The (Moral) Game is Afoot

W. H. Auden, the great poet and Christian convert, had a not-so-secret vice. He was addicted to mystery novels. He even jokingly once said that the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. Well, check out any recent bestseller list, and you're likely to find out at least a couple of mystery novels are in the top ten. Some bookstores carry nothing but "whodunits." What is it about mysteries that appeal to so many people? After all, mystery novels follow a fairly conventional formula: A murder takes place, a detective hunts for clues, the killer is finally brought to justice. The reason people love mysteries, Auden believed, is that they tap deeply into the needs of the human heart. They address our acute awareness of the difference between good and evil, guilt and innocence. Mystery novels feed into our God-given desire for justice and moral closure. Mystery novelist P. D. James—who is a member of the Church of England—points out that the finale of any mystery is a kind of Last Judgment. There's a moral rebellion expressed in the murder itself, and the confusion that occurs in its aftermath. Finally, the moral order is restored. What was done under cover of darkness is now revealed in the light. Evil is punished, the innocent go free. As Auden put it, mystery novels allow us to indulge in "the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence." Phrases like "moral rebellion" and "moral order" are clues that the mystery genre presupposes a moral universe. In fact, moral absolutes are essential to the mystery genre. Take them away, the mystery story falls apart. Why? Because if there is no such thing as real evil, there's no such thing as real guilt. There would be no point in tracking down a murderer—because murder would not be wrong. In fact, in an age that rejects absolute moral truths, the popularity of the mystery novel is a healthy sign, because it points to the existence of a moral order and hence, the truth of Christianity. Because we are made in the image of God, we inherently crave to know that moral universe. We yearn for justice and absolute good. And that's why—despite the corrosive relativism of the modern age—we like books that paint a picture of a moral universe, where evil is punished and righteousness triumphs. If you or your kids are addicted to "whodunits," make sure you seek out the best. Look for Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. Or try a few novels by Ngaio Marsh, or Anne Perry, or Josephine Tey, or Sir Arthur Canon Doyle, or one of the wonderful mysteries of Dorothy Sayers. It's fun to escape into stories that feature a body in the library or beneath a rose bush. But they can also serve a serious purpose: Training our minds and imaginations to recognize the realities of the moral universe. And then have a little fun with your unsaved friends who are hooked on whodunits. Ask them why they enjoy reading such books. When they tell you that it's for pure fun, explain to them that it reveals their own desire to understand the reality of sin, guilt, and moral truths. That just might lead to questions of redemption, which ultimately come not from detectives in the story, but from the Great Redeemer of history.


Chuck Colson


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