It was Sherlock Holmes who first taught me that mystery is unacceptable in any area of life. When I first read the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a young teenager, I marveled with the generations at Holmes’ ability to explain away everything, from the mundane to the murderous. There was no loose thread, no wrestle to be had about motive or means by story’s end.
And while I still truly enjoy these short stories and the franchise they spawned, they did me a great disservice. I mean, who hasn’t daydreamed about being Sherlock at some point; the one with all the answers and insights that astound the fellow workers around the water cooler or baffle the teenager sneaking in past curfew. The Holmes method came to represent to me the modern fixation of having every single mystery scientifically explained away. Thankfully, in Holmes’ cases he caught villains, a place we should long to have stark justice applied. But it seems too many of us have since adopted a Sherlockian approach to mysteries and miracles, losing the wonder required to live truly full and rich lives.
Yes, our rational-minded Enlightenment thinking may have lost some of its space-age sheen in the early 21st Century where a revival of interest in the mysterious is rising. Postmodernity, in its way, has left the light on for the paranormal. People are unashamedly drawn to entertainments and experiences that invite the unexplained. Here perhaps the Christian would think they have an opportunity to introduce the true story of Christ and the wonders of the divine and human united in Him.
But a paradox exists. A mystery, if you will: even within postmodern neighborhoods seeking the supernatural there exists an aqueduct of animosity toward Christian mystery, particularly the miracles of Christ or those found in Exodus. This is nothing new. From the Arian controversy of the fourth century to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, these are theories our culture perennially brings out of the attic in folding step with Christmas lights and Easter baskets. None of this is cause for Christian defensiveness, but rather a reminder that for all the entreaty of mystery there is little acceptance of Christian mystery. That doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. So if we allow cultural phenomena to steer our thinking about the God of the Bible and His miracles, then our sermons become rationalistic rhetoric devoid of wonder and our Bible reading an increasingly irregular occurrence that leaves us even more uncertain about the nature, character, and ability of God.
This was the issue I took with Ridley Scott’s 2014 film, Exodus: Gods and Kings. The director’s efforts seemed to fancy himself a type of cinematic Sherlock, bent on explaining away each miraculous manifestation of God’s power in the story. Every miracle was subject to scientific desperation. They happened because, because… science. Not divine power. And all this was compiled into story and law by a man (Moses) presented as psychologically unfit, whose head was on the receiving end of a rock at Sinai. If reviews and box office were any indication, in trying to give mysterious miracles a scientific explanation the crew behind this Exodus left everyone unsatisfied.
The filmmakers forgot an important aspect of our humanity, our beautiful design: Our innate sense to wonder. Wonder is necessary to survival, either in telling a story or living your own. No wonder we are a people starved of soul satisfaction. We have rejected divine mystery and as such killed the clarity, thankful heart, and generous spirit that come with acceptance of Deuteronomy 29:29: “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.”
I still enjoy Sherlock stories. I just won’t make the mistake of applying his method where it doesn’t belong. I want Holmesian forensics when dealing with cowardly criminals; but not with the nature of God and His work. We are called to something greater. We are called to wonder, to marvel at what we DON’T know about God’s wonder-working power: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Though modern thought would have us try to rationalize and explain every miracle away through science, but the God of the Bible is real and so are His miracles. It is a profound mystery that He would love us and yet He does. Christians believe this and live accordingly.
Perhaps the best way to learn about mystery and its purpose in the human life is to observe the person who encounters it. How does Moses react when he sees a bush on fire but not burning up? What does it say about Him when he hears I Am speak audibly to him? What do the plagues say about God’s power? His character? What do the people’s reactions tell us about them? About our God? These miracles happened in real history and won’t be explained away by ontological categories. Mysteries are most real but we can give no explanation for their existence. They are at the same time awe-filled and awful. Alluring in their own way.
Mystery’s explained purpose is so much more than entertainment. It reminds us of who God is and who we are in relation to Him. Wonder is the heart of worship and soul stability. It was very much lacking in Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus, but hardly in the original Scriptures. The mysteries of Exodus exist to make you wonder, like a child. I daresay that time spent in The Book of Exodus holds the potential to position us for rediscovery of wonder -- it is the missing component to our own view of God in history, both the epic and intensely personal.