Recently, my wife Holly has been trying to get me to read something for pleasure or relaxation rather than always struggling away with something theological (by “recently” I mean, of course, the last 29 years). Having finally understood what she was saying, and having the wide selection of iBooks, I have been reading the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The stories are great fun, particularly due to his skill in telling a story and then as it nears its denouement, giving it a “twist” and all the details of the story take on a different significance as the crime’s solution is relayed.
In one of the first stories I read, “A Study in Scarlet,” I came across the following dialogue between Watson and Holmes that I found instructive. Watson is aghast that Holmes, while utterly brilliant in certain domains, is ignorant of the Copernican idea of the earth revolving around the sun. Holmes explains his lack of information in this paragraph:
“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful gets crowded out, or at best jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
I have not heard of many claims that Doyle was a bastion of Christian piety, but I think that this little paragraph can, nonetheless, be very instructive to those of us who strive to be that. Sherlock Holmes had an organizing principle: he only kept the furniture and the tools in his mind that assisted him in solving crimes. And he kept it in such order that it allowed him easy access to those things. I’m certainly not advocating intentional ignorance (or even unintentional) but Sherlock does bring up great questions: “What principle determines what we keep as the furniture and tools of our mind?” “What governs how we arrange our mind’s furniture?”
I suppose if I tried to list possible furniture-gathering principles, this could become a very long entry. But, I do think that it would be a fine use of time to try to determine your own.
Doyle’s imagery reminds me of Jesus’ words that have a similar ring but greatly escalate the importance of the exercise:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21 ESV)
What do the things we cherish in our hearts and minds reveal about the principles that guide our lives? Have we stored up the useless or the useful?
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt 6:33 ESV)