Recently I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes mystery novel A Study in Scarlet. I was actually shocked to learn that some of my conceptions of Holmes had been based on false notions and wishful thinking. Surely Holmes was intellectually superior in all areas. Surely he was above flattery. I soon learned that he was not above flattery, and indeed he was not the master of every subject. Within the first 12 pages Watson has made a list entitled “Sherlock Holmes—his limits”:
1 Knowledge of Literature: Nil.
2 Knowledge of Philosophy: Nil.
3 Knowledge of Astronomy: Nil.
4 Knowledge of Politics: Feeble.
5 Knowledge of Botany: Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons…
6 Knowledge of Geology: Practical but limited…
7 Knowledge of Chemistry: Profound.
8 Knowledge of Anatomy: Accurate, but unsystematic.
9 Knowledge of Sensational Literature: Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
10 Plays the violin well.
11 Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12 Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
This whole exercise in finding Holmes’ limits began when Watson began discussing the Copernican Theory—stating that the earth traveled around the sun. He was astonished that Holmes did not know even this simple fact.
“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”
“To forget it!”
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like an empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to thinks that the little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing of the useful ones.”
Wow! Such singularity of vision and focus! This is one of the reasons Sherlock Holmes will always be considered the quintessential detective. But, as I read this, I could not help but think how theological this statement was—how well it might speak to Christians today.
Since I was a kid I have noticed a trend among Christians (including myself) to rationalize that anything that wasn’t “sinful” was permissible and maybe even to be encouraged in the name of being culturally relevant. TV shows, movies, books, etc. become good or bad based on how “sinful” they were and all other considerations fly out the window. “You don’t want to become so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good” some people say and even more people think. Thus begins the slippery slope of enculturation and mediocre Christianity.
If we take Sherlock Holmes’ advice, however, we come to a whole new level in our Christian thinking—one I think that works quite well with Philippians 4:8.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This is a different level of thinking. The criterion isn’t how bad something is or what can I get by with, but rather “How good is it?...Is this the best?”
Our goal in the Christian life is to be like Christ Jesus. We have a limited amount of time and brain cells. The tools we need to be stocking in our “brain-attic” are tools that will help us along the path to Christ-likeness. To be sure we should have a large assortment, but rather than thinking in terms of what we can get by with in pleasing ourselves, we should start asking ourselves how what we are feeding our brains can be used for the Kingdom. 2 Corinthians 10:5 puts it this way: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” We take every thought captive? This is very purposeful thinking, but it is in this way that Christian thinking takes place. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
If we want to follow Jesus—we can’t think like the world (1 John 2:15-17). In order to not think like the world, we have to have a renewed mind, and in order to have a renewed mind we have to be careful what we think about or passively allow into our brains. As the old adage goes, “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”
If this is the case, it is not good enough to just stay away from bad things. Time is of the essence and we must be about our Father’s business. As Ernest Dimnet says in his book The Art of Thinking, “Do not read good books—life is too short for that—only read the best.” This simple rule could be applied to all areas of our lives. We cannot afford to clutter our lives and our brains with meaningless or haphazard facts, thoughts or events. We need to be able to access the tools we need for the journey without having to sift through the junk. For the Christian life this means a very conscious effort to apply Philippians 4:8 as a filter through which everything must pass.
Thus ends my little foray into literature and the Bible. Sherlock Holmes may not have been a theologian in the true sense of the word, but I believe that he does shed some light into a dusty corner of the Christian life. And that is anything but elementary.