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The Bible, the Detective Novel

Michael Dechane

23 big_sleep Raymond Chandler co-created the beginning of a new sub-genre of writing: the hard boiled American detective novel. At one point he wrote some rules for writers working in his wake: you can read his Ten Commandments For Writing a Detective Novel here. I will circle back to Chandler’s Commandments in a moment, but I want to say I wish someone would write some thoughtful rules for reading a detective novel. I know that does sound spurious, or just silly, especially when detective fiction is so often a guilty pleasure for serious readers or literature students of all stripes. I wish it though, because I’m more and more curious about both sides of this wonderful, terrifying, transcendent mystery we are caught up in: how to write and how to read.

Nothing fuels this curiosity more than my attempts to read the Bible. It’s interesting how the difficulty of entering into our sacred text brings out some different attempts to find footing, or a way to enter into it, or … something. One category of attempts is to superimpose our ideas about what we know of other kinds of writing, what we call genres (all of which were born after the Bible was written) over the text or into the filters in our minds. Watch. The Bible, we sometimes say, is a Big Love Story. And we take what we know about romance novels or films and try and get at the text through that lens. Or, the Bible is a History Book: the story of God and his people and the world, and that becomes a primary lens. And then there is (perhaps) the saddest lens of all: the Bible is a Textbook. We flatten the whole thing into small, “learnable”bits of instructive information on how to make our lives work well (better? okay? something?).

I think these attempts to consider the Bible through a lens we think we can understand are inevitable, potentially helpful, and invariably flawed. There is a small army of questions marching around in my head at this point that I’m putting aside in order to call this one question to the fore: why don’t we attempt to read the Bible as a detective novel? If you want to object to my question, or chime in with some answer, please avail yourself of the comments section on this post, where you’ll find me waiting. For now, I shoulder aside the inevitability of finite creatures trying to make sense of the Infinite and the invariability of our flawed attempts to do it, and consider the potential benefits.

For one, if we tried reading the Bible as a detective novel, we might actually finish it.

For another, we would be more apt to be caught up in, and maybe even enjoy, the scalding plot line and the “characters”and the unraveling-even-as-it-deepens-mystery that run through the whole of it.

For another, it simultaneously opens both a door for our recalcitrant humility and our wonderful, God-given powers of deduction and reason: we might be forced to own the fact that we don’t know exactly what is going to happen in the story, or why, and we would be encouraged to pay a bit more attention to the details (not to mention the unwritten subtexts).

But even with such tantalizing benefits at these, I submit to you that we stubbornly refuse to even attempt to engage with the Bible as The Mystery of God and His Disappearing Son.


When you’re done answering (or ignoring) that question, circle back to Chandler with me. Though he was certainly under no compulsion to do so, I believe that God has written a book that beautifully, wonderfully adheres to each of Chandler’s Commandments, including the First: “It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the denouement.”Also, especially, the Sixth: “It must baffle the reasonably intelligent reader.”Are you ready to consider enjoying the Thriller that begat all thrillers? There was this dame, a real looker, see, but decked out with troubles like a lit-up Christmas tree when she first walked into my office