In Defense of Mystery
By Jo Kadlecek
“A sound of quick steps broke the silence of the moor. Crouching among the stones we stared intently at the silver moon-tipped bank in front of us. The steps grew louder, and through the fog, as through a curtain, there stepped the man whom we were awaiting. He looked round him in surprise as he emerged into the clear, starlit night. Then he came swiftly along the path…and as he walked he glanced continually over either shoulder like a man who is ill at ease. I heard the sharp click of a cocking pistol…”
These sentences from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles charge through our imaginations with endless possibilities. Because the sun has set, taking with it clarity and courage, dozens of evil options fill our heads. Small noises erupt into human terror, then deep silence. Like the darkness, it feeds our imaginings because we know anything could happen on that starlit moor. It is the unknowing that draws us, the mystery that captivates us. Like a good Hitchcock film, it is what we do not see that both chills and excites.
Literary mysteries don’t remain mysteries—the suspects and their methods and motives surface by the last page. For while we love a good conundrum, we also find deep satisfaction in its solution. That’s why Hollywood executives and television producers bank on the next detective show or courtroom drama that solves the puzzles of a character’s demise in less than a few hours.
Though ours is a culture that loves answers, explanations, and formulas, we love even more the process of pursuing them.
Though ours is a culture that loves answers, explanations, and formulas, we love even more the process of pursuing them. True, we live in an age of quick information, but there is something fiercely human about the adventure and wonder of discovery, no matter how dark the setting. It’s enormously fulfilling to put the pieces of a dilemma together, connect the dots, unearth a secret. Whether it’s waiting on a moonlit riverbank, digging through historic documents, or simply retracing yesterday’s steps to find our car keys, we are suckers for the process of figuring it out. We’re wired to know, and it is exactly because we do not know that we keep plodding ahead.
Of course, evangelicals have never been particularly fond of—or honest about—mystery. Instead, we like to pretend we already know most of what there is to know about Christ and his kingdom. We devise pithy answers to theological quandaries and place the Christian life into nice, neat boxes. We explain, categorize, and reduce every tenet of our faith into something we can tuck away in a file or notebook. Want to know how to find salvation? Here are four easy steps. Wondering how to build a healthy marriage or an interracial church, create that successful youth group or ministry to the poor? Just follow these 10 points, and presto! The kingdom of God is at your fingertips—no more ambiguity or tension or process.
If only life were that uncomplicated.
Thankfully, however, there have been skeptics amongst us who actually—and artistically—embraced mystery. From Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton to Rex Stout and P.D. James, their stories help us enjoy the journey of discovery—which is not such a bad thing in a world rife with despair. In what is sometimes a wild pursuit of truth, we watch their humanly heroes encounter danger, uncover clues, and return things to the way they were meant to be. As one Dartmouth scholar put it, “The fundamental premise of all mysteries is a society that is ordered and real but becomes disordered as a result of a crime imposed on that society. In the normal case, a hero arrives—an officer of the law, a private detective, or an amateur sleuth—and via logical deduction, hard work, or luck, solves the crime, identifies the perpetrator, and order is restored.” Sayer’s Lord Wimsey puts it another way: “In detective stories, virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”
Maybe that is the real reason we’re drawn to mystery: We crave virtue and we know we cannot achieve it on our own. So we live in hope that good will conquer evil, justice will prevail, and God finally will provide a way out.
We live in hope that good will conquer evil, justice will prevail, and God finally will provide a way out.
Of course, God already has, for at the heart of history lies a mystery some people still cannot explain. It goes something like this: A sound of quick steps broke the silence of the day. Not long before, a storm had split the sky and darkened the sun because a man had been savagely murdered, thrown across a tree, and left to die. His friends went swiftly down the path looking through the fog for his corpse. But soon enough they discovered something that defied any earthly imagination: He was not there!
It is this living mystery that plunges us into wonder, keeps us moving, and leaves every other whodunit wanting.
Jo Kadlecek is the author of 17 books, including four novels and two memoirs. She and her husband, Christopher Gilbert, are the collaborative force behind Lamp Post Media.