Staying Faithful to the Author’s Intent

Back in the late 1980s, I developed a strong interest in the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes. This borderline obsession was initially sparked by the consistently-brilliant performances of Jeremy Brett in the title role, originally aired in 1984 on Granada Television in the UK. Ever the purist, Brett’s filmed performances had the effect of driving me back to the source material. My older sister had given me the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I rewarded her excellence in gift-giving by very quickly devouring every single page. My affinity for Holmes stayed with me for several years.

This past Friday, my daughter Mary and I made a rare trek to Forum 8 to see the new Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. I don’t get out to see many new movies these days, soaring ticket prices and lack of spare time being my primary stumbling blocks. To be honest, I was not hoping for much when I learned that Jude Law (“What?!”) was cast in the role of Dr. John Watson. Okay, look…everyone knows, without being told, that the role of Watson should quite rightly be played by an older gentleman…don’t they? Admittedly, it took a few minutes for me to get past having a “pretty boy” cast in that role, but Law’s performance was winsome enough, and thus I managed to set this objection aside fairly quickly.

Having read all of the original stories, I could easily punch hole after hole in the screenplay and carp unpleasantly about its lack of faithfulness to the source material, but I’ll happily leave that task to the ever-vigilant army of 20-something bloggers wearing Star Wars jammies and living in their mom’s basement.

Despite my purist tendencies, I found I very much enjoyed the film, and I walked away with a healthy appreciation for the incredibly-detailed set design, “sooty London” cinematography, snappy dialogue, special effects and slow-motion action sequences. I found all of these elements to be top-notch, but let’s face it…any attempt to render a story featuring Sherlock Holmes will succeed – or fall flat on its face – with the portrayal of its central character and, to my mind, Robert Downey Jr. gave a stellar performance. Despite his legendary personal problems and substance abuse issues, it seems like a no-brainer to admit that Downey is obviously very talented. His ability to inject characters with odd mannerisms and personal ticks makes him the perfect actor to take up the daunting task of portraying Holmes.

But what caught my attention on the drive home was the realization that I had been very carefully judging the worthiness of the entire film by its “broad-stroke faithfulness” (or lack thereof) to the central character as originally penned by Conan Doyle. The character of Holmes as rendered in the original stories is absolutely riddled with bizarre behavior and less-than-desirable traits, extreme social awkwardness and a debilitating morphine addiction being just two of the more obvious. Had the more difficult aspects of Holmes’ character been missing, I doubt I would have enjoyed the film, “top notch scene design” or no. The true fan of Sherlock Holmes embraces the totality of his character, astonishing brilliance and social awkwardness.

And it occurs to me that there is a strong parallel between my inner desire to somehow “protect” the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes against error…and a growing desire within my own heart to protect the person and work of Jesus Christ from the inaccurate caricature of Him that many of us have been exposed to, up to and including the present day. Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle has written and said plenty about the American evangelical tendency to turn Jesus into “some sort of sissified flower child,” so there’s really no need to stoke that fire of controversy to make my point. I’ll just simply affirm Driscoll’s assertion that men, by and large, aren’t really engaged at a gut level by the “soft” Jesus that tends to show up in older Bible films and on Sunday morning flannelgraphs.

So I find myself appalled by how, as I watched the movie, I was so internally vigilant to protect and defend the established, “truthful” image of a fictional British private detective against all error and heresy…when I have historically tended to be quite passive in what I was hearing and reading with regard to the person and work of my eternal Savior, Jesus Christ.

Pause for just a moment. Let the complete stupidity of my priorities sink in for just a minute.

Not that long ago, some poor soul might have said something outrageous to me like “Sherlock Holmes never once visited a Chinese opium den!” and I would be instantly on my feet, running to retrieve my Complete Works of Arthur Conan Doyle and frantically turning to read aloud from “The Man with the Twisted Lip.”

But let someone spout utter nonsense like “Jesus was not God, He was just a good moral teacher…” and I might have been tempted to let the remark get by unchallenged perhaps because, at the time, I did not know where to look in the Bible to refute it, but also because I had no idea how to respond to a worldview that sought only to discredit Christ without providing the necessary, alternate explanations for the four major categories of Origin, Meaning, Morality, and Destiny (per the apologetic argumentation of C.S. Lewis).

If we will just simply ask God to grant us both the willingness and the enthusiasm to go back and study the source material, the Jesus of the Bible comes alive. Studying the attributes of Jesus as documented in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John provides us with all the apologetic we need, as Jesus Himself was constantly called upon to defend His character. Though He often did it indirectly, the four gospels give us example after example of how Jesus responded in situations where He was challenged, and clearly presents an overall sense of who He is.

Jesus says a lot of unpopular things. At the very beginning of His earthly ministry, after reading Isaiah 61 aloud in synogogue, His high school buddies back in Nazareth tried to push Him off a cliff (Luke 4:16-29). Disciples leave him in droves when He testifies that they can have no part in Him unless they drink His blood and eat His flesh (John 6:50-69). Whenever I read Matthew 23, I always find it difficult to visualize the Pharisees holding off on rock-collection duty long enough to hear Him vilify them so thoroughly, so the big question for me is not “Why was Jesus crucified?” but “How did Jesus manage to remain alive as long as He did?” The scribes and Pharisees instinctively start looking around for baseball-sized stones whenever He shows up (John 8:48-59, John 10:22-33)! Multiple times He is accused of having a demon in Him (Luke 11:14-15, John 10:19-21) and despite all this…He never once “waters down” His message to please the crowd.

Thanks to the Internet, you can quite easily find people fighting viciously over the most nuanced trivialities as they relate to the lives and careers of Batman, Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk or Wolverine. As a former Sherlock Holmes nutcase, I understand the appeal that well-written characters have, yet when considering the person and work of Jesus Christ I have to thank God that in His great mercy He ultimately “drove me back to the source material,” where the nature and character of the greatest Man Who ever lived is so lovingly revealed.

There really is nothing wrong with getting wrapped up in the minutia of a favorite comic book character, TV series or rock star. Neither do I think anyone should feel guilty because they have memorized the earned-run average of a major league pitcher down to four decimal points. All I am saying is that, for myself, I very much look forward to the day when I will know more about Jesus than I do about my favorite fictional character, and I know exactly where to find the passage that talks about Jesus as the Author and Perfecter of our faith without having to look it up using Bible Gateway’s keyword search (Hebrews 12:1-2). The best I can say right now is that the scales have begun to tip, and my prayers for God to sweep the clutter out of my soul and replace it with His Truth have clearly been heard. I now have a reasonable hope that I will be quoting the Apostle Paul from my deathbed…not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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