A passion for meaning
I wonder how many of you are fans of TV crime drama? Judging by the endless repeats, series such as ‘Inspector Morse’ and its follow-up, ‘Lewis’, or ‘Taggart’, or the current ‘The Mentalist’ are very popular. You will be able to extend the list. Crime dramas tend to gather an immense following.
The same can be said of books. Crime or mystery novels sell well. I have read so many Robert Goddard novels that I can now only read the new ones with confidence that I have not already done so. Perhaps John Grisham is your favourite, or Ian Rankin, or Patricia Cornwell. Of course, older authors of such books would be Conan Doyle and his great hero Sherlock Holmes. I read my first Agatha Christie as a teenager, largely because it was presented to me as the school Chemistry prize (in itself a mystery to me).
It was the crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers who suggested that our love of crime fiction arises from a deep desire to make sense of things. As I recall many of the books I have read recently (for relaxation purposes), a great number of them have carried some element of mystery, if not crime. There has been a great deal of historical fiction, as well as a good deal of science fiction. Often I am carried along by a desire to know how things will resolve, discover what it is that gives pattern to seemingly disparate events. Of course, there are other kinds of books we read for other reasons. For example, I am a huge admirer of the way a writer such as Hilary Mantel uses language, and paints such vivid word pictures. Who could rival the pen portraits of characters that Dickens provides (albeit with a verbosity that would tax the patience of most saints). Nonetheless, Sayers has a point. We are, it seems, inexorably drawn to the kind of fiction which presents us with seemingly random events and then enables us to weave a pattern of meaning which combines them into overall sense. Something in us longs to make sense of things, and crime writers can tap into that primal instinct in their readers.
The theologian Alister McGrath takes this thought further and writes, ‘The detective novel appeals to our implicit belief in the intrinsic rationality of the world around us and to our ability to discover its deeper patterns.’ In other words, human beings long to make sense of things. We look for a big picture to make sense of life. We look to weave the threads of our experience together into some kind of pattern. Most of us find that, without such a tapestry of meaning, we would descend into a deep despondency, haunted by the spectre of meaninglessness.
It must be said that, for some people there is no grand purpose or meaning to life. For the atheist Richard Dawkins, there is, ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’ I agree with McGrath that Dawkins is here just expressing a prejudice against the universe having a meaning, and in truth Dawkins is probably worried that the universe will turn out to have a meaning and purpose of which he does not approve. He makes the mistake of trying to make science pronounce on things which lie beyond the scope of the scientific method. There are questions – we might call them ultimate questions - which science cannot answer, relating to issues such as meaning and purpose. When we ask, ‘Is there any real point to my life?’ we do not expect the answer to be found in a Chemistry text or in a mathematical equation.
It is in this arena of ultimate questions that the Christian faith comes into its own. Christian faith can be perfectly reasonable and rational but deals in that which cannot be logically demonstrated. Faith is the discovery of the bigger picture, and is a gift of God as He enables us to see the things to which we were once blind. With faith in Christ we grasp that there is meaning to life and a new hope in a new relationship with Christ.
I have a friend who reads the end of a book before ever beginning it. I could never do that, but I am told it is not an uncommon habit. Many people seem to prefer to read a novel knowing how it is all finally resolved. They then read the novel and enjoy the twists of the plot, yet always knowing where it is all heading. Christian faith gives us that for our lives. It does so by pointing us to ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 1:3), who has made Himself known to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is the focus of our Easter celebration, and in the pages of Scripture. When we learn to orientate our lives in Him, learn to trust Him, then we find purpose and meaning and transformation of life.