Monday, 29 April 2013


Bear with me for a couple of minutes. In late nineteenth century Britain, police detection was generally unscientific, undisciplined and illogical. Yet there were those outside the police service who did have some very useful ideas about how to improve detection; one of them was Dr Joseph Bell of Edinburgh. Arthur Conan Doyle, medical doctor, amateur sleuth and author, had worked for Bell in the 1870s, and decided to use his literary skills to popularise Bell’s methods in the field of criminal detection. So in 1887 he published the first of a series of Sherlock Holmes stories, the great detective not only using Bell’s methods but having personal characteristics in common with him. The stories became extremely popular, not least among a public sickened by the police failure to solve the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. Conan Doyle did not want to go on writing Holmes stories after their purpose had been achieved, so in 1893 he published a story in which Holmes seemed to have been killed. But the public was not to be deprived of further exciting stories about the great detective; Holmes had to be resurrected, and Conan Doyle went on writing further Holmes stories until 1927. Sadly but inevitably, as the stories multiplied they lost their original purpose: no longer were they popularising new detection methods; they were just satisfying public demand and incidentally bringing their author a good income.
                And then when Conan Doyle finally ceased to write about Holmes, others took to writing pastiches based on references in the canonical stories. Aficionados scoured the original stories for hints and suggestions as to what might have been Holmes’s family and educational background, and tried to solve inconsistencies in the canon. ‘Sherlockian’ societies were started, and articles and books were written about him. Over the years, more and more people came to read the Holmes stories purely for amusement; they were not at all interested in the improvement in police detective methods that Conan Doyle had originally been trying to promote. Certainly, some aphorisms from the stories continued to have a genuinely instructive resonance, notably the one about ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ in Silver Blaze. But by-and-large the stories, and the paraphernalia of research that gathered round them, became simply pleasant ways of passing the time and having mild intellectual challenge. Many uninitiated people nevertheless came to assume that Holmes had been a real person, and in the end, a statue was erected to his ‘memory’ near his putative home in Baker Street.
                It’s a bizarre story, but perhaps also an instructive one – which is why this bit of literary history warrants a sermon. Observe the features of the story: the failure of the old methods; the appearance of someone with a much improved approach; the popularisation of that new approach through a largely imaginary literary creation based on its real originator; the success of the popularisation; the demand for new though less useful stories; the writing of pastiches; the creation of imaginary backgrounds; institutions to perpetuate the study; the aura of literal as well as literary reality; a real ‘memorial’ to what could not really be remembered. There is something about this pattern that is reminiscent of the way the Jesus teaching – and the person of Jesus – has been handled down the centuries. There was the failure of the religion of Jesus’s day to satisfy people’s real spiritual needs; his new approach; the popularisation of his teaching partly through Paul’s re-imagining of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ and only Son of God; the success of the early church; the writing of apocryphal gospels which had little real content; the study of various branches of Christian theology; the development of the institutional church – and so similarly on.
                Having spotted the parallel, it would be easy to make too much of it, overlooking a key fact. The real significance of Sherlock Holmes is not the pot-boiler continuations, the pastiches and so on; what matters is that the original fictional stories were based in reality and had a genuine purpose: they were meant to help people deal more satisfactorily with the world they lived in. In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, what matters is that his teaching was intended to help people deal more satisfactorily with their lives, given the issues they faced, both those that were general to humanity and those that were particular to their time and place. I wouldn’t want to press the parallel too far; there are obviously many and important differences between the Christian church and the Sherlockian societies, and between theology and Sherlockian ‘research’. What I think the parallel can usefully remind us of is that we need always to try to remember what was the original purpose of some teaching, so that we can avoid being first diverted and eventually captured by the accretions that almost inevitably collect on any worthwhile and long lasting edifice. We may still want to play the game with the pastiche writers and the ‘researchers’ but, vitally, we will know that we are only playing a game; our real aim must be to see what the original teaching may still have to say to us in our changed and changing circumstances.
                Police detective work has improved immeasurably since the 1880s, partly no doubt thanks to Conan Doyle’s effective championing of the ideas of Joseph Bell. But, like every other human endeavour, there are always improvements to be made; new challenges and new knowledge have to be absorbed and used by detectives. It would do no good for police effectiveness if detective training was stuck at the Sherlock Holmes stage of development. And what goes for police work goes similarly for spiritual development: if we are serious about spirituality, we won’t want to allow ourselves to be stuck in an approach to spirituality that takes no real account of today’s challenges and knowledge. Loyalty to Bell’s and Conan Doyle’s mission means using them as an inspiration as we use the methods of modern criminal detection and speak its language; and loyalty to the mission of Jesus of Nazareth cannot mean anything very different.

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