Christianity is ‘one big murder mystery’

Published December 1, 2004

Murder mysteries start at the end of the story — with a murder. And so, says Wilfrid Laurier University professor Peter Erb, does Christianity. He believes it is no accident that so many Christians enjoy mystery novels or that Christian writers and Christian themes abound in that genre.

“Christianity is one big murder mystery,” said Mr. Erb, a former Mennonite minister whose academic studies into medieval mysticism and his own love of mystery led him into the Roman Catholic church two years ago.

When he gives his presentation on the mystery genre and faith, as he did recently at the University of Victoria, he jokes that he always tries to slip in a few Catholic mystery writers. But the fact is, his favourites, and indeed the best mystery writers, are Anglicans, in fact, High Anglicans such as Kay Charles, D.M. Greenwood and especially P.D. James.

Mr. Erb gave four lectures at the University of Victoria titled “Murder, Manners and Mystery: Presentations of Faith in Contemporary Fiction,” funded by an endowment from the diocese of British Columbia, and organized by the university’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society.

The mysteries he focused on, he said, are not those featuring clerical sleuths or even Christian ones, but are written from a traditional Christian world view and explore Christian themes. In particular, the best of them, such as those by P.D. James, deal with what he calls “the Silence of God” — the difficulty many have in believing in a loving God in the face of such faith-boggling inhumanities as Auschwitz and Nagasaki.

According to Mr. Erb, it took about 40 years for mystery writers to address God’s silence in the post-Holocaust world.

P.D. James’s own response to the problem is essentially Marian, said Mr. Erb. While her ongoing sleuth, Adam Dalgliesh, is male, it is her minor female characters who demonstrate a response to the silence of God in their own understated way, taking their cue, said Mr. Erb, from the Mother of God. “Mary was silent too. Her response to the angel was ‘let it be done,’ which is a kind of silence,” said Mr. Erb. He believes that P.D. James is saying that only her quiet female characters, like Mary, can hear God, because they alone are listening. “The rest of us are talking too much.”

For example, Dalgliesh and his subordinates, none of them believers, represent an activist, noisy response to the evil they encounter on the job. Dalgliesh, a poet and the son of a minister, seems more than the others both to be listening some of the time and aware that he has lost something in his abandonment of his parents’ faith.

According to Mr. Erb, Christian mystery writers like P.D. James represent an opposing view to that of Sigmund Freud, the pioneer of psychoanalysis who believed all psychological problems to be rooted in the repression of primal sexual urges, like that of men to marry their mothers and kill their fathers. Freud, argues Mr. Erb, would have people through psychoanalysis eliminate their parents from their psyches — effectively accomplishing Oedipus’ crime.

But Christianity — and murder mysteries — “turn Freud on his head” by reconciling past and present, not by erasing the past. “We begin with the murder of Christ and ask who murdered Him and why.” In finding that we are the murderers, we reconcile ourselves with God the Father. And mystery sleuths also achieve a kind of reparation by finding the murderer.

Mary, too, turns Freud on his head, believes Mr. Erb. While Freud’s great paradigm of sexual repression is the story of Oedipus, who slays his father and weds his mother, Mary becomes, in her faithfulness, “her own child’s child,” a symbol of humility opposed to Oedipus’ pride.

Significantly, many of P.D. James’ characters are orphaned. They stand for the modern culture that has been taught to disrespect the past, history, parents, the Church.

Mr. Erb told his audience that a parallel school of mystery writers exists, led by Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse series, which appears to address the silence of God but in reality does so with a closed mind. For Dexter, Ian Pears, and Umberto Eco, there is no answer to the silence of God.

Asked if there was any connection between his own journey of faith and his fascination with the mystery genre, Mr. Erb said that Catholicism held more mystery than Protestantism. “With Catholicism and Christianity, the mystery is infinite. Each mystery you come to understand just leads to more mysteries.” Anglicanism, he said, has preserved this mystical tradition.


Steve Weatherbe is a writer in Victoria.


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