When I’m tired, as I am for some reason this morning, I choose to read rather than write, and more often than not I read one of the Maigret novels by Simenon, which are being re-issued by Penguin. He is one of the masters of plain storytelling, combining speed of narration with an incomparable skill in inventing the right detail to engage the reader’s imagination. His sentences have an elegant logic, mapping the minutiae of events clearly for the reader to follow. Once he gets you hooked, you stay hooked.
Why is a good crime story so addictive?
Most people agree that it’s because of the denouement, which even if does not supply legal or moral justice, usually supplies a narrative justice, an explanation of the main events of the story. We may be patient with the detective/ police squad/ amateur investigator failing to nail the culprit, we may excuse the narrator who has hidden essential facts from the reader, but we will reject a story that fails to explain itself. We may agree that few things are explained in life as they are in most crime novels, but we do not read crime novels for a profound truthfulness to life, we want the special pleasure of being mystified and then enlightened.
That is why the events narrated in a good detective novel have such luminosity; we know that they are pieces of a jigsaw that as yet we cannot put together, but that they will be shown to fit into each other and to compose a recognisable picture. The very best writers will arrange that the pieces ultimately seem to fall together rather than being forced, and that perhaps there are a few pieces even at the end that are left over. The events of the story shine not because we know the whole picture, but because we do not yet know it and trust that it will be revealed.
One of my brothers has been questioning the eschatological elements in the New Testament, especially in the letters of St. Paul. The term is derived from the Greek ‘eschaton’ meaning the end, and is used by scholars to refer to passages about the “end times” when God’s rule will established and Jesus will return. The first Christian believers, and perhaps Jesus himself, imagined that the arrival of the rule of God was imminent, within their own lifetimes. The later church abandoned belief in its imminence while holding to the conviction that it would arrive sometime. Only a few sects today still think that we should watch and pray in case it catches us sleeping.
I still hold the conviction that God will ultimately gather all the strings of universal history together and bring it an end which may also I guess be a new beginning. Indeed I could not trust in any God who did not do so. For I recognise the randomness of the events of energy as revealed by quantum physics, as well as the huge waste and pain of evolution. I find my knowledge of the present suffering of sentient beings very disturbing, and even more my knowldege of human evil, including my own. Any God who failed to make sense of all this would not be worthy of the name. Buddhism doesn’t imagine that any sense can be made of it, and therefore it has no God.
Readers may react by asking what right I have to invent the God I want. Well, that’s faith, isn’t it, inventing the God you want? Most of us do this along with a tradition which has invented and re- invented God over the centuries and is likely to be broader and deeper in its inventions than any one of us on our own. Trivial religion invents God or gods that answer trivial desires; profound religion answers more profound desires. But we should never forget that all our stories about God are our own invention, and that we are responsible for them, if for example they cause suffering or injustice.
As it happens the Christian tradition has invented a God who will take full responsibility for the universe, and will bring it to perfection. The tradition also identifies Jesus as the prime actor in that perfecting, in his historical life, in risen life now, and in the end time. The book of The Revelation, much misunderstood by its readers, gives me the clue to the nature of the perfection by saying that Jesus the victim and sacrificial Lamb is at the heart of God’s rule, and promises me in the final image of God in our Bible, that, like a mother, he will wipe away all tears from the eyes of his children.
That means for me that the events of my life and all the events of which I have knowledge are not mere happenstance, but elements in a story whose culmination I do not know, but which I trust will have a culmination. “Now we see puzzzling reflections in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” ( 1st Corinthians 13). No event in the story is any longer complete in itself for it may be changed by the culmination. No event is banal – like the routine crucifixion of a Judaean prophet in CE 33 – for it may turn out to be crucial to the outcome of the plot. History is not just tragedy or farce, but shimmers with possibility, like the details of a Montmartre night club described by Simenon. If I was more daring than I am, I might suggest that it all added up to a divine comedy.