Sherlock Holmes and the Prophets

Mrs. Frankenfeld and I can’t get enough Sherlock Holmes.  Fortunately, this is the right moment to have that fetish, since there are two current series on TV (Elementary on CBS and Sherlock from the rainy island of the character’s birth).  There’s also the movie franchise starring Robert Downey, Jr., which I admit we avoided at first because the previews looked like someone had put a drunken Michael Bay in charge of shoehorning Hollywood excess into horse-and-buggy London.  As it turns out, we enjoy these too.  Even so, that’s not enough of a fix for us – after all, the BBC’s Sherlock calls three episodes a “season,” and the CBS show is gone for the summer now – so we spend breakfast every Saturday with the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes from my childhood, courtesy of Netflix.  Which makes four different ways in which we can score our Sherlock fix; as I said, it’s a good time to be a Sherlock Holmes fan.

I have to admit, however, I wonder why that is.  Apart from the obvious, of course, which is that content producers have discovered it’s a profitable time to be in the Sherlock Holmes business.  The denizens of chez Frankenfeld must not be the only people willing to mainline this Victorian hero in any and every form; the market clearly demands it.  But why?

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It’s easy to forget that Holmes, as originally conceived, was a gentleman in the rigid society of Victorian England, and is consequently the strangest of heroes.  The inflexibility of Victorian social mores has become a cliché, but it’s not exactly false, and if the atrocities of colonialism – so indefensible through any lens today – ever made sense, they did so under the pretext of introducing and/or preserving order.  If the British Empire of the 1890s loved anything, it loved ordered society.

The character of Sherlock Holmes, meanwhile, found that preoccupation bemusing.  Caring not a whit for order in society, he wanted order in thought, and was willing to trash almost any social convention in order to achieve it.  Breaking laws, scorning the police, occasionally protecting murderers if he found the homicide justifiable – if it made sense to the mind, Holmes was all in, making him the archetypical Victorian antihero.

Of course, the current Sherlock Holmes TV series are set in the present, absent Victorian constraints, and the CBS Holmes so far works exclusively as a lap dog of the NYPD, cheapening the thrill of Holmes-as-a-rebel immeasurably (no really, the proof that I have a Holmes addiction is found in my willingness to regularly immerse myself in what is most accurately described as CSI: Sherlock Holmes).  Even so, in his singular devotion to logical deduction, Sherlock Holmes is a misanthrope in any era.  Even in the morally anarchic present London, he stands out as an unkind weirdo.

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Sherlock Holmes isn’t the first maladjusted savior to flicker across our screens, of course.  That’s always been a staple of filmed mythmaking, whether on big screens or small ones.  But the last decade has witnessed an onslaught of such heroes in numbers that I suspect to be unparalleled.  The cruel Batman of recent films, the reckless Iron Man, and the morally ambiguous Wolverine all come to mind, and each resembles the way Sherlock Holmes has come to be portrayed in vital ways.  It’s not just the feats of heroism that range from barely-credible to preposterous, mind you.  It’s the idea that one person can – in spite of his or her personality, disposition, and disdain for social conventions – singlehandedly impose justice on the surrounding world.  Sherlock Holmes does it with fewer gadgets, less carnage, and a dearth of explosions, but he does triumph over a villain – in Professor Moriarty – arguably more fearsome in his brilliance than any of the traditional super-villains.

Make no mistake: Sherlock Holmes, whether Victorian or modern, Londoner or New Yorker, is a superhero.  He wins the day over evil, using his unique abilities.  The distinction, of course, is that the superheroes here named are all comic-book fantasies, whereas Sherlock Holmes could conceivably exist.  He is, essentially, a superhero possessed of one extra power none of the others will ever attain: believability.

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You can argue that believability is a lame superpower.  I suppose you could argue that it isn’t even a superpower.  Fair enough.  But Sherlock Holmes isn’t merely believable.  He’s believable and heroic, and that makes all the difference.  He’s a hero who doesn’t merely exist to serve our fantasies or inspire our wonder: he advocates for deduction and evidence-based practice.  He’s modernism’s John the Baptist, proclaiming the dawn of a new era.  He’s Sherlock Holmes, Prophet.

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Modernism’s prophet shares much in common with the Old Testament prophets.  Think about it: Holmes has special knowledge that the leaders of his day need to access, and so do Jeremiah or Isaiah, to name just two.  Holmes’ dissatisfaction with some of his culture’s normal boundaries causes him to ignore or even transgress them, while many of the prophets so disrupt the social order as to earn execution.  Holmes’ genius and his eccentricities make him the object of curiosity, the prophets draw stares while lying on their sides for months on end (Ezekiel) or redeeming shamed wives (Hosea).  Holmes’ methods sometimes render him the object of ridicule prior to his inevitable vindication, Jeremiah was put in stocks and mocked before Jerusalem burned, and Amos was a hick farmer ignored before Samaria collapsed.  The prophets aren’t heroes to our culture, but they are the misanthropic parallels to Holmes’ Victorian antihero, inasmuch as they too are outcast truth-tellers burdened with a clearer way of seeing things.  They’re Ancient Near Eastern superheroes.

While Holmes has his moment, however, the percentage of Christians able to differentiate between Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel seems small enough to render even these major prophets functionally anonymous, let alone more minor figures, like Obadiah or Malachi.  I mention this not to elicit head-shaking over biblical illiteracy, but rather to acknowledge that our churches are filled with people more enthralled with Modernism’s prophet than with God’s several messengers.  It is a problem, but one with explanations less fatalistic then the standard evangelical expectation of societal degeneration.

To that end, permit me to make a suggestion informed by the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, Victorian prophet: the prophets in the bible go undifferentiated and unremembered because their heroism becomes less meaningful the further we move from the Iron Age.  That’s why Sherlock and Elementary have set Sherlock Holmes in modern megalopolises – heroes always look more impressive facing today’s struggles.  Anyone with a college education today would have seemed a dilettante genius in Victorian London, which compromises Victorian Holmes’ ability to impress us.  Apply that same level of genius to humanity’s most sophisticated cities in 2013, however, and it becomes spellbinding.  Amazing detectives are timeless in that way.  Jeremiah’s warnings about the end of Jerusalem, on the other hand, simply cannot translate to modern Los Angeles due to such basic incongruities as the lack of threatening Babylonians, the lack of an unjust but chosen-by-God gene pool, and the lack of a monarchy.  The same goes for the rest of the prophets.  They fail to inspire because we prefer to see miracles in our own setting.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should simply accept the notion that Jeremiah – one of the most compelling figures in all of history – has been rendered uninteresting by the passage of time.  But I do wonder what Jeremiah would look like as he navigated modern Jerusalem on my television screen, even if I have no idea how to make it work.

One thought on “Sherlock Holmes and the Prophets

  1. Interesting post! I had not thought of the comparison. It makes me think of the book “Simply Jesus” by N. T. Wright. Wright builds a case for how radical and unexpected Jesus was in his day and how hard it is for us, from our vantage point in time, to fully grasp that idea. I sometimes wonder if we would recognize a miracle if we saw it.

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