Reading in the Dark

illustration, noir, hammett

“Why is it that you like to read such dark stories?”

As a literature professor at a small evangelical Christian college, I often get that question or something like it from both students and colleagues. I suppose I get it a lot because I make no bones about the fact that I am quite drawn to gritty crime fiction. My literature of choice, when I get the time for leisure reading, is American noir in the tradition of Chandler, Hammett (my youngest son’s name is Dashiell), and Spillane. This acquired taste in entertainment of mine spills over into my television viewing too, and I often make reference in class to relevant examples from shows like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy.

Clearly, this predilection surprises some people, who’d assume that a committed follower of Jesus would be drawn to more enlightening forms of entertainment, things that were less edgy and featured characters who weren’t nearly so morally corrupt. After all, the heroes of these stories, from Mike Hammer to Jackson Teller, are severely compromised individuals. They are strong characters, with clearly defined codes of ethics and behavior, but those codes often depart significantly from those laid down by Moses and the Apostle Paul. And that’s to say nothing of the villains. Arguably, the worlds of crime stories aren’t terribly edifying. So it’s a fair question for those of us drawn to such dark narratives. Why do we like this stuff? What’s the value?

Crime novelist J. Mark Bertrand postulated a possible answer to the perennial appeal of crime fiction a few years ago in a piece for by Faith magazine, a piece wherein he gave an apology for his own vocation in crafting stories that are “dark” and “gritty.” For Bertrand, it seems, the corruption inherent in the universe of crime stories is the point. The moral degradation of the noir universe, he tells us, reminds us of our own fallen condition as creatures tainted both individually and collectively by original sin. The darkness serves as a reminder that, this side of paradise, we do not yet live perfectly in the light. “So noir exists,” Bertrand concludes, “as the fiction of moral breakdown, the fiction of corruption, and yes, the fiction of reprobation. To its practitioners, this also makes it realistic fiction, because it depicts the world – this side of Christ’s coming – as it truly is: not a realm of Newtonian regularity on the path to an ever brighter future, but a shattered, dystopian place only putting on a show of law and order.”[1]

To be sure, what Bertrand says about crime fiction is true, and surely one of its functions is to help us keep our fallen-ness in view, but that doesn’t seem to account for our love for the genre. At least in my own case, my love for the genre is a love for the worlds depicted in the genre and a love for the characters that populate those worlds. To wit, in the final episode of Sons of Anarchy, when the protagonist Jax Teller met his final end – an end that was demanded as a fulfillment of tragic justice in the overall arc of the show – my reaction was deep sadness, something akin to losing a friend. I didn’t lament the truth of what the literary symbolism of the character told me about myself, i.e. that I am also fallen and stand in a bad place vis-à-vis cosmic justice. I lamented the death of a character. I can only conclude from this that what I love in such a story is not any abstract theological truth, but the world of the story itself and especially the people (characters) in it.

But is this love well placed? That’s another fair question, particularly since we believers in Jesus are told quite pointedly not to love the world as such (1 John 2:15). And yet that can’t be the whole point either, because the same gospel tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his Son to die for and redeem it (John 3:16). If to be Christian means to be like Christ, then aren’t we called to love the world in some sense in the same way?

Raymond Chandler says near the end of his landmark essay on noir, “The Simple Art of Murder,” “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.” [2] The lines that follow in the essay detail that the paradigmatic story of noir is the story of the private detective venturing into the “mean streets” of his world to perform some act of redemption, some heroic deed to save the morally compromised victims that populate that world from their own corruption. The detective’s quest, in this regard, is something very like Christ’s, saving people from their sins—in spite of their sins. The sympathetic imagination of the reader, who vicariously ventures down these mean streets with the private detective, identifies dually, with the hero and with those who are saved. On one hand, we are the disciples of Christ, following him into the dark corners of the earth to love those troubled souls that we find there. On the other hand, we are those troubled souls. (It is in this latter aspect that Bertrand’s comments are to the point.)

A few weeks ago in my adult Sunday school class, we were discussing Jesus’ sending out of his disciples into the Decapolis, a pagan-dominated, reprobate section of Palestine in Jesus’ time. The pastor emphasized that the motivating factor in this mission was love for those pagans living in the Decapolis, love of the Other, if you will. Regardless of how far gone the Other may appear, Jesus calls us to love it (them) just the same. At one point in the discussion, an elder statesman of the congregation uttered enthusiastically, “The Other is us!” He wasn’t meaning to say we’re just as sinful, though we are. I think he was meaning to stress the close co-inherence and the bonds of love that (ought to) exist between us and our fellow human beings, bonds that bind us tightly to the creation around us, no matter how fallen.

Thomas Aquinas says that everything that is participates in the being of God.[3] This means that everything that has being has something in it worth loving, even the dark and gritty bits. This sort of love was the ministry of Jesus. This was the ministry of the apostles to the Decapolis. They were loving the Other, the parts of creation that are in the darkness, participating the Being of God at what is perhaps some farther remove. It can hardly be said, of course, that the acts of reading, or watching television, or imaginatively representing the darkness – through something like acting or writing – are forms of active ministry, but through the exercise of the sympathetic imagination, they do very much cultivate a love for the Other. And while it may be true that it is a very fine line that runs between loving what is in the darkness and loving the darkness itself, that line is one that must be sought out, because if it is not, the good – the latent and beautiful image of God that lies in the darkened Other of creation will not effectively be redeemed. Not imaginatively and perhaps not in actuality. And that would be truly tragic.

 


Article by Cory Grewell.

 

[1] J. Mark Bertrand. “Writing About Reprobation.” byFaith: The Online Magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America. April 28, 2011.
[2] Raymond Chandler. “The Simple Art of Murder,” in The Simple Art of Murder, 1-18. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
[3] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Complete American Edition. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Kindle Edition, loc. 1525.

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