Friday, June 7, 2013

English: Sherlock Holmes (r) and Dr. John B. W...
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One of my hobbies is following Sherlockian scholarship.  It’s a bit dorky, but not quite as bad as being a Trekkie, particularly now, with the BBC’s Sherlock as popular as it is.

One of the most fun aspects of the 'Grand Game' of Sherlockian scholarship is that it is really based on texts, not film or television.  This allows for a completely different style of criticism, namely the application of biblical critical methods. In Monsignor Ronald Knox's landmark essay, “Studies inthe Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” (1911)  we find historical, canonical and form critical methods, as well as an examination of the structure and symbols Dr. Watson employed to chronicle the exploits of his great friend.  With such a foundation, its not surprising to see strong affinities between biblical and Sherlockian studies (even the 56 short stories and 4 novels that are of undisputed authorship are called the canon).

I just posted an essay on, which I wrote a few years ago called “The Quest for the Historical Sherlock.”  In this essay I applied a Schweitzerian critique of Sherlockian scholarship, particularly on when scholars seek to uncover Holmes’ religious beliefs.  

Albert Schweitzer, of course, is known for his work on trying to uncover the historical reality behind the Gospels.  His The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), examined the significant “lives of the historical Jesus” from Reimerus to Wrede.  When Schweitzer saw all the different portraits of Jesus that these scholars had painted, he realized that they were simply self-portraits of the scholars themselves.  For example, a political revolutionary sees Jesus as a revolutionary, or a humanist sees Jesus as a humanist.  In many ways, Sherlockian scholarship is similar to what was attempted by the members of the First Quest

Sherlockians have a flagship society and publication, TheBaker Street Journal, which has published at least twenty articles that are in some way examining Holmes' religious views, beliefs, and/or practices.  Additionally, there are several monographs, including an addition to the ubiquitous series of The Gospel According to Any-Popular-Cultural-Phenomenon. In these articles we see suggestions that Holmes is committed to agnosticism, Anglicanism, atheism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Deism, Judaism, and spiritualism.

Schweitzer tells us that looking for the historical Jesus, is like looking down a well and seeing your own face reflected back at you.  I think that Sherlockian scholars suffers from the same inability to read the text without the text reading them.

Holmes often says things like, “it is a wicked thing to tell fibs” (3GAB) or refers to a court higher than the assizes (BOSC), but these do not seem to be genuine reflections of religious belief (after all, not everyone who exclaims, 'Oh my God!' is a theist).  He only gives us one extended passage on religion. 

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion," said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. "It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. 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. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers." (NAVA)

Some see this rumination as proof that Holmes was a theist.  But I agree with Monsignor Knox on this one; I think Sherlock was just wasting time so that he could examine the shutters for clues. 
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  1. I don't know whether Sherlock Holmes was religious, even after reading the Canon often enough, but in my latest sherlock novel titled Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein's Daughter Holmes is put through a testing time trying to maintain is famous disguise as a Nonconformist clergyman:

    Excerpt from Chapter 111:

    The sound of people engaged in fierce argument burst in on us. Two men locked in each other’s clasp fell through the door, the one an elderly cleric, the other a member of the bank’s staff trying to prevent his entry. High-pitched tones emanated from the priest as he pushed himself into the room past the employee. Under a wrap-rascal he wore baggy trousers and white tie, topped by a broad black hat, the exact dress of the Nonconformist clergyman I described in A Scandal In Bohemia. He demanded to speak to the bank manager come what may, insisting he needed to open a safe deposit box on the instant, ‘poor as a church mouse as those of my calling may be’.
    With a triumphant flourish at having gained entry, the clergyman dropped a heavy pouch on the manager’s desk. It was the very pouch of gold coins given to us by the Prince Regnant of Bulgaria five years before. The purse split with the force of the fall, scattering the glittering coins across the desk and into every corner of the room. At the sight of the gold coins the bank manager rushed around the desk and waved the staff member away.
    ‘I am sure Dr. Watson will not mind if we are joined by a clergyman,’ he expostulated. ‘I myself am a son of the manse, with a strict Presbyterian upbringing.’ ‘Not at all,’ I responded amiably. ‘The clergyman is most welcome.’
    My Heavens, I thought. Holmes has gone a step too far. He will be found out within a matter of minutes. I turned to the bank manager.
    ‘You say you are a son of the manse?’ I enquired.
    ‘I am,’ he replied. ‘Every day my aged father proclaims the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Christ.’
    ‘Then I am sure our clergyman friend here would enjoy sharing his knowledge of the Sacred Book. A short test, perhaps?’
    Embarrassed, the bank manager began to protest. Holmes cut back in.
    ‘Come now, Sir,’ he told the bank manager, gesturing towards me, ‘as our young friend here demands, you must question me. Test the simple preacher seated before you on his knowledge of the Scriptures.’
    The bank manager agreed, immeasurably pleased. ‘The Epistle of Paul to the Church at Philippi,’ he began,’ the book of the Gospel where…’
    ‘Acts, Sir,’ Holmes broke in, chortling. ‘You shall have to do better than that.’
    ‘Which book? Ninth, I believe?’ asked the son of the manse.
    ‘Eleventh,’ Holmes returned.
    ‘But you agree it was written on St. Paul’s first missionary journey?’
    ‘Second,’ Holmes parried.
    ‘49-51 AD,’ Holmes ended, triumphantly.
    ‘I too have a question,’ I broke in. It was a question my Tractarian mother had once posed on my return from Sunday School.
    ‘Where in the Bible does it refer to 'Five Golden Emerods' and 'five golden mice'? Kings or Chronicles – or Ruth?’ I asked.
    ‘Good, Watson,’ Holmes whispered, ‘but not good enough!’ followed aloud by ‘Samuel, my dear fellow. 1 Samuel 6:4 if I am not mistaken.’
    Heavens, Holmes, I thought admiringly. The stage may have lost a great actor when you took up crime, but the Church lost a doughty scholar.