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Mysteries, Cheap and Dear

Posted in Literature, and Theology

I’ve been listening to a lot of mystery novels recently (I have a long commute on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and have noticed that some mysteries seem cheap, while others seem . . . expensive? Dear? Legitimate?

The cheap mysteries are the ones where you’re riding along in the head of the “detective,” and then suddenly can’t see what’s happening.

My brain was pounding from the lack of sleep, but I pressed on. I had to get the information. I just had to.

“Who killed Slimy Bob?” I shouted at him. I could see his eyes darting back and forth. He was clearly terrified.

He began to stammer. Then he told me who killed Slimy Bob.

My jaw dropped. This new information changed everything.

I stumbled out of the cave in a stupor.

A cheap mystery is one where the narrator withholds information from you that — following the narrator’s own practice up to that point — you should have access to. It’s information that happens in plain sight of the main character, and you saw everything else the main character saw up to that point. It’s information that a character realizes in a sudden flash, and you’ve had complete access to her thoughts up to that point, etc.

Most people think religious mysteries are of this first, cheap type. They’re only mysteries because someone “isn’t telling” (and isn’t telling for no good reason).

In a good (“dear”) mystery, we readers don’t know the information because the characters (at least, the ones through whom we are experiencing the story) don’t know it. We don’t see the information because the perspective the narrator has given us from the very beginning doesn’t give us access to it.

Similarly, the most important religious mysteries are ones where we don’t have some information (or some knowledge, or some understanding) because our human perspective is intrinsically limited. And, if I interpret Robert Sokolowski correctly, we should be able to explain why such mysteries have to be mysterious, given what they are about, and given what we are.*

*(I hope I’m paraphrasing Sokolowski correctly. I picked up this point either from his The God of Faith and Reason, or Eucharistic Presence.)

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