmaster Dumbledore has made it so hard for him to complete his mission; why the clues he left were so frustratingly few and cryptic. He did it because he understood Harry and his friends better than they did, and also understood the nature of the task they faced and the things which would distract or obstruct them. For most of the book Harry feels angry with Dumbledore, abandoned by him with little to go on; but by the end he understands why it had to be that way. The Christian life, and the Bible, is often like that too.

In Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey challenges the notion that if we could just know God’s reality and will clearly and unequivocally all would be fine. He points out that the Israelites in Exodus had daily access to the audible voice and visible presence of God, leading and commanding them with unequivocal clarity, but they still managed to muck everything up on an a bafflingly regular basis.

Having all the answers handed to us on a plate is a childish need, and – as seen with the Israelites – it generally goes with childish behaviour. If we’re to be mature adult humans and Christians, we need to engage with a complex, often counter-intuitive God and a complex, often paradoxical Bible. It’s more difficult and frustrating, yes, but it’s also a lot more rewarding – and more fun. Not unlike a good detective story.


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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