World War Modesty

It began here:  the designer of a series of “modest” swimsuits gave a presentation on the cultural evolution of the swimsuit, asking if modest could make a comeback.  The Modesty debate emerged in Christendom again!  People are once more arguing over how much responsibility a Christian woman holds in keeping her brothers from “stumbling.”

It continued here, in a blog post by Rachel Held Evans, who I thought responded graciously and eloquently while pointing out some of the flaws in the standard Christian stance on “modesty.”  She writes, I remember feeling bad for the tall girls who were sent home from my Christian school because their shorts were millimeters too short. I remember the tear-stained faces of little girls turned away from swimming pools because their bathing suits had two pieces. And I remember trying desperately to cover up the shape of my breasts, which despite all my turtlenecks and layers and crossed arms insisted upon showing up early. When I caught a male classmate’s eye on them, a wave of guilt would rush over me—Oh no, he noticed me! I’ve made him stumble.  To this day, I have to deliberately avoid folding my arms in front of my chest because I made such a habit of it in my youth.

My primary  issue with the “modesty” stance is that it seems to assume that men are the only creatures capable of lust, that women are not equally sexual creatures.
If women must cover up their legs, cleavage, figure, etc., not out of their own personal sense of propriety but out of fear of “causing a brother to stumble,” how come the same charge is never leveled at men? (Answer: because it is assumed that women aren’t as sexual, that “good girls” don’t ever have “dirty” thoughts. Rubbish.)

And yet many men I know even in conservative Christian circles often have no compunction about standard swimwear, even when some male swimwear by definition shows more skin than a bikini could.

Imagine if the “modesty” debate was truly egalitarian! Christian men would be exhorted not to wear
–shorts that are shorter than fingertip length?
–bathing suits without a shirt over the top?
–form-fitting jeans or slacks?
–shirts that are too open in the front? (Looking at you, Tom Jones!)
–shirts that show too much bicep?


Perhaps men would even be encouraged to wear Scottish kilts, to show off the shape of their legs and butts less than slacks do.  (Don’t lie, ladies–for many of you, a well-shaped male butt is as appealing as a well-shaped female butt is to me, amiright?)

This is not to say that I’m trying to argue that men should wear burquas, either.
I’m saying instead that lust is always the problem of the luster, not the lustee, and that no sexy outfit worn by a member of the other sex can “make” you sin. I’m saying instead that both men and women should be free to choose clothing that they feel reflects who they are, without being afraid of their brothers or sisters in the church. I’m saying that there needs to be less body-shaming in the Church, that nobody should feel that they have to “frump up” or “cover up” to protect themselves.


Modesty proponents frequently talk as though men are literally incapable of controlling their sexual urges.  In the comments on Rachel Held Evan’s post, one commenter wrote regarding swimwear, “The only choice available to a godly man is to not look, and if he must look, to somehow not allow stimulation turn into lust.”  “Somehow,” as though it were a nigh-impossible task.

But the fact is, just as it is possible (and frequent!) for a woman to be visually aroused, it is also possible for men to control their tendency towards lust.  Yes, the stereotype says that men are visual creatures–show us an inch of skin and we’ve gone into hump-everything-in-sight mode.  But you know what?  Maybe that’s just an insulting stereotype.

I was trained as an artist in college, and took several figure drawing classes, most of which involved nude models of both sexes. I remember what a culture shock this was for me, raised in a conservative Christian bubble as I was: how would I keep from lusting after the female models? Surprisingly easily, actually. Once I remembered I was there as an artist, my vision changed, and I saw those human bodies in terms of light and shadow, shape and line. It took a little practice, especially for a hormone-riddled college student, but I learned that it IS possible to look even at a stark naked woman in a way other than sexually. The difference is in where one allows one’s mind to wander. “Take every thought captive,” right?

And beyond artists: what of doctors?  Male doctors often have to see their patients naked, even the attractive ones.  Male doctors often have to perform breast exams, some gynecologists are male, etc.  If men were really as uncontrollable as the stereotype says, how could a Christian be a doctor without sinning?

The answer is, of course, that lust is always an active thing, not passive–you can’t control your attraction, but you can control what you allow your mind to focus on.

And it is this control that Christians must exercise, rather than expecting everyone else to “cover up” for their benefit.


Also, I can’t help but point out… even if you convinced every Christian woman to “cover up” in a burquini to keep you from lusting, do you think the nonChristian women are going to do so as well?  I wouldn’t expect so.  So won’t you still have the same problem?  Doesn’t it make more sense for the bastion against lust to be your own mental control, rather than the reduction of external stimuli?

One day the cat got into the dairy and twenty of them were at work moving all the milk out; no one thought of moving the cat.”  –C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader


Weary Hands

Hwaet!—now weak    are weary hands

that hardly hold    the hilt of sword.

Hoar-frost on beard,    hoard-silvered head,

and vellumed skin    all sing the tale

of far-fled youth.    Full fifty winters

have I sat     with  crown-ringed brow

since Heardred’s death,    and costly weregild

claimed by spear    from Sweden’s son,

Onela king.    

Then last I drew

a blade from belt   in battle-blood.

Many a battle     won I when young;

now I am old.     I used to swim

all armor-clad     for countless nights,

so strong was I.     I could not now.

And do the sceopes    sing hero-songs

of how the king,    Ecgtheow’s bearn,

sits aging here?

                                    These harrowed nights,

when sweat-soaked dreams    drive waking cries

from shadowed sleep,    I oft bethink

that kinder death    had lingered there

in Grendel’s maw,    or had the hag,

the demon’s dam,    drowned me deep.

Age is more cruel,    a grimmer gaest,

that spills no blood,    yet makes a king

but half a man.

                                    I wait alone.

There is no Cain-kin    left to kill,

and every steadt    is stale with peace.

E’en the wyrm     of Earanaes

a sleeper is,    unsoured by dreams

of youthful years    and waning strength.

My byrnie rusts,    and Naegling’s blade

sticks to its sheath,    as unused as

my fighting arm.

When final breath

escapes my lips,    and leaves me lying

ashen-white,     who will welcome

Geatland’s king,     conquered by years,

overcome by time,    no sword in his hand—

No battle-dirge,    no bloodstained shroud,

no wealth of foes    beneath his feet?

What barrow shall board    this broken body

that fails with age?

                                    Be it not so.

I’ll turn on Time,    that dauntless devil,

and like old Grendel    tear his arm.

He shall not claim me.    To the North,

to Earanaes,     I’ll thrust my thrall

that he may plunder    the wyrm’s warren:

my end be writ     in wrath and fire

before I’ll bow     to Man’s decline.

Drag up the drakon,     the deep-sleeper

from golden bed,    and let us dance.

Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Culture

“A Victorian To The Bone”:
Sherlock Holmes and the Cultural Norms of Victorian England

    When crafting a recent television series featuring the iconic fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, the writers chose to set their adaptation in contemporary London, complete with all the technological advances and cultural changes of the present day, rather than the Victorian (and later Edwardian) London that was the setting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories.  Writer Mark Gatiss said of this decision, “What appealed to us about the idea of doing Sherlock in the present day is that the characters have become almost literally lost in the fog…  And while I am second to no one in my enjoyment of that sort of Victoriana, we wanted to get back to the characters…” (Thorpe).  In other words, by divesting the story of its Victorian setting, the writers hoped to connect their audience to the characters of Holmes and Watson in a deeper way.

Indeed, the Victorian era is now far enough in the past that it often seems alien and exotic to modern readers of the Holmes canon, particularly non-British modern readers.  The character of Holmes himself can seem similarly exotic, blurring within a haze of gaslights and hansom cabs, deerstalker caps and smoking jackets, and other such period accoutrements which may be more setting than character.  Yet I believe that the ideal way to understand Sherlock Holmes is to understand him as he stood within the time and place he was written into.  If we want to understand Sherlock Holmes the man, we must first understand Sherlock Holmes the Victorian.

    In what ways was Sherlock Holmes a Victorian, and in what ways did he depart from the prevailing culture of his day?  Were his behavior, speech, dress and mannerisms typical of the day, or were they atypical?  Was he an oddity in the society of London in the late 1800s, or did he fit in?

    Class was an important aspect of identity in Victorian London, if not the most important aspect.  People seemed to define themselves almost exclusively by occupation and status.  Everything the Victorians did, every manner of dress or speech they affected, was class-conscious (Keating 7).  Sherlock Holmes was no exception to this.  It is tempting, sometimes, to treat our fictional heroes of eras past in an anachronistic manner, placing the words of present paradigms in their mouths, but Holmes does not permit us that liberty: his behavior demonstrates an acceptance of the class system he inhabits.

    To begin with, Holmes himself is not an upper-class Victorian (Harrison 13).  He is not landed gentry, and he cannot speak of his inheritance in terms of how many pounds per year he can withdraw.  We know that he is not rich: the entire reason why Watson and Holmes are introduced to one another (in the novel A Study In Scarlet) was because Holmes needs a flatmate to help him afford his rent (Doyle 16).  But neither is he poor, “working-class,” though he can affect the dress and dialect of a rough lout or out-of-work groom when the situation calls for disguise (Doyle 167).  Holmes maintains a lifestyle that includes dining out, violin concerts, holidays in the countryside, and other such luxuries that few cabbies or grooms could afford.  Holmes speaks of his ancestors as having been “country squires” (Doyle 435), “who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class.”  In several stories, too, he displays what some have interpreted as a “reluctance” to discuss money, “…all that reluctance to consider—or even to discuss—money which is the universal and enduring neurosis of the English middle-middle-class” (Harrison 13),  at one point rebuking a Duke for bringing up the subject of his fee.  He seems to have “this absurd, but almost understandable desire to pose, not only as the Compleat Professional Man, but as one who has small need to earn his bread” (Harrison 14).  This would place Holmes firmly in the middle class of Victorian society, a professional gentleman who must keep up an appearance of relative wealth while not being wealthy enough to avoid the need for an occupation.

    Holmes seems to style himself a “gentleman,” and indeed seems to take such a status very importantly (Keating 10-11).  In “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” Holmes berates the murderer they apprehend because of his class: “How an English gentleman could behave in such a manner is beyond my comprehension” (Doyle 930).  Holmes holds “gentleman” to be a high standard to which he aspired, as many of his contemporaries did.

“…However concocted, the ideal of the English gentleman was a very real one…  impressed on the hearts and minds of men who by the thousand went out from their country and set an example to the world.  …It was one to compare with that of the noble Roman or of the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche.  It was looked up to, admired and imitated all over the globe, that strange, indefinable yet quite clear notion of always and in all circumstances ‘doing the decent thing’…  It was an ideal embodied in the person of Mr Sherlock Holmes as if he had been created for this and no other purpose.”  (Keating 11)

    Living as a middle-class English gentleman in Victorian times was not always easy.  For one thing, it was a financial tightrope.  “For a man wishing to keep above the level of the working-class, the world of 1881 was not a cheap one” (Harrison 92).  The rent that Watson and Holmes share would have probably been about four pounds a week, and would have been about as cheaply as the pair could live without damaging their social standing (Harrison 92), but we know that Watson’s army pension is only “eleven shillings and sixpence a day” (Doyle 15), about 3.8 pounds per week, while Holmes’ employment is sporadic.  No wonder the doctor and detective are each looking for a flatmate!  Add to their rent the cost of the various forms of social entertainment they engage in as much to keep up their social positions as for personal enjoyment (dining out, going to violin concerts, playing billiards), and it becomes clear that the reason Holmes saves and re-uses his dottles (charred, foul-tasting tobacco found at the bottom of a pipe after it has been smoked) might be out of financial necessity (Harrison 92-95).

    Clothing was very important to the Victorian gentleman—so much so that in Ward’s Prose Quotations the entry under “gentleman” said, “See Christianity, dress” (Keating 10).  It is certainly important to Watson, our narrator, who repeatedly identifies “gentlemen” characters by what they are wearing (Keating 11).  Clothing seems no less important to Holmes himself, who affected a “quiet primness of dress” (Doyle 386).  Holmes may treat his belongings with “contempt,” leaving his sitting-room in a slovenly state, pinning papers to the mantle with a knife, keeping tobacco in a Persian slipper, even shooting up his apartment’s walls with a pistol—but he maintains a personal cleanliness (Harrison 43), even going so far as to make sure he still has a “clean collar” when roughing it out on the moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles (Doyle 741).  In film and stage, Holmes is often portrayed as wearing a long tweed coat and a deerstalker cap—even when in London.  But in the original stories, while Holmes is indeed described as wearing an “ear-flapped travelling cap” in “Silver Blaze” (Doyle 335), that was an adventure taking place out on the moors.  This would not have been his everyday mode of dress.  “Now, it is obvious that a man so careful of the sartorial conventions as Holmes must have been would wear that tweed outfit only when travelling: at other times, he would wear the dress that custom, no less than fashion, ordained, so as not to embarrass either the world or himself” (Harrison 58).  At other times Holmes wore frock coats, top hats, waistcoats, and all the customary clothing of an urban Victorian gentleman.

    Nor did Holmes seem to deviate from Victorian norms in politics, except in a few minor ways.  He seems to be a very patriotic person, marking his sitting room’s walls with a “V.R.” (Victoria Regina) in “The Musgrave Ritual” (Doyle 386).  In “The Last Bow,” near the end of his life, Holmes undertakes a spy mission for the British government on the eve of World War One, and on several other occasions he performs detective work for high-ranking government officials.  In “The Noble Bachelor” he even uses the rhetoric of Empire to an American, stating that “I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a Minister in far gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country” (Keating 57), meaning that he feels that the British Empire and the United States will merge.  Perhaps the only political stance Holmes holds which is notable for his culture is that he is an enthusiastic supporter of compulsory education, praising the Board schools as “lighthouses” and “beacons of the future” (Doyle 447), though this was not necessarily a popular stance (Keating 15-16).

    It is in Holmes’ own education that he begins to depart from Victorian norms.  In all we have examined so far—in class, in finances, in dress, in politics—Holmes has not varied from the culturally acceptable, even the usual, but his education is a somewhat unusual one, as unusual as (though not as intensive as) the childhood tutoring of philosopher John Stuart Mill.  Holmes is still an undergraduate in college in “The ‘Gloria Scott’” (Harrison 1).  Holmes later mentions that he was “at College” for two years (Doyle 374), which “means that Holmes shortened his stay at the University by at least one year” (Harrison 2), leaving without a degree.  By the time Watson meets Holmes, years later, Holmes is already established as a private consulting detective, but is also pursuing research at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital: Watson at first thinks he is a medical student, but his friend Stamford says he doesn’t know “what he is going in for.”  “His studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors” (Doyle 16).  He did not “appear to have pursued any course of reading which might fit him for a degree in science of any other recognized portal which would give him an entrance into the learned world,” yet “within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute…” (Doyle 20).  So in essence, Holmes was a college drop-out who continued to audit classes and pursue his own academic path.

    When Watson first becomes Holmes’s flatmate in A Study In Scarlet, he is curious about this unusual education that seems so specific without having a readily apparent aim, and so he decides to catalogue Holmes’s knowledge—and his ignorance.  “Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know nothing,” Watson notes, adding that after he had quoted Thomas Carlyle, Holmes “inquired in the naïvest way who he might be and what he had done” (Doyle 21).  Holmes’s knowledge of astronomy is also nonexistent, right down to not knowing that the earth revolves around the sun.  “That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it” (Doyle 21).  To Watson’s mind, a Victorian gentleman should have basic knowledge of such things—it is not “civilized,” and says something about a person’s identity, to be ignorant of astronomy or philosophy.  Yet Watson also recognizes Holmes’s specialties, such as being able to tell what part of London a soil sample came from, or knowing all about poisons (Doyle 22).  This unusual set of specialized knowledge is, of course, what Holmes uses to solve the mysteries he is hired to solve: essentially Holmes creates a field of study for criminology—a career which, at the time, was not yet in existence.

    It may be that Watson’s initial assessment of Holmes’s education is erroneous, or it may be that as Holmes’s career develops, he becomes more widely read.  Either way, by later stories Holmes is no longer as ignorant of areas that did not apply to his specific occupation (Hall 46-47), demonstrating knowledge in archaeology (in “The Devil’s Foot”) and biology (in “The Lion’s Mane”).  The same man who had to ask who Carlyle was in A Study in Scarlet later comments that Carlyle is the “brook” to Jean Paul Richter’s “parent lake” during a conversation in The Sign of Four (Doyle 121).  By the middle of his career Holmes was as familiar with the philosophers and statesmen of his time as society expected him to be.

    Many would think of Holmes’s use of narcotic drugs as departures from Victorian norms.  Throughout the stories, Holmes uses cocaine and occasionally morphine as stimulants when he does not have a mystery to keep his mind occupied.  This, however, was not necessarily a departure from what was acceptable.  “…there was, at the time when Holmes began to take cocaine, no popular prejudice against drugs or drug-takers” (Harrison 154), at least not the drugs which Holmes indulged in.  Watson disapproved, but not as much as he disapproved when he worried that Holmes had begun to indulge in opium (Doyle 232), apparently a less socially-acceptable drug, as an opium addict is described as “an object of mingled horror and pity to his friends and relatives” (Doyle 229).  It seems less so with Holmes’s cocaine.  “In Holmes’s day, not only was the purchase of most ‘Schedule IV’ drugs legal: Madeleine Smith and Mrs. Maybrick bought their arsenic; De Quincy and Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, their laudanum; with no more trouble than that with which they all purchased their tooth-powder.”  (Harrison 154).  So here we have no deviation from what the Victorians found acceptable.

    It is in the area of sexuality that many would question Holmes’s adherence to Victorian culture.  It is commonly believed that in Victorian society, sex was so taboo that it was almost nonexistent, and that many Victorians were sexually repressed (Seidman 46).  Even if this is an exaggeration, Victorians certainly “felt compelled to desensualize sex or to erect elaborate barriers to contain erotic desires” (Seidman 49).  Some, however, see Sherlock Holmes as challenging this Victorian ethic by (in their perception) openly living in a gay relationship.  This perception is prevalent enough that it requires some examination.  Was Holmes homosexual, and if he was, how would this have been perceived by the culture of his day?

    To begin with, an openly gay relationship is not something that was within the tolerances of Victorian society: it was, in fact, a criminal offense (“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”).  The very subject was taboo: “the word ‘homosexuality’ did not appear in print until 1897” (Keating 78).  Doyle himself may have lost political connections for his associations with Sir Roger Casement (“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”), and in 1895 Oscar Wilde went to court with the Marquess of Queensberry over a public accusation that Wilde was a “somdomite” (Linder), which ended with Wilde serving two years in jail.  So if Holmes is a gay man, he cannot be living “openly” as a gay man in Victorian London and still maintain his friendly rivalry with Scotland Yard.

    It is doubtful anyone can argue that Holmes was not ambivalent towards women.  He showed no desire for any sort of romantic entanglement with women, except possibly once: for Irene Adler, the antagonist of “A Scandal in Bohemia.”  Even then, Holmes seems only to harbor a sort of intellectual infatuation for the woman who outwitted him (not unlike John Stuart Mill’s infatuation with his wife’s qualities (147)).  He may wear the sovereign she gave him on his watchchain, and treasure her letter to him, but “Holmes seemed never to wish to have a relationship with a woman more direct than that of cherishing these two keepsakes” (Keating 78).  He may have a “remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women,” as Watson comments in “The Adventure of the Dying Detective, trying to paint a picture of Holmes’s “chivalry,” but even Watson must admit that “He disliked and distrusted the sex” (Doyle 932).  In “The Greek Interpreter,” Watson claims that Holmes’s “aversion to women” is “typical of his unemotional character” (Doyle 435).  In The Sign of Four, Holmes says to Watson, “Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them” (Doyle 129).  And most tellingly, later in the same novel, when Watson becomes engaged to Miss Morstan, Holmes says, “I really cannot congratulate you.  …love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.  I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment” (Doyle 157).

    It is this last quote that seems to refute the idea that Holmes is a sexual rebel, a champion of repressed sexuality against the rigid Victorian social norms.  Holmes is not rejecting heterosexual love in favor of homosexual love, but rejecting love wholly together.  This is in keeping with earlier descriptions of his character as cold, almost unemotional, sometimes bordering on the inhuman (Simmons 42).  Stamford says that Holmes “…is a little too scientific for my tastes—it approaches to cold-bloodedness.  I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects” (Doyle 17).

    Add to this that, while those who read Holmes as a gay character often see him being in a sexual relationship with Watson, Holmes is generally as cold towards Watson as he is towards others.  There are two times in the series when Holmes demonstrates some affection towards Watson, and both times Watson refers to the event as unusual.  In “The Devil’s Foot,” when both men nearly die from an experiment with a flammable toxin, Holmes says to Watson, “I owe you…an apology.  It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend.  I am really very sorry.”  Watson is taken aback, telling the reader that he had “never seen so much of Holmes’s heart before” (Doyle 965).  And again in “The Three Garridebs,” when Watson is shot (only grazed) by a criminal, and Holmes has a brief emotional outburst (“…say you are not hurt!”), Watson comments, “It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love that lay behind that cold mask…For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain” (Doyle 1053).  If Watson is so taken aback by an emotion as basic as concern for his life, and if this was “the one and only time” he had such a glimpse of Holmes’s emotions, then Holmes showing affection for Watson had to be a very rare event (Simmons 42).

It may be that to read a sexual relationship in 221b Baker Street is to project a twenty-first century understanding of sexuality onto the nineteenth century.  “If Holmes were a man of the late twentieth century we could hardly fail to conclude from this evidence that his sexual drive was directed to the male…  But Holmes was a man of the nineteenth century, a Victorian to the bone…” (Keating 78).  And being that he was a Victorian, it seems it would be better to find a Victorian explanation for Holmes’s emotional distance and his seeming asexuality—such as the neglect of emotional development described by John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography.  A brilliant intellectual, like Holmes, Mill experienced an unusual and intensive education, but which left him unprepared to deal with the emotional aspects of human existence.  “…the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings,” Mill writes, “…when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analyzing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives” (114).  Mill claims that his intensive education, and his long-cultivated habit of analyzing everything, “undermined” his desires and pleasures, leaving him cold and distant, to the point where he had trouble finding enjoyment in simple things (115-117).  Mill comments that this separation from one’s feelings seems to be a cultural tendency: “…The English character, and English social circumstances, make it so seldom possible to derive happiness from the exercise of the sympathies, that it is not wonderful if they count for little in an Englishman’s scheme of life” (123).  Thus we could hazard that Holmes’s emotional disconnect—to whatever degree it exists—is an exaggerated form of the disconnect all Victorian “gentleman” cultivated to varying degrees: the distrust of emotion, regarding feelings as “necessary evils” (123).

Perhaps the most interesting facet of Victorian culture to explore in Holmes’s life is Philosophy/Theology.  The late 1800s were a time of philosophical change.  The works of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species had been published in 1859, the year Arthur Conan Doyle was born (Frank 337); Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, which challenged the religious understanding of the origins of humanity, and thus, challenged religious paradigms themselves, was published in 1870—three years before 1873, when the earliest of the Holmes stories is set (Keating 18).  Christian faith had previously been a given of Victorian life, but now many Victorians found themselves challenging established religion in favor of a more scientific, rationalistic, empirical approach to the world.  The Board schools which Holmes praised produced a generation which understood the tools of scientific inquiry and how to apply them (Keating 15-16).  Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote of the impact Darwinian thought had on him when he was at Edinburgh University:

“…I found that the foundations not only of Roman Catholicism but of the whole Christian faith, as presented to me in nineteenth century theology, were so weak that my mind could not build upon them. It is to be remembered that these were the years when Huxley, Tyndall, Darwin, Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill were our chief philosophers, and that even the man in the street felt the strong sweeping current of their thought…” (Frank 338).

Doyle had a hard time reconciling his Catholic upbringing with the “scientific desire for truth” (Owen 66), and so became an agnostic (67).

    It is in this post-Darwin upheaval that Holmes lives and thrives.  Holmes himself is a reader of Darwin: in A Study In Scarlet he quotes from Descent of Man about how the power of producing music has existed in humankind before the power of producing speech (Doyle 37, Keating 38).  Holmes has a rationalistic, deductive approach to life, using the tools of scientific inquiry to aid in his career (Keating 20), which would have seemed anachronistic in a pre-Darwinian age, but which was cutting-edge thought in the Victorian era.

In a striking link to Darwin, Holmes even seems to place great emphasis on biology and descent, favoring nature over nurture in his explanations for criminal behavior.  He explains the evil of Professor Moriarty by saying that the Professor had “hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind… a criminal strain ran in his blood” (Doyle 471).  Likewise with Colonel Moran, Moriarty’s right hand man: “I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree” (Doyle 494).  In The Hound of the Baskervilles, when Holmes discovers that Stapleton is a Baskerville, he comments that “…it is an interesting instance of a throwback… A study of family portraits is enough convert a man to the doctrine of reincarnation” (Doyle 750).  And even regarding himself and his own skills, when Watson asks if Holmes’s powers of deduction come from his training, Holmes does not seem to believe so.  “To an extent…” he says, but then talks about his ancestry, particularly his grandmother who was sister to “Vernet, the French artist.”  “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms” (Doyle 435).

Out of Holmes’s science-driven philosophy comes a rejection of superstition.  Holmes always seeks a material explanation for even the strangest of occurrences (Hall 11).  In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” Holmes is approached with what seems to be a vampire attack, but refuses to even consider such a possibility.  “Rubbish, Watson, rubbish!  What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their graves by stakes driven through their hearts?  It’s pure lunacy.  …The world is big enough for us.  No ghosts need apply” (Doyle 1034).  Likewise in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes dismisses the legend of the Hound as interesting only “to a collector of fairy tales” (Doyle 676), and comments that “I have hithero confined my investigations to this world,” preferring to focus on the real and material footprint than on supernatural speculation (Doyle 681).  In this instance he stands in contrast to Dr. Mortimer, a fellow “trained man of science” who nevertheless has “quite gone over to the supernaturalists” in his explanation of the Hound, showing perhaps that the naturalistic approach has not fully permeated even as scientific a field as medicine (Frank 340).

In this rejection, Holmes stands shoulder-to-shoulder with many other great minds of the Victorian Age.  John Stuart Mill writes of his own rejection of religion as a casting-away of “superstition” (146), rejecting any morality derived from “a matter of blind tradition, with no consistent principle, nor even any consistent feeling, to guide it” (52). 

This is not to say that Holmes is necessarily an atheist as Mill was.  Holmes rarely speaks openly about his beliefs, but from what little he says we can infer a theology of sorts.  We can assume that he had a religious upbringing, as many Victorians had: he comments in “The Crooked Man” that his “Biblical knowledge is a trifle rusty” (Doyle 422), and mentions having been on his way to chapel when he was in college—though chapel attendance may have been mandatory (Rosenberger 50).  Despite this, however, he does not seem to be an adherent to any organized religion: only once do we see Holmes in a church, when in disguise he follows Irene Adler to her secret wedding (Keating 135).  He refers several times to the “God of justice,” seeming to reflect a belief that a deity does aid in the redressing of wrongs (either in this life or the afterlife) (Rosenberger 52), saying at one point, “If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is a cruel jest” (Rosenberger 54).  Holmes seems to arrive at his theological beliefs through pure inference, rather than from the received text or doctrine of any faith.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion…  Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.  All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance.  But this rose is an extra.  …It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”  (Doyle 455-456)

This seems to echo one of the earlier chapters of A Study in Scarlet, when Holmes claimed that “From a drop of water… a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other” (Doyle 23).  Holmes seems to feel that his beliefs are logical inferences rather than leaps of faith.  And yet at other times he seems frustrated at the limits of human reason.  In “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” he claims that the mystery must have an answer, “or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.  But what end?  There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever” (Keating 135).
In this, Holmes is again within the tolerances of Victorian society.  The middle of the 1800s was a time when religion was very important, when church attendance was expected and when the “day of rest” was compulsory (Keating 6).  By the beginning of the 1900s, however, religious publication had dropped (Keating 125), and alternative beliefs such as atheism or agnosticism were tolerated more (Mill 54).

One thing that is interesting to note, as regards the interaction between Sherlock Holmes and the supernatural, is that Doyle’s readers seemed to seize upon the fictional detective as a champion of rationalism.  Holmes’s adherence to science and the material, even in the face of events that seemed supernatural, hit a cultural nerve.  In the early 1920s, when Arthur Conan Doyle (a spiritualist by this time) “championed” the Cottingley fairy photographs, a series of photographs of two young girls playing with what seemed to be supernatural creatures, the public was surprised.  “His espousal of the fairies dismayed many of even his most ardent admirers” (Owen 48).  Doyle wrote repeated articles and editorials about the photographs, certain that they were authentic; a disbelieving public could not believe that the same author had created the scientifically-minded Sherlock Holmes (Owen 67).  A political cartoon around that time showed a “scowling” Holmes shackled to Arthur Conan Doyle, who had his “head in the clouds” (Owen 67).  If nothing else, this demonstrates what the Victorians and the children of Victorians had come to see Holmes as representing: a rationalism they felt more comfortable with than with a belief in ghosts or fairies.

“No man is an island—especially in Time,” writes Michael Harrison.  “Each man is a part of the society in which he lives: he has a hand in giving it its peculiar flavour, and he has been moulded by it” (46).  This may perhaps be less true of fictional characters than of historical personages, but it is certainly true of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  Many of the aspects of Holmes’s character that readers today find exotic—his dress, his mannerisms, his habits, his love life, even his scientific approach to observation—are in fact inextricably bound within the era that the Holmes stories were written through and set within.  While there are many ways that Holmes astonishes the more conventionally Victorian Watson, Holmes is never so far from the social expectations of his day as to make of himself an outcast or rebel.  On the contrary—Sherlock Holmes was very much a Victorian himself.

Works Cited

Doyle, Arthur Conan.  The Complete Sherlock Holmes.  Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc.,  1930.  Print.
Frank, Lawrence. “The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Man on the Tor, and a Metaphor for the Mind.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 54.3 (1999): 336-372. Print.
Hall, Trevor.  Sherlock Holmes: Ten Literary Studies.  London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. LTD.,  1969.  Print.
Harrison, Michael.  In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes.  New York:  Drake Publishers., 1972.  Print.
Keating, H.R.F.  Sherlock Holmes: The Man And His World.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.,  1979.  Print.
Linder, Douglas O.  “An Account of the Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Owen, Alex. “‘Borderland Forms’: Arthur Conan Doyle, Albion’s Daughters, and the Politics of the Cottingley Fairies.” History Workshop 38 (1994): 48-85. Print.
Rosenberger, Edgar S.  “The Religious Sherlock Holmes.”  Sherlock Holmes by Gas-Lamp: Highlights from the First Four Decades of The Baker Street Journal.  Ed. Philip A. Shreffler.  New York: Fordham University Press, 1989.  48-57.  Print.
Seidman, Steven. “The Power of Desire and the Danger of Pleasure: Victorian Sexuality Reconsidered.” Journal of Social History 24.1 (1990): 47-67. Print.
Simmons, George.  “Sherlock Holmes—The Inner Man.”  Sherlock Holmes by Gas-Lamp: Highlights from the First Four Decades of The Baker Street Journal.  Ed. Philip A. Shreffler.  New York: Fordham University Press, 1989.  42-47.  Print.
“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Biography” The Official Web Site of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate.  Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Thorpe, Vanessa.  “Sherlock Holmes is back… sending texts and using nicotine patches.”  The Observer. 17 July 2010.  Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

Beyond Scripture

Can God speak directly to us?  Should we be listening for a “still, small voice,” not necessarily an audible voice but a mental voice, to direct our lives?  Should “listening” ever be a part of our contemplative prayers?  Or is the Bible the only way that God will ever speak to us, and is listening in any other way a dangerous practice?

I think that any mature Christian worth his or her salt (pun intended) will be wary of what extra-Scriptural direct revelations he or she receives.  God, after all, is not the only voice out there.  However, I have been startled lately by just how many Christians believe that revelation is completely closed, now, and exists only within the bounds of Scripture.  I have heard lately that we are wrong to think that we can hear directly from God, at least in any way other than cracking a Bible.

This concerns me.  Allow me to explain why in a long-winded and circuitous manner. 

Part One: The Nature and Purpose of Scripture

It’s not my purpose in this blog to make a ground-up argument for the divine inspiration of Scripture.  If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that either you’re a Christian who already believes that Scripture was divinely inspired by God, or you are willing to temporarily posit such a stance for the sake of argument.

The Scripture was given to us in waves.  First, the five Books of Moses were given, which became revered by the Jewish faith as the Torah.  Then, centuries later, the writings of various prophets slowly became accepted as authoritative and scriptural.  A few more centuries later, a collection of various historical and poetic writings (including the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, etc.), which were already revered as important historical documents, became officially accepted as Scripture by the Jewish faith.  (Their acceptance was not official until after the time of Jesus: in the Gospels you will often see Jesus refer to “The Law and the Prophets” but not to “The Writings” as well, though he does quote from them.)  Around the same time, as Christianity branched out from and re-interpreted Judaism in the light of who Christ was, the letters written by the apostles became accepted as scriptural, though their official recognition would not be for another two hundred years.  Then the gospels, as they were written, and the other New Testament writings, with Revelation and Hebrews being in dispute until they were finally accepted via church council.

During each of these waves, as new revelations were given by God, God’s direct revelations coexisted concurrently with existing Scripture.  That is, though the ancient Israelites had the Torah, they also had prophets bringing specific messages from God, and people (even wicked people) would receive visions and dreams–or hear voices–that were sent from God.  And again in the early church, although they had the Torah, the K’tuvim, and the N’vim, as well as the writings of Paul (which were already being accepted as Scriptural, see 2 Peter), still had an active ministry of prophecy.  Paul twice describes “prophets” in his list of the spiritual gifts, and Luke describes several prophets functioning in the church in the Acts of the Apostles.   So, at least while Scripture was still being created, direct revelation was occurring.

Several writers of Scripture speak of that which was already considered Scripture at the time of writing.  It is good to look at these passages, as the way that Scripture writers handled and uses earlier Scripture is logically indicative of how we should use and handle Scripture today.  When the New Testament authors spoke of the Old Testament, they spoke of it as though it were the directly revealed Word of God (see Acts 4:24-25, 2 Peter 3:2).  In addition, several New Testament writers wrote of their own works, or the works of other New Testament writers, as being authoritative, even at one point calling them “scripture” (1 Corinthians 14:37, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Peter 3:14-16).

One of the best passages which explains the purpose of Scripture within the Church is 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”  So the primary purpose of Scripture is to teach, train, and equip the Christ-follower.

Another important passage is found in John.  Jesus, speaking to a disbelieving Jewish crowd, exclaims, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”  Here is a crucial concept: that Jesus is on every page of Scripture, and that the purpose of Scripture is to point to Jesus.  Jesus himself is often referred to as “The Word of God,” the same title given to Scripture–and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  The purpose of Scripture is to show who Jesus is.  John underscores this regarding his own gospel in John 20:31 — “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

So Scripture is revealed by God, but it is a revelation with a specific purpose.

This is important to note.  It is not Scripture’s job to be the comprehensive revelation of God, the complete and total revelation of God.  In fact, there are many things which are deliberately NOT in Scripture–such as the time of Christ’s return, or what the seven thunders said in the Revelation.  The Bible has a specific purpose, and it tells us things toward that purpose, but this does not mean that there are not other revelations to be had.  Deuteronomy 29:29 reads, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”  And John 20:30 tells us that Jesus did and said many things that did not make it into the gospels.  God reveals things to us in Scripture specifically for our instruction.  Scripture is not the exhaustive Word of God, though it is sufficient for salvation.

Part Two: Direct Revelation in Scripture

Scripture records many ways in which God revealed things to humans–in other words, ways which have functioned as vehicles for God’s Word.  Those ways include

–With an audible voice (Genesis 2:18, 15:18, 1 Samuel 3:4, Revelation 2:1-2)
–Through the casting of lots (Proverbs 16:33, Acts 1:26, Exodus 28:30)
–Through dreams (Genesis 20:3, Numbers 12:6)
–Through visions (Isaiah 1:1, 2 Corinthians 12:2)
–Through angels (Daniel 10:12, Luke 2:10)
–Through prophets (Exodus 4:12, Ephesians 3:5)
–Through actual writing (Daniel 5:5)
–Through the test of signs, now often called “fleeces” (Judges 6:37, 2 Kings 20:9)
–Through the messages embedded in nature, particularly in the stars (Psalm 19:1-4, Matthew 2:2, Romans 1:20)

Scripture not only allows for the existence of God’s direct revelation, but knowing that miracles can be faked and prophecies can be false, Scripture provides us with the guidelines for how to test alleged revelation.

For instance, 1 John 4:1 tells us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.  By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”  So the first test that we place against any claim of hearing from God, any claim of prophecy, is who the prophecy says that Jesus is.  Notice, however, that if all direct revelation was going to cease with the formation of Scripture, why would John not have said, “Do not listen to prophecy”?  This warning presupposes that the Christian *may* hear from the Spirit of God.

Not only can a direct revelation not contradict the nature of Christ, it cannot contradict the Gospel.  Galatians 1:8 tells us, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”

No revelation, no matter how many miracles accompany it, may promote a god other than God.  Deuteronomy 13:1-3.

Here’s an important one: if the prophecy involves signs or future events, the prophecy MUST be completely accurate.  In ancient Israel, if it was not completely accurate, it was at the expense of the prophet’s LIFE.  There was a zero-tolerance policy for fakers.   Deuteronomy 18: “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”

Direct revelations must be evaluated by the congregation, and must proceed in an orderly fashion: 1 Corinthians 14:29-33.  Prophecy seems to be a regular part of the early church: 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21.

As the sufficient (but not exhaustive) Word of God, Scripture is held in a place of prominence: thus, no revelation from God can go against, negate, or contradict Scripture.  God does not lie or contradict himself–it’s against his nature.  And thus, no voice from heaven, no message from an angel, no handwriting on a wall, no sign or wonder, no dream or vision, no prophecy or revelation should be heeded if it does not agree with what we know God has said before.

John Wesley says it best (thanks Nic!):

“Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil. Therefore ‘believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God.’ Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it. You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture; yea, or from the plain, literal meaning of any text, taken in connection with the context; and so are you, if you despise, or lightly esteem, reason, knowledge, or human learning; every one of which is an excellent gift of God.”

Yet in all these cautions there is the assumption that a thought, voice, spirit, vision, dream, message, or prophecy *may* be from God.  If it were not so, we would not be instructed to test, but rather to reject all.

In fact, because the New Testament talks so much about how direct revelation (such as prophecy) should be used within the church, in order to reject all direct revelation outside of Scripture, we would have to ignore much of Scripture.  Without a Scriptural injunction to do so (as with Acts 15 and the kosher laws), that would be counterproductive to a Sola Scriptura approach to Christianity.

God speaks to us in many ways.  God, who used the voice of a donkey to speak to Balaam, can use whatever means at his disposal that he sees fit.  And while he has given us the gift of Scripture in which we can find his sufficient Word, and while we can hear him speak by simply reading from that Word, it would be presumptuous on our part to say that this is the only way in which he will speak.

Part 3: Counter-Arguments — the Passing of Prophecy

There is an argument that, while God used these other methods of direct revelation in the past, during “bible times,” he will not do so now, because we now have the Bible itself and don’t need direct revelation.

I find several flaws in this argument, not the least of which are the two Scriptures used to support it.  You will find no Scripture that says, “And God will not speak directly to humans anymore once the Bible is finished being made.”  However, many supporters of such an idea appeal to Hebrews 1 and 1 Corinthians 13 for their support.

The Epistle to the Hebrews begins as follows:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

When I memorized this passage fifteen years ago, it was in the KJV, not the ESV, and there was no “but” between the two thoughts.  I suppose I could go to the Greek, and start digging to see if there should be a conjunction there at all.  I do not believe this would be necessary, however.  Look at what this passage says, and what it does not say.

It says that God spoke through prophets to “our fathers.”  And it says that he has now spoken “by his Son.”  It then goes on to talk about that Son and his attributes.

It does not say, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, which he will never have to do again now that the Son has been sent.”  To read it as saying so is to ignore the context of the passage.  This author (unknown, but I always like to think Apollos) is writing to Jewish Christians about a particularly Jewish understanding of Christianity.  So what revelation is he talking about in these “diverse and sundry manners”?  The Jewish Scriptures!  He’s linking the revelation of Jesus’ teachings as being firmly within–and the fuller completion of–the revelations found in the Old Testament.

This is a statement of unity with Old Testament Judaism, not a statement regarding the end of direct revelation.

This can be further seen in that Hebrews was written before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, pre-70 A.D.  The Revelation of John was probably not written until later, at least 95 A.D.  In fact, many books of the New Testament were perhaps not written yet.  Prophecies were still occuring in the early church.  If we are to read Hebrews 1:1 as meaning that all prophecies will cease now that the Son has come, then we would expect to see no direct revelation occurring post-crucifixion.  This is not what we see in the New Testament.

Now let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing…  Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”

This passage, so often read at weddings, has also been used to say that several of the spiritual gifts (prophecy and tongues in particular) have passed away.  I have heard it argued that “the perfect” is the completed Bible: that now that the Bible has come, direct revelations such as prophecy and tongues are no longer needed and no longer in effect.

My problem with this is that again, it’s taking a verse away from what the author was driving at.  Context is key, and if you want the context to this talk of things “passing away,” keep reading the passage.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

I do not think anyone will argue that the coming of the completed Bible is tantamount to knowing God “face to face,” no longer seeing in a glass darkly.  No, this is not speaking of the finished Bible, but of the second coming!  When we can see and speak with Jesus face to face, of course then prophecies will cease, when we no longer need other people to tell us about him!  When He who is Perfect has come, then all those gifts will pass, and our childish understanding of him will mature, and all will be swallowed in love.

And here is the problem.  Without any other passage which says that “direct revelation will cease with the completion of the Bible,” I would argue that making such a claim is extrabiblical.  And if it is extrabiblical to say that there is no longer any extrabiblical revelation, then either such a doctrine is man-made and false, or it is self-disproving.

Part Four: The History of Direct Revelation in the Church

An Orthodox friend of mine wrote, “Mysticism cannot be separated from Catholicism. Or Orthodoxy, for that matter.”  I would agree wholeheartedly.  (I’m going with Wikipedia’s definition of “mysticism,” “knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, i.e. levels of being, beyond normal human perception, including experience of and even communion with a supreme being.”)  The belief that God can still directly reveal something to a person’s heart has been accused of being mysticism, but I would argue that, as Christians are supposed to commune with the Supreme Being, one can hardly be Christian without being mystic.

Not all Christians receive direct revelation, of course.  There are, however, several notable examples of Christians who have.

I am particularly fond of the Catholic Encyclopedia’s statement on prophecy:  “The prophetic spirit did not disappear with the Apostolic times, but the Church has not pronounced any work prophetic since then, though she has canonized numberless saints who were more or less endowed with the gift of prophecy…”

A few notable examples of Christians who are alleged to have received direct revelation from God (either through voice, dream, vision, or otherwise) include:

–Caedmon, 680, heard a voice telling him to sing.  He was illiterate, and protested that he did not know how or what to sing.  The voice told him to sing of Creation, and Caedmon found himself able to sing.  The result is the oldest poem we have in the English language.
–Edward the Confessor, 1066, received a vision while has been interpreted (after the fact) as prophesying the split of the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church.
–Abdullah (pseudonym), 1998, Muslim who, after a series of troubling dreams, heard an audible voice which told him, “I am Jesus.  I am the way to heaven.”  Subsequently converted to Christianity, and was almost executed for it.

The fact is, there is a strong history of direct revelation within Christianity.  We should treat such revelations with caution, and always place them alongside Scripture for analysis, testing them for accuracy, but they can and do exist.  To say otherwise, I’m worried, might be placing words in God’s mouth–the very thing that those who reject modern direct revelation are trying to avoid.

Plus, I like to remember that direct revelation is a promise given for the eventual future:

“And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.”

Yahweh = Allah?

I write so rarely on here these days that, when I put a lot of work into a comment, I might as well adapt it into a post.

This post is inspired by a great question over on @SirNickDon ‘s site, which in turn was inspired by Miroslav Volf’s book.  Basically, the question is, are the God of Christianity and Allah of Islam the same being?  Can all the differences between them be ascribed to misunderstandings?  Do Allah and Yahweh have the same essential character?

It’s a question worth asking.

I do think that a lot of Muslim theology about Allah arose in reaction to either misunderstandings about Christian doctrine or heresies within Christianity.  Even today, many less-educated Muslims think Christians believe the Trinity is God the Father, Jesus, and Mary; even better-educated Muslims often think Christians believe in three Gods.  Islam is strongly monotheistic (even as a proper understanding of Christian trinitarianism is), and thus reacts very negatively to these ideas.

I also think that the name itself isn’t what’s important here: Arabic Christians refer to God as “Allah” as well.  But the “Allah” of an Arabic Christian is very different from the “Allah” of Islam. 

And thus I have to say in the end that no, the God of Christianity and the God of Islam cannot be the same being, or one is a distorted account of the other.  Two things stand out in particular that cannot be reconciled between the two: first, the Incarnation, and second, Grace.

The Incarnation is crucial to Christian theology, and is a defining belief.  First, it means that when Jesus sacrificed himself in the crucifixion, it was not merely a prophet who died, or even a perfect human: God himself died so that we could be reconciled to him.  This is a huge teaching, a mind-boggling idea.  And second, it means that God is not only a righteous being in the sky somewhere who sits over us in some kind of judgment: it means he knows what it’s like to be human, knows what it’s like to struggle with pain and death and grief and temptation, knows from firsthand experience.  The author of Hebrews underscores this point for us.  “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Muslim theology, however, is offended by the rawness of the Incarnation.  Surah 4:171 reads, “O People of the Book!  commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah anything but the truth.  Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah, and His Word, which he bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers.  Do not say “Trinity”: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One God: glory be to Him: (far Exalted is he) above having a son.  To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth.  And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs.” 

and Surah 5:17a reads, “In blasphemy indeed are those who say that God is Christ the son of Mary.”

A God who would incarnate as human is as incompatible with Islam as a micro-USB cable is with my three-year-old cell phone.

Grace, too, is a crucial part of Christianity.  Repeated over and over again in Christian thought we find the idea that the Law could not save, that it only showed our weakness and our inability to please God through our actions, fallen creatures that we are.  “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”  Instead, Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf, he paid our bloodprice, he cast down death and rose in triumph.  So when we are saved, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  We still are called to do works, but we do these works out of our love (John 14:23), and as a demonstration of our faith (James 2:18), NOT as anything on which our salvation is contingent.

In Islam, however, while Allah is described as “gracious,” his grace is activated by obedience.  Works hold a more important role in a Muslim’s salvation than they do in a Christian’s.  It is he who “believes and does good deeds” that Allah forgives.  Surah 23:102-103 says that when “the Trumpet is blown,” that “Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy, they will attain salvation: But those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls; in Hell will they abide.”  Surah 33:70-71 reads, “Fear Allah, and (always) say a word directed to the Right: That He may make your conduct whole and sound and forgive you your sins: he that obeys Allah and his Messenger, has already attained the highest Achievement.”  Surah 49:14b reads, “But if you obey Allah and his Messenger, He will not belittle anything of your deeds, for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Modern Muslims confirm this interpretation.  Bassam Zawadi, in refutation of an article entitled “Does Islam teach salvation by works?” writes, “Matt Slick says that us Muslims are not sure if we are goingto heaven or not but Christians are. The thing is, us Muslims believe that if we live upto the standards that God wishes us to live up to. Meaning, if we truly try our best tokeep ourselves within God’s law (and God knows our intentions) then yes we believe that weare going to heaven.”

I remember, when I was in college, a joint meeting my InterVarsity chapter had with the Muslim Student Association.  I got into a great theological discussion with the MSA’s chaplain.  He told me that, from a Muslim perspective, Islam is the balanced faith between the excesses of Judaism and Christianity.  He said that, as they see it, Judaism emphasized the Law too much, but Christianity emphasized Love too much.  Islam, to his mind, was Goldilocks’ bowl of porridge, “just right,” the perfect balance between Law and Love.  Muslims try hard to follow God’s law, and trust to God’s mercy for those areas where they’ve failed… but there’s no sense of why God would be merciful, or what (other than a previously good track record) activates God’s grace. 

Allah of Islam does not have the impossible standard (for fallen humans, anyway) of the Christian Yahweh: his Law is possible, do-able.  If you try hard enough, you can be good enough.  And thus there is no need for sacrifice, for the Crucifixion, for the Incarnation.

This may seem like a slight difference between the personalities of the two deities (or the one deity as described two different ways) but in the end it makes a world of difference.

The Pedagogy of Hogwarts

The Harry Potter series is a coming-of-age story in many ways, a story that matures with its readers, moving from the innocent adventures of an eleven-year-old, to the angst and social entanglements of a fifteen-year-old, to the pain and sorrow and battle and joy of adulthood.  It is a story of students, of learning, of education, of school.

And thus, in many ways, it is a story of teachers.

As a teacher myself, I’ve found it interesting to place modern pedagogical theory side-by-side with the practices of the various Hogwarts teachers.  I don’t know if Ms. Rowling has any training in education, but she certainly describes several teaching styles quite accurately.

1)  The Teacher-centered model: Professor Binns

When we think of school, what many of us think of (or remember) is the teacher telling students what to know, and the students copying that information down on notes in order to spit it back out for the exams.  This is known as the Teacher-centered model of teaching, or the tabula rasa (blank slate), because the idea behind this is that students are empty vessels waiting to absorb knowledge.

“All these ideas, teacher as knowledge knower, student as knowledge receiver, sound fairly logical and, indeed, some of them are deeply rooted in our culture.  The models, however, are largely based on a few assumptions that we need to examine seriously…  The problem with teaching as telling is that it is overwhelmingly a one-way street… listening for long periods of time is downright wasteful, if not impossible to sustain, for most students.”  –Leila Christenbury, Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts

This doesn’t mean that teachers should never impart information, should never give lectures, should never talk.  On the contrary, sometimes that is downright necessary.  But a teacher who relies solely on this mode of teaching will have a hard time maintaining student engagement, cannot tailor his or her classes to suit the needs of his or her particular students, and will be doing most of the work.

At Hogwarts, Professor Binns perfectly embodies this pedagogy.  We first met him in The Philosopher’s Stone, teaching History.  “Easily the most boring class was History of Magic, which was the only one taught by a ghost.  Professor Binns had been very old indeed when he had fallen asleep in front of the staff room fire and got up next morning to teach, leaving his body behind him.  Binns droned on and on while they scribbled down names and dates, and got Emeric the Evil and Uric the Oddball mixed up.”

This seems far more a criticism of Binns’s teaching style rather than of history in general, for after all, history plays a crucial and interesting role countless times throughout the series.  We get a deeper look at his classroom in The Chamber of Secrets, when Hermione shocks the undead Professor by actually asking a question, and the interest the class takes in his answer completely throws him off-balance.  The protagonists (excepting Miss Granger) routinely fall asleep during his class.  It is a surprise to no-one that few do well on their History O.W.L.s

It could be argued that some other of the Hogwarts staff engage in teacher-centered teaching, arguably (such as Lockhart, who really engages in Lockhart-centered teaching, or Umbridge, whom we will examine later), but I find that Binns practically embodies the traps and downfalls of this pedagogy.

2)  Teacher as Authority/Textbook as Authority:  Professor Umbridge

“‘We will be following a carefully structured, theory-centered, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic this year.  Copy down the following, please…’
“‘Yes,’ said Hermione.  ‘Surely the whole point of Defense Against the Dark Arts is to practice defensive spells?’
“‘Are you a Ministry-trained educational expert, Miss Granger?’
“‘No, but–‘
“‘Well then, I’m afraid you are not qualified to decide what the “whole point” of any class is.  Wizards much older and cleverer than you have devised our new program of study.'”

A trap that it is very easy for we as teachers to fall into is to see themselves, or the textbook, as an unassailable authority that cannot be questioned.

As Socrates famously said, the unquestioned life is not worth living.  Teachers can be wrong.  Textbooks can be wrong.  Students should be encouraged to dialogue–respectfully–with their teachers, to ask the whys and the wherefores, to question and to engage.  And we teachers need to practice not being defensive when that happens.


Dolores Umbridge, regardless of her ulterior motives in trying to undermine Dumbledore’s nonexistent coup, is an authority-centered teacher.  Her lessons always begin with the command “Wands away,” followed by a reading assignment, and “There will be no need to talk.”  She does not allow the text, or the Ministry’s guidelines, to be questioned.

(Of course, Umbridge as High Inquisitor is more interesting than Umbridge as Professor–you can see her Inquisition as a not-so-subtle dig at the government’s idea of educational reform.  But we are restricting ourselves to pedagogy today.)

(Hermione, interestingly enough, has picked up a little of the textbook-as-unquestioned-authority mindset.  In The Half-Blood Prince, she stubbornly sticks by the textbook’s instructions, regardless of whether Harry’s marginalia suggests better methods.)

3)  Teaching as Maintaining a Creation:  Professor Snape

Regardless of spoiler-laden plot developments later in the series, I don’t think anyone can argue that Snape is a good teacher.  He plays favorites, abuses his classroom disciplinary system, belittles struggling students such as Neville, and overall doesn’t do much to help his students achieve.  While he certainly sees himself as an unquestionable authority, it could also be argued that Snape is the sort of teacher for whom the management of the classroom, the system of the classroom, or the subject itself has become more important than the teaching.

“The first days of every school year I created; for the next thirty-six weeks I maintained my creation.  My curriculum.  From behind my big desk I set it in motion, managed and maintained it all year long.  I wanted to be a great teacher–systematic, purposeful, in control…”  –Nancie Atwell, “In the Middle”

“Sitting there at my big desk, developing new assignments and evaluating the results, I remained oblivious to… my students’ ideas, experiences, and expertise.  I remained in charge.”  –Nancie Atwell, “Everyone Sits.”

Now, to be fair, for much of the series we encounter Professor Snape through Harry’s eyes–the eyes of the object of Snape’s ire.  And yet I think we get more objective assessment of Snape’s teaching through his replacement–through the fact that, when Slughorn takes over teaching Potions, the lessons become far more interactive and friendly, with little competitions (complete with prizes) added.  Snape used no such thing: his students’ only motivation to succeed was to avoid his belittling comments.  Snape is far more interesting in maintaining his system, his order, his class, than he is in the students in it.

All the same, some teachers whose classrooms often go off-task–like Hagrid, for instance, or Trelawny–could use a little more of the classroom-creation to keep their students engaged.  Not nearly so much as what Snape uses, but surely there is a happy medium somewhere between?

4) Student-Centered Instruction: Professors Lupin and Flitwick

“Student-centred learning is focused on the student’s needs, abilities, interests, and learning styles with the teacher as a facilitator of learning. This classroom teaching method acknowledges student voice as central to the learning experience for every learner. Teacher-centred learning has the teacher at its centre in an active role and students in a passive, receptive role. Student-centred learning requires students to be active, responsible participants in their own learning.”

I find Professor Lupin’s classroom to be the clearest example of a student-centered approach.  His lessons are very hands-on, with students taking the lead, learning to do things under scaffolded guidance, such as confronting boggarts in a controlled classroom environment.  And he begins every lesson by saying, “Will you please put all your books back in your bags.  Today’s will be a practical lesson.  You will need only your wands.”  This is the opposite of Umbridge’s practice.

Lupin is an encouraging teacher, asking the struggling Neville to take on challenging tasks, all while expressing confidence in his abilities.  Yet he is no pushover, either: he can be firm when the situation requires it.

We rarely see an entire period in Flitwick’s Charms classroom, but what we do see is constantly active, in motion, even chaotic.  Feathers flying upwards with cries of Wingardium Leviosa!  Objects fly with the sound of the Summoning Charm!  Yet no matter how much noise there is, no matter how much the students are talking, they always seem to be on-task.  This is a great example of how messy good learning can be: it may not always look like learning is going on.  But, as one student said when Umbridge began her Inquisition, Flitwick always sees his students through their exams.  His is an excellent example of student-centered learning.

5) Teaching as Discovery:  Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

“It’s not as efficient, as many suppose, to be told the point and then find the examples to support it.  It’s like being told the punchline and then trying to recreate the joke to fit the end…  Using the discovery method, we learn and internalize that learning by finding the point ourselves, by making it our own, by saying it, by stumbling towards it…  we must stop asking students to admire the fine conclusions we have reached or to be in awe of our knowledge of any given subject.  Instead, we allow them to lurch through to their own.”  –Leila Christenbury, Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts

Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, theorized that we remember best what we discovered ourselves.  A teacher who teaches through discovery will structure his or her class in such a way that it allows students to come to their own conclusions, to test them out, to explore.  Discovery-centered teachers ask instead of tell, and aren’t afraid to answer questions with “I don’t know.”

We only see Dumbledore teaching a “class,” really a private tutoring, in one of the books: The Half-Blood Prince.  In these sessions, Dumbledore invited Harry to speculate, to guess, to explore the questions that Dumbledore was struggling with himself.  Dumbledore showed Harry what he knew, and asked Harry to learn what Dumbledore didn’t know.  They embarked on a journey of exploration together.  This was a true example of discovery-centered education.

There is a lot more we could say about this series from an educational standpoint.  Rowling beautifully explores the power of marginalia annotation, and the bond formed by a shared text, in The Half-Blood Prince, for example.  Or, we could go through and try to set up a comparison between wizard fields and Muggle fields, and then look for hidden commentary: Potions is chemistry, obviously, but is Divination a dig at English and Literary criticism?  But, alas, I’ve already kept you long enough.  Suffice it to say, I love the portrayal of teachers in these books, particularly from a student standpoint, and I am grateful to see the spectrum of my profession given portrayal, from the bad to the good.

For further thoughts on the teaching styles of the Harry Potter series, particularly as they relate to corporal punishment, I found this link interesting.

True Scotsmen

There’s a logical fallacy called the No True Scotsman fallacy.  It goes something like this.

Somebody says to you, “No true Scotsman would ever wear anything under his kilt!”  You say, “That’s not true–I know Seamus MacHarper wears boxers.”  To which the somebody replies, “Then Seamus MacHarper is not a true Scotsman!”

Leaving aside the question of exactly how you know what Seamus MacHarper wears under his kilt…  It’s a self-sealing argument.  The speaker starts out by describing the category of “true Scotsman” as though it is static, fixed.  In reality, the speaker is treating that category as fluid, moving the (rather arbitrary) boundary as he sees fit.  When an example of a boxer-wearing Scotsman is found, the speaker moves the boundary of “true Scotsman” to exclude that anomaly which would otherwise invalidate his statement.  So, with a No True Scotsman argument, it is impossible to find an example that would invalidate the speaker’s statement.

“Wearing anything under a kilt” and “Scotsman” can be replaced by whatever action and people-group you like.  “No true Republican would vote for Ron Paul.”  “No true Goth would wear a collared shirt.”  “No true man would ever carry his girlfriend’s purse.”  “No true Latino would eat at Taco Bell.”  All these statements are fallacious because, as in the Scotsman example, their definitions can be arbitrarily shifted to keep from being disproved.

Got the hang of the principle?  Good.  Now let’s try another.

“No true Christian would shoot an abortion doctor.”

You see the problem.  Christians have sought to distance themselves from those self-professing Christians who (they perceive) have engaged in undesirable behavior.  You bring up the massacres of Muslims and Jews during the Crusades?  “Oh, those who fought in the Crusades weren’t really Christians.”  You bring up the Inquisitions?  “No no, anyone who tortured people in the name of God couldn’t really have been a Christian.”  How about the Christian trappings of the Nazi party?  “No true Christian could have been a Nazi.”  And then of course you have the recent shooting of an abortion doctor by a self-professing Christian.

In these statements, has Christianity committed a No True Scotsman fallacy?

(I wonder if it’s true what they don’t wear beneath the kilt.  Ding ding diddly-eye, oh…)

I have my suspicions.  To explain my suspicions, I need you to follow my train of thought, so bear with me for a moment…

In high school I had a friend who decided that she was going vegetarian.  She told us over lunch about the evils of animal-killing, and how she decided to exempt herself from our “culture of death.”  Then, a few days later, I caught her eating a Slim Jim–you know, those processed sticks of Beef Jerky.  I said, “Hey, I thought you were going vegetarian.”  She looked confused, then looked down at the Slim Jim, and said, “What, this?  This doesn’t count.”

Now, I couldn’t say “No true Vegetarian would eat Beef Jerky,” because that would be a No True Scotsman fallacy, right?

Actually, wrong.  Saying “No true Vegetarian would eat Beef Jerky” is exempt from that fallacy?  Why?  Because, in this statement, the given definition of a true Vegetarian isn’t arbitrary, but intrinsic.  If I said something like “No true Vegetarian would watch Desperate Housewives,” that would be a NTS fallacy, because watching a particular TV show has an abitrary connection to being Vegetarian–it has nothing to do with the definition of Vegetarian.  But not-eating-meat is the very thing that defines being a Vegetarian.  The status of “Vegetarian” is defined by specific behaviors, and meat-eaters are not adhering to those behaviors.  So, had I made this statement, I would have been wholly justified.

So.  If someone says, “No True Christian would shoot an abortion doctor,” whether this statement is fallacious or justified depends on the definition of “Christian.”  If “Christian,” like “Vegetarian,” is a status defined by specific behaviors, and if shooting-of-abortion-doctors violates those behaviors, then the statement is not a fallacy.  However, if such a shooting is not intrinsically linked to the definition of Christianity, but rather is only arbitrarily linked, such a statement is not justified.

(“Don’t worry ladies.  There’s plenty of beef and spice to go around…”)

What is a Christian?  How does one define a Christian?

I’ve heard a myriad of definitions.  I’ve had people who don’t believe that there is a God tell me that they are nevertheless Christian.  I’ve had people who believe in many gods–and that there are many ways to heaven, Jesus being only one–tell me that they are nevertheless Christian.  Some people call themselves Christian because their parents were Christians, some because they go to church once a year, some because they believe certain beliefs, some because they perform certain actions.

The dictionary is no help, because it includes all these definitions: everything from “derived from the teachings of Jesus” to “Christlike” to merely “humane.”  For simplicity’s sake we’ll take three of these definitions as possibilities.
–A person who believes in Jesus Christ; adherent of Christianity.  (Professing Christian)
–One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.  (Active Christian/Liturgical Christian)
–One born in a Christian country or of Christian parents, and who has not definitely becomes an adherent of an opposing system.  (Private Christian/Cultural Christian)

To me, that last definition can sometimes be akin to my jerky-eating friend claiming vegetarianism.  And the first definition is a step in the right direction but not enough.  I’d like to examine what the founder of Christianity said being a Christian was all about.

–It should be noted that the term “Christian” didn’t even get coined until Acts 11:26, years after Jesus’ death.  “…the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.”  –St. Luke.  That statement right there tells us that “Christian” was originally synonymous with “disciple” (mathetes).  (Understand that “disciples” did not always only refer to the Twelve, cf. Luke 16:13.)
–Christians/disciples follow the teachings of Jesus.  ‘To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
–Christians/disciples love each other–and this is supposed to be the hallmark, the key way we identify a Christian.  ‘”A new command I [Jesus] give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”‘
–Christians/disciples “bear fruit.”  ‘”I [Jesus] am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
–Christians/disciples become more like Jesus.  “The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.”
–Christians/disciples put Jesus before everything else; there is a cost to being a disciple.  ‘”…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”‘

With me so far?  (Notice, Christians, I’m not talking about salvation here–Jesus and Paul gave specific criteria for salvation.  They give seperate criteria for “disciple,” and thus by extension “Christian,” and so I will treat them as seperate issues.)

(Sadly, unlike Master Po’s disciples, Jesus’ disciples don’t necessarily learn any Kung Fu…)

So if the original definition of “Christian” was a disciple/follower of Jesus, and if Jesus himself laid down certain criteria that are intrinsic to the definition of “disciple of Jesus,” can we ignore this original definition when determining whether shooting-an-abortion-doctor is antithetical to the definition of “Christian”?

Sure, if you take the cultural definition of “Christian,” that you just have to go to church once in a blue moon or have had Christian parents to be considered a Christian, then yes, it IS a No-True-Scotsman fallacy to say “No true Christian would shoot an abortion doctor.”  Because the fixed definition of “Christian” then has nothing to do with the alleged Christian’s actions, and little to do with his beliefs.

But if you go with the original definition of what constitutes a “Christian,” then it would not be a No-True-Scotsman fallacy to say that, because shooting an abortion doctor specifically violates one of the fixed definition criteria of Christian–that of “A Christian follows the teachings of Jesus.”  (Even further in the recent example: since abortion doctor George Tiller was, at least, a professing Christian, for a Christian to shoot him would be a violation of Jesus’ hallmark disciple-defining statement “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.“)

If following Jesus’ teachings is the defining characteristic of a Christian, and if shooting an abortion doctor (or slaughtering Muslim civilians, or torturing Jews) violates those teachings, it follows–without fallacy–that one who shoots an abortion doctor is not a Christian.  (And it does violate those teachings: how about “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who spitefully use you…”)

Short version, the statement is not a NTS fallacy if:
Original definition of Xtian
     –> Definition of Disciple
          –> Teachings of Jesus  =/= Shooting Abortion Docs

(“Master, Judas is team-killing again.”)

So now you have my thoughts–it depends on which definition of “Christian” you use, but I suspect that saying that the guy who shot George Tiller could not have been a real Christian is not necessarily a No True Scotsman fallacy, because by some fixed definitions of Christian, his action places him outside of that category.

Now we just have to figure out the truth about those Scotsmen.