Sherlock Holmes, Jesus, and me.
Dr. Dan Andriacco is a scholar and a gentleman who wrote a rather magnanimous review of “A Case of Witchcraft”, in which he said lots of nice things, but expressed some polite distaste for my “hasheesh-smoking, socialist Holmes”, and his non-literal view of God. Dr. Dan recommended to his readers the alternative vision of a Christian Holmes as described in An Opened Grave by L. Frank James, in which Holmes examines the evidence for the Resurrection and finds it to be entirely convincing. Dan, who is Communications Director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, concludes his article with the catchy phrase: “Different Holmes for different folks.” Yes, Dr. Dan: that does seem to be how it goes.
In the case of Jesus, as in that of Holmes, all that we have is a bunch of stories. These stories occasionally contradict one other — and, in sundry places, contradict both the known facts of History and the laws of Nature.
As generations of would-be biographers have discovered, the materials in both cases are quite silent about many interesting aspects of their heroes’ life and thought. We hear next to nothing of Jesus’ childhood, for example, and even less of Holmes’s – which has prompted all manner of theorizing from the reasonable to the fruit-loopy about what might have gone on in their formative years. Their sex-lives are, famously, not described: although we may reasonably infer that both men were celibate as adults, the evidence does not rule out unrecorded liaisons – whether with Mary of Magdala or with Mrs. Hudson, or even (as some have more scandalously suggested) the “beloved” St. John or the “dear” John Watson! Large areas of both Holmes’s and Jesus’ intellectual life are likewise hidden from us.
And so it is that widely-divergent interpretations of Jesus become possible: that Fascists can worship a Fascist Christ and Liberals a Liberal one, for example, just as gay Christians tend to think of Jesus as gay. It’s like looking down a well and seeing one’s own reflection.
Is it possible to get past these projections of one’s own personality and see Jesus as he really was? In my short lecture, A Witch Looks at Jesus, I tried to do just that, using techniques of evidence-gathering and rational deduction that I’d learnt when young from reading Conan Doyle. The result was the blurry likeness of a credible human figure, but not one much like me or anyone that I particularly admired. He looked to me like a deluded cult-leader: a man who actually believes that he’s a special person with awesome powers, when in reality he’s got nothing but the faith of his followers to make him seem like that. We have seen many such in recent times: one thinks of Father Divine, the Reverend Moon, or David Koresh – but perhaps some of these were knowingly fraudulent. Jesus was sincere, I think. He was nonetheless gravely mistaken. He expected the Day of Judgment to come very soon: it did not. He expected to be raised from the dead: he was not.
I looked at the evidence for the Resurrection in a Holmesian way, and the obvious conclusion was that there had been deliberate deception on the part of St. Peter. His motive was that he wanted to take over the cult and keep it going, for his own benefit. So he hired a look-alike (probably Jesus’ brother James) to impersonate the dead leader, at some carefully stage-managed appearances to the disciples in Galilee. (Click the link above if you’re at all interested in this matter, dear reader.)
I hope that this is not offensive to any of my readers: I say it not to cause offence, but simply because it’s what I concluded from looking dispassionately at the evidence, without any preconceived idea that Jesus had to be right about everything. I am quite certain that Sherlock Holmes would have come to the same conclusions, had he studied the evidence.
The Sherlock Holmes of my novel has in fact done so; and, as a consequence, he cannot call himself a Christian. He’s got nothing against Christianity, and in general is quite well-disposed towards it; he just doesn’t think that it can possibly be true. Based on the evidence in the Canon (as described in my previous blog “On the Religious Opinions of Sherlock Holmes”) I wove a back-story about him becoming a Christian and then losing his faith again. Like him, I had spent time in Sudan, and I could imagine how the Islam of that land would have affected him. From reading about Tibetan Buddhism, I could imagine interesting dialogues between Holmes and the Lamas. I wove the story of his travels together with that of his spiritual journey, imagining the things that Dr. Watson doesn’t tell us.
Other versions of Sherlock Holmes as homo religiosus are imaginable, but I have given you mine – and it seems very lifelike to me!
As to the other matters raised by Dr. Dan: in 1899, “hasheesh” was not only legal, but had recently been declared harmless by an official British government report; a few intellectuals and Bohemians, like Mr. Crowley and Miss Reid, were known to smoke it. There really was a shop called Lowe’s, in Stafford Street, which was noted as the best place for respectable people to buy the drug. It seems more likely to me than not that Holmes would have used it occasionally – and his trip to Trowley is one of those occasions.
And Holmes isn’t a thorough-going Socialist in my book: he just says that some socialist policies seem sensible enough to be worth trying, which is not an unreasonable thing to for an intellectual of the 1890’s to think. Socialism was pretty much the big idea among progressive intellectuals at that time; it’s an idea which appeals to a rational mind. The problems with it are not seen until it’s tried in the real world; and, at the time, it had not been tried. My Holmes also believes in the Monarchy and the Empire, let us not forget; and by modern standards he’s pretty sexist. But he wants to ameliorate the condition of the poor, and he’s not averse to doing so by taxing the rich. In that he is a typical British intellectual of his period, a figure like Bertrand Russell, Karl Pearson, or H.G. Wells.
My version of Holmes isn’t particularly like me; although there are some overlaps. I think, for example, that Holmes had Asperger’s Syndrome, as do I. That gave me some insight into his inner life, that came in useful when writing the book.
I set out not to make a Holmes in my own image, but a credible human Holmes who could have done the things that he did in the Canon. Do my readers think that I have succeeded? Please comment and tell me.