This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word "no". The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don't actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.
Ian Betteridge, 2009
Reading Giles Fraser's latest effort on the Grauniad's "Comment is free" section, my first reaction, I have to admit, wasn't so much to answer the question posed in his title—Are modern detectives the new priests?—but rather to ask a question of my own. How on Earth does someone get paid for writing this drivel?
For starters, in an essay consisting of eight paragraphs, he doesn't address his thesis until the end of the fourth; the bulk of his first four being not much more than padding by means of a review of a TV detective show—True Detectives—which happens to feature some religious aspects and an atheist detective. When he finally removes his amateur film-critic hat, he says: "For it's arguable that the very genre of detective fiction is intimately bound up with collapse of religious faith."
How-so?, you may ask.
"The circumstantial evidence," he says,
is that this literary genre took off around the same time that Darwin was publishing On the Origin of Species (1859) and Nietzsche was proclaiming the death of God. TS Eliot called Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868) "the first and the best modern English detective novel".
Well, Gentle Reader, let us see…
In 1859, the state of Oregon was admitted to the Union. Big Ben rang for the first time. The first oil-well in the U.S.A. was drilled. Work began on the Suez canal.
Okay, it's arguable that oil became the new god. Did Big Ben replace the pope, though? Did Oregon oust archbishops? Did canal replace canon?
Don't be silly.
the detective took over the role of the priest, seeking justice, trying to make sense of the mysterious, struggling to bring order out of chaos, facing evil," and "our continued obsession with detective fiction suggests something remarkably adjacent to traditional theological concerns.
Now, far be it from me to take a pin to Fraser's delicate bubble, but such themes as right and wrong, and of justice and injustice, were hardly invented by nineteenth-century writers of detective fiction. Aeschylus's Clytemnestra may have, to modern eyes, been more concerned with vengeance when she killed the husband who had sacrificed her daughter, but it surely looked like justice to his sixth-century BCE audience. (Come to think of it, many people still have no qualms about taking vengeance and calling it justice.) In English literature, King Arthur and Robin Hood spring to mind. The detective-coloured wrapping may be relatively new, but the themes revealed when that wrapping is removed are as old as fiction.
"But theology," quoth Fraser,
is not just the intellectual arm of organised religion, full of bookish commissars tasked with apologetics. It is the exploration of how human life stands in relationship to that which is of ultimate concern. And as such, it will always find new ways of reinventing itself.
Which… well, no. His use of the definite article is disingenuous to say the least. Theology is a way—and not a particularly productive way—to explore the subject of life, the universe and everything. It is not, as Fraser so blithely asserts, the way.
But then, Fraser is hardly starting a trend here. Religion has a long history of framing ideas in its own terms, and then claiming that it owns them. Often those religious definitions have become so ingrained that we lack common-usage secular terms to describe them. Try to think of a common, succinct term for "an immoral action," and you'll come up with "sin." "An extremely unlikely piece of good fortune"? A miracle. Describe a profound experience and you'll be told you've had a "spiritual," "divine" or even "religious" experience. A sudden realisation or moment of clarity is a "revelation." Far from "reinventing itself," religion and theology endlessly reinvents everything else in its own image.
But at the end of the day it's all word-play. You cannot conjure a god into existence, merely by defining lots of stuff as godly. You don't even make the stuff itself godly by describing it so. Detectives, fictional or real, are not replacing priests as investigators into the mysterious, the right and the wrong. They merely happen to be travelling in the same direction. And they're making, if I may say so, much better headway.
Are modern detectives the new priests? No.
Inspector Cuff, Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, Jim Rockford, Saga Norén and their many fellows, have been solving the case and bringing in the bad guy with astounding success for the best end of two-hundred years. Theologians, on the other hand, have one major case to solve. Is there a god, or isn't there? They've been at it for millennia, and, well… to say that the jury is still out would be an exaggeration. The evidence bags are still emptier than a politician's promise and all they have is a whiteboard full of conjecture at the back of the incident room. Far from the jury being out, the theologians don't even have enough of a case to take it to court in the first place.
You may use these HTML tags in comments
<a href="" title=""></a> <abbr title=""></abbr>
<acronym title=""></acronym> <blockquote></blockquote> <del></del>* <strike></strike>† <em></em>* <i></i>† <strong></strong>* <b></b>†
* is generally preferred over †