How Sherlock Holmes Can Help Us Read Scripture

July 14, 2017
Written by: Brian

Even if you are not a fan of detective stories, you’ve probably heard of Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Like any good detective, Holmes solves crimes. But what sets him apart is how he comes to his solutions: Although others may see what he sees, he sees differently. He is mindfully observant. And it is that characteristic of Holmes that can be of help to us as we read Scripture.

When Holmes explains how he approaches solving cases, he highlights his attentiveness to what he sees. Watson, his chronicler and companion, insists “I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.” Which leads to the following exchange (from Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia):

“Quite so,” [Holmes] answered. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

“Frequently.”

“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. This is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

Holmes himself summarized this idea by saying, “How much an observant man might learn by an accurate and systematic examination of all that comes his way.” (From A Study in Scarlet.)

So how might Holmes’ insight and approach aid us in reading Scripture? We are not, like the great detective, solving crimes; but we are looking for clues (in texts) that will lead us to the right conclusion. It isn’t that the Scriptures carry hidden meanings or are intentionally obscure—as might be the case when presented with a mystery to be solved. But if we don’t adopt a Holmes-like attentive approach to our reading of texts, we might end up seeing but not observing. (It is worth noting that as people learn to be more attentive in their Bible study through the “Reading Scripture” class, they often say, “I never saw that before!” when reading familiar texts. They saw, but now they were learning to be observant.)

If you were to live with Holmes (in the stories) and watch how he approached the cases presented to him, you’d learn a few helpful habits:

“There is nothing like first–hand evidence.” (A Study in Scarlet) It is essential to read the text for yourself. Don’t start by reading what others have said; don’t start with what you have heard about the text. Read the text itself.

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody ever observes.” (The Hound of the Baskervilles) Don’t skip over anything in the text. Although all details the inspired authors present to their readers are not equally essential to understanding what we read, seeing as the words themselves are inspired, don’t overlook anything. Some overlooked details may be the critical pieces for understanding the passage.

“It is a mistake to theorize before one has data. One begins to twist facts to fit theories.” (A Scandal in Bohemia) Hold very loosely your pre-conceived ideas about a passage before you’ve really read it well. Try not to start with conclusions in mind.

“I confess that I have been blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.” (The Man With the Twisted Lip) If it looks like what you “have always thought” about a passage or some point of truth is at odds with what the text you are reading actually does say, be willing to let go of what you’ve thought and let the Scriptures lead you to some new and fresh insight.

The Spirit inspired the Bible you have to be read. It is not so much a mystery to be solved as a book to be read. But it is important that we read it with attentiveness. And it is learning to be attentive readers that we could learn something from Holmes.