Lord Peter Wimsey. Harriet Vane. Mma Ramotswe. Inspector Maigret. Kurt Wallander. Erast Fandorin. Sister Pelagia. Flavia de Luce. Father Brown. Sherlock Holmes.
Some of them smoke, drink, brood, and languish. Others write, pray, study martial arts, or collect antique books. But they all question. They all seek. They all discover.
This odd band of detectives—peopled from various nations, languages, and eras—have been my dear literary friends through the years. Alongside the mainstay genres that populate my bookshelves (like classical fiction, international novels, theology and spiritual formation books), you'll always find a mystery novel on my nightstand.
Mystery: More than a whodunit
What place do detective stories and murder mysteries have in my life? Especially in my life as a Christian? Why am I drawn to these lords and priests, gumshoes and opium addicts, arm-chair philosophers and chemistry prodigies? Why does this genre hold such sway over me?
We may think we know what the word mystery means, but I love the deeply Christian roots of the word. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that mystery is a word first used in English in the early 14th century to mean "religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth." It came from the Old French mistere, conveying "secret, mystery, hidden meaning" and from the Latin mysterium, meaning "secret worship." It was used—in the Greek—in the ancient Septuagint compilation of Scripture (in the 3rd and 2nd centuries bc) to mean the "secret counsel of God."
While certainly there's nothing overtly (or even covertly) theological in most of the mystery series I love to read (save the inventive murder mysteries penned by theologians Dorothy L. Sayers and Gilbert K. Chesterton), there is a link between mystery itself and the questions that resonate in my soul.
The hope of Holmes
The first audience reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories lived during the fin de siècle—a time when the Western world was changing rapidly. When shocking ideas from Darwin, Nietzsche, and others were really beginning to take hold and bolster a popular questioning of—even rejection of—the common notions of meaning, of origins, of humanity, of divinity. It was a time when (shock! horror!) some "new women" dared to ride bicycles, wear pants, and even cut their hair. It was also when—and I can only imagine how strange this shift must have been—streets that used to be dark at night or only lit by flames in lamps now began to be lit by strange bulbs, aglow with wires harnessing electricity. It was a world of upheaval, newness, change . . . and questions.
The Holmes stories became wildly popular, for many reasons (including entertainment value)—but at an essential, deeper level, in a situation that didn't make any sense, the lanky and arrogant Holmes somehow made sense of it all. So in an era ringing with unanswerable questions, Holmes represented for his devoted fans the reassuring idea that answers, if sought, could somehow be found.
And here is one of the appeals of the mystery genre for me: The idea that hidden behind all the details, the red herrings, the apparently disconnected and seemingly random events of this life and this world, there is meaning. There are clues that point us toward a lasting truth. There are answers to the eternal, human questions. What appears to be chaos actually masks a grand, narrative arc.
Enduring, invigorating questions
But it isn't just the end of the mystery that appeals—when all whos, whats, wheres, and whys have been uncovered and explained. It is the mystery itself—the in-the-middle, before-the-conclusion, grasping and searching and discerning that draws me.
Why? Because my life often feels a lot like that. Our life—our common, shared human experience—is a lot like that.
For even in and among the answers and truths we find in God, in faith, in the created world, in the Word of truth . . . are questions. The haunting questions. The persisting questions. The questions that drive us to hunt, to search, to discover. The questions that may drive us to tears. The questions that may drive us to our knees. And the questions that, ever unanswered, draw us into wonder.
For me, faith with all the questions ironed out seems dull, formulaic, unappealing—suggesting, somehow that we have all the answers. It's a version of faith that presents God neatly defined in a tidily wrapped box.
But faith with questions still intact—faith interwoven with mystery—draws me. Sustains me. Invigorates me. It's the faith of the questioners, the skeptics, the wonderers, the criers-out who populate the ancient book. This is the kind of faith that holds sacred the capital-A Answers while tenderly holding the questions, the paradoxes, and the mysteries in balance. It's a faith that is not afraid of tension,contradiction, or complexity that cannot be easily delineated or summed up in a five-bullet-point sermon. It's a faith that both intimately knows, and doesn't even begin to know, our awesome and mysterious God.
I've been reading a lot of mysteries lately, perhaps partly because I've been living in a season full of faith-related questions. Some are deeply painful: Why does our young, vibrant friend have cancer? Why are so many suffering in this world? Why are the evil and corrupt given power to control and destroy?
Others are soul-searching: Where is God showing up in my life right now? When does God seem distant to me? How might I connect with God in ways that are alive and invigorating, rather than stale or rote?
And, of course, there are always the big questions, the grand mysteries—the ones that are both awe-full and awful, tremendous and terrifying. The mysteries of galaxies and black holes and quarks and beating hearts; the mysteries of biology, astronomy, philosophy, and even of theology. The parts of life and thought and love that are shot through with "secret, mystery, hidden meaning." And the God who, as the hymn writer aptly understood, is "hid from our eyes."
Before the finish line
So often the church seems to inadvertently prod us to rush through the questions—that the real place of faith is the got-it-figured-out-now finish line. There's the implication that seasons of questioning are scary—even shameful and dangerous—and should be avoided at all costs. The testimonies we so often hear are the afterward stories, somehow implying that the in-the-middle-of-it stories aren't valued and perhaps should even be hushed up.
While there certainly is joy that comes from celebrating answers and peace that we find in working our way to the end of a confusion or doubt, I believe there is also immense spiritual value in the questioning itself. Mystery draws us into worship; asking Why? draws us into raw prayer; crying Where are you? helps us abandon false images of God in our searching after the real I am.
In fact, honesty about our doubt can actually both demonstrate and solidify our faith, like the father who cried out to Jesus "I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). And skepticism can draw us into more personal encounters with God than we dreamed, ushering us into a commitment like Thomas's: "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28).
Dwelling in the mysteries of all that's incomprehensible to us—rather than rushing to the more comfortable ground of answers—shifts us from pride to humility, from misplaced self-confidence into rooted trust in the Almighty who says to us, "My ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8–9).
The asking, seeking, knocking life
I relish the satisfying ending of a great mystery novel, when the sleuth explains it all to the amazement of onlookers (and readers). Similarly, I love Jesus' promise: "Everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:8). Like closing the pages of a good book, in Christ we find an ultimate satisfaction; in his very person we find our Answer.
Yet in this life the invitations into mystery abound, and so we also take to heart the words of Jesus preceding his promise of receiving, finding, and crossing the threshold: "Keep on asking . . . Keep on seeking . . . Keep on knocking" (Matthew 7:7).
I love mystery—both reading it and the living it. We are all living it, aren't we? It can be beautiful, engaging, and satisfying. It can be confusing, discouraging, and frightening. But it draws me—it draws us—into something sacred. Into something True. Into the Story we're crafted to live.
Kelli B. Trujillo is a TCW regular contributor and the author of several books and Bible studies. Join her to dialogue about spiritual growth and family life at KelliTrujillo.com or on Twitter @kbtrujillo.