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Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Mysteries and the Higher Mystery, Part 1

This Fall I gave a talk at the 5th Annual Faith, Film & Philosophy Lecture Series, sponsored by Gonzaga University’s Faith and Reason Institute, and Whitworth University’s Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning. My talk was entitled, “On Mysteries and the Higher Mystery,” and had to do with our love for mystery stories, detective stories, and thrillers, and how this love relates to the higher, Divine Mystery.

I thought I’d pass along my notes from the talk, which I think can be followed more or less successfully. The talk was in four parts. The first part, the Introduction, took up thoughts I first presented in posts on this blog, namely, “The Good Sense of Sensationalism,” and “On Marshmallows and Melodrama.” I’ll let those who are interested re-visit those posts.

The second part of the talk attempted to define the nature and allure of “mystery,” by defining it as a paradox.

[Note: the entire talk is deeply indebted to two books by the literary critic Hugh Kenner: Paradox in Chesterton and Dublin’s Joyce.]

I. Mystery as Paradox

1.   How to make a sensational story both true and exciting? I want to suggest: the key to the mystery and the thriller, as well as to higher mysteries, is the notion of paradox. In the paradox we find both the “shock” we are looking for and the “illumination” of truth.

2.   “What good and bad paradoxes possess in common is the shock derived from contradiction: paradox is [apparent] contradiction, explicit or implied” (Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, p. 15). That shock may occur in a fragment of Heraclitus or in the Gospels, but it is perhaps most often encountered, though usually incognito, in tales of mystery and suspense. In fact, G.K. Chesterton, the master of paradox, in Heretics defines paradox as mystery (Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, p. 14).

3.   What is a paradox? In such tales the moment of illumination, of insight, takes the form of a paradox comprised of verbal and pictorial images:
(a)        Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze”: the horse itself turns out to be the murderer
(b)        Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Ark of the Covenant itself defeats the Nazis
(c)         The Usual Suspects: the narrator of the story turns out to be a liar
(d)        The end of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”: Batman has to be a villain

The paradox is no mere verbal pirouette; paradox is based upon the reality of things, and arises naturally when “the simplest truths” are put in “the simplest language” (Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, p. 15). The detective-story or thriller works by way of paradox.

4.   But there are two ways of understanding how paradox in such stories work. Not an either/or, more of a continuum. One, call it the Sherlock Holmes approach, is to see the paradox as a riddle or challenge resolvable by the “scientific” discovery of linkages of efficient causality. In this case, the paradox is merely mechanical. But another way to understand the paradox of the detective-story or thriller, call it the Father Brown approach, is to see it as resolvable by the discovery of all four causes, illuminated by the paradox of Original Sin (Fr. Brown: “I am the criminal”). The paradox is “metaphysical.” Explores the metaphysical wellsprings of human action—what St. Thomas calls the extrinsic causes of human action: God and the devil. (Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 90 prologus).

Next post, I’ll pick up on understanding mysteries according to the “Sherlock Holmes Approach”

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