January 11, 2012
I thought I would begin this chapel talk by confessing one of my guilty pleasures. We all have them. Guilty pleasures are behaviors that bring you great satisfaction but that might not necessarily enhance the esteem in which others hold you. As behaviors go, they don’t rise to the level of sins, but they might give some observers the impression that you are shallow, trivial, narcissistic, weak, or déclassé.
Guilty pleasures come in all forms. I remember when I was a boy reading a book called Cheaper by the Dozen about a family with twelve children. The father’s “secret joys” were his argyle socks, which he wore under boots so no one could see them. Nowadays our guilty pleasures are a little more out there. I wonder whether some members of the music department who teach vocal performance don’t sing Lady Gaga songs in the shower. Maybe some of the dance faculty love nothing more than a rousing do-se-do at a square dance festival. What if Matthew Fogarty, the Executive Chef for Bon Appetite who plans the menus and cooks for 3,000 students three times a day, settles in at night when he gets home with tuna casserole escorted by a jello salad with whipped cream from a can? Do you think Pastor Ann pops a Budweiser when she gets home and watches televangelists from Oklahoma?
Actually, I have more than one guilty pleasure. I’m embarrassed to confess today, for example, that we only Tivo four television shows at our house and one of them is TLC’s What Not to Wear. I love Stacy and Clinton, and I even occasionally try to follow their rules.. My necktie today, for example, is the “pop of color” in my outfit.
But my main guilty pleasure is detective fiction. It started when I was a graduate student assigned to be the research assistant to a professor who was writing the biography of the American detective novelist Rex Stout. I had never read a detective novel. I scorned them. They weren’t real literature. But I had to read one in order to be useful as a research assistant. I did, and I was hooked. Since that time, over thirty years ago, I have read hundreds and hundreds of detective novels. I’ve read all the Rex Stout novels, all the work of the great early American hard-boiled detective novelists — Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and Ross Macdonald — all the Robert B. Parker novels, all of the novels by the great Minneapolis writer John Sandford, everything by Robert Crais, all the novels of Dennis Lehane, and now — most recently, I’ve been engrossed by Nordic crime fiction: Norwegian, Swedish, and most recently Icelandic novelists are my late night companions. Gosh, they are gloomy.
This guilty pleasure is so pleasurable that if you walked up to me right now with a new John Sandford novel I would have to excuse myself, sit down to read it, and not get up until I was finished. You know it’s a guilty pleasure when, if you keep a website as I do that records and discusses the books you’ve read, you find yourself not listing some of the detective novels you’ve read because you suspect people will think less of you if they see all the time you’ve squandered on the genre instead of reading improving books on things like rice cultivation in Cambodia.
What’s the attraction of crime fiction? There’s a vast literature out there that addresses this subject, and I’m sure the answer is complex, but I believe that ultimately it comes down to our need to see evil punished, justice served, and order restored. Most detective novels begin with a crime, usually murder. It’s graphic, it’s brutal, and it’s horrible. Murder violates the social order, and the world is unbalanced until that order is re-established with the identification and apprehension of the murderer. That’s the process that is enacted in crime fiction. Reading a detective novel you might be thrilled at some level by the evil it depicts, but at the end of the day you are driven by the need to see that evil eradicated by the capture of the criminal. Detective novels begin with a disruption to order and end with the re-establishment of it. I don’t know any detective novel fans who sympathize with the criminal.
But there may be a way in which you can empathize with the criminal. There are detective stories in the Bible. Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel, chapter 12? There’s a murder. The victim is Uriah, the Hittite, a soldier in King David’s army. He’s killed in battle, which doesn’t seem extraordinary for a soldier, but as the story unfolds we become suspicious that his death was not accidental. Indeed, it was not. It turns out that King David was out walking one day and saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing. In a chilling passage, he exercises his royal prerogative with her. “David sent messengers, and took her; and she came to him, and he lay with her.” But Bathsheba is married. So David arranges to send her husband to the front lines of his army. “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die.” This stratagem succeeds; the husband is killed, and David has Bathsheba to himself. That’s the crime.
Who is the detective? It is the prophet Nathan, who comes to see David and to tell him the story you heard Pastor Ann read a moment ago. A rich man had many flocks and herds, a poor man had only one lamb. Nathan milks all of the pathos that he can out of this story. The lamb would sleep in the same bed with the poor man, eat off of his plate. It was like his own daughter. When a traveller comes to the rich man’s house and the obligations of a host require that the guest be fed, the rich man takes that poor man’s one lamb to feed the guest rather than use one of his own.
When he hears this story David is outraged, as he should be. “The man who has done this thing deserves to die,” he thunders. Imagine a dramatic pause here before Nathan replies, “You are the man.” David replies, “I have sinned against the Lord.” The detective has exposed the criminal and elicited a confession. Punishment awaits.
What makes this detective story from the Bible different than the detective novels that are my guilty pleasure? As a reader, it’s a detective story in which you are the criminal. You are the man.
Have you ever felt hunted? In the Brief Order for Confession in the Lutheran Book of Worship we say, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” If the LBW were a detective novel — and, just among ourselves, I think it would make for better reading if it were — this would be its starting point. A crime — in this case a sin — has been committed. This confession is the evidence of it. If that were the context in which our lives played out we would all constantly be the objects of pursuit, and our lives would be nothing more than the gradual closing in of the evidence of our guilt followed by our extinction. You are the man. The detective novel is an Old Testament genre.
But that, of course, is not the arc of the Christian life, for we experience the promise of grace as contained in the New Testament. We may be in bondage to sin, but we are sustained in our daily lives and in our striving to do God’s will by the promise of God’s grace. “Since we are justified,” as we read in Romans 5, “by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” This is why Christians don’t have to sneak furtively through back alleys or adopt elaborate disguises and aliases like criminals in some detective novels. We are not any less convinced of our guilt, our responsibility for failing to follow God’s will, but we know that through faith we have access to God’s loving grace, access to forgiveness for our sins, the possibility of hope, of renewal, and indeed of eternal life.
The last detective novel I read was by the Icelandic novelist Arnaldur Indridason. It’s called Jar City, and it’s one of the gloomiest books I’ve ever read. It rains throughout most of the novel. In the closing scene of the novel, we hear that “It had started raining again but he [Erlandur] thought the rain was somehow milder.” That’s as good as it gets in an Old Testament genre. In a New Testament life, the Christian life, there is still evil, there is death, there is still sorrow. But set against them are faith, grace, and the promise of redemption. “You are the man,” becomes “You are the one God loves.” Rejoice and be glad in that.
David R. Anderson ’74