The World of the Thriller

Title:  The World of the Thriller

Rev. Christian Iosso

Sunday, August 15, 2021 

Texts:  Judges 20: 3b-7, 12-13.  Acts 16: 16-28.


There is a large but not absolute difference between a mystery novel and a thriller, and this carries over to TV series and to movies. Both the mystery and the thriller can be written to formula or genre, and for that reason they can be dismissed, but those formulas or structures say a lot about the nature of our lives, our daydreams, our everyday faith. Both mysteries and thrillers speak to the nature of spiritual power, in times of personal tension or global crisis. They both seek justice and usually offer a fulfilling conclusion, when most of our lives are filled with unfinished business. Both can involve a brilliant and brave hero figure figuring out who has, or is, committing crimes, crimes that no one else can solve. In fact, the detective or secret agent may discover that the police or other authorities do not want the perpetrator found, or they actually are the perpetrator, and that witnesses lie.


The difference is that the detective in a mystery novel is usually not in personal danger, especially if it is a police procedural. On the other hand, with a thriller, the secret agent or spy is personally in danger, often hunted. They are in a foreign country, or a context where knowing who is a friend or foe is difficult. In the detective world, one part of life, say a murder or theft, does not make sense. In the thriller, much of the whole world does not make sense. There is chaos, and more rides on the mission of the hero. These distinctions blur when the detective is searching for a murderer continuing to kill, who may have a hostage with time running out, or where an innocent person may be wrongly put to death if the truth is not discovered. (The older mysteries and thrillers involved war rather than terrorism, and generally missed the racial awareness you find in a novel by Walter Mosley.)


One reason to look at “the world of the thriller,” as Ralph Harper called it, is because that world “is the soul’s perpetual struggle between good and evil, between virtue and chance, desire and satisfaction, gentleness and violence, and each memorable piece of fiction becomes a new vehicle, or myth, for it.” (p. 17). Not only is the hero in the thriller in more personal danger, but their identity is in more danger. If a disguise has been adopted, how does playing a lie affect finding the truth? If the cover is blown, what would happen? The quote at the start of the bulletin talks about finding our own secret selves. Harper maintained that the adventure of discovering our own hidden callings makes this literature more than escapism. How do these vicarious adventures affect our reading of the stories in the Bible, and the influence of the mysterious person of Jesus? Following Harper, I believe thrillers can help us find our secret selves and also our Christian selves.


Ralph Harper was a quietly brilliant Episcopal priest in Monkton Maryland who taught in the down market night school at Johns Hopkins, though he had the highest academic credentials in philosophy—Harvard, Freiburg, Oxford—and a range of books about existentialism and love. Harper was an academic secret agent operating in the mystical margins of that very secular university, analyzing things like mysteries and suspense novels. [See Ralph Harper, The World of the Thriller (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1969, 1974).]


I read very few mysteries before my late twenties, mainly some Dorothy Sayers, though also Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.  Then my family and I lived in a manse next door to a mystery writer, Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Aunt Dorothy, as my children called her, wrote mysteries with a psychological interest in “motivation, morality, and manners,” as the NY Times obituary phrased it. Her early crime novels sometimes referred to her Roman Catholic and Irish background, and she avoided violence in most of her books. She had been a magician’s assistant at one point, and an advertising writer. Over her life she nurtured other women mystery writers and was a leader of the writers’ group, Sisters in Crime.


Her story suggests some of the uncanny reasons we are attracted to mysteries and thrillers. Dorothy, (a progressive Catholic, and her secular Jewish husband,) Harry, were quite interested in the Christian faith, including that of their Presbyterian neighbors. Then Dorothy’s father died and in going through his papers she received a great shock: she had been adopted and never told. Further, neither of her birth parents were Irish, and both were Protestants. After processing this shock, Dorothy joined the Presbyterian Church and became an active elder.


A mystery writer influenced by Dorothy Davis, Sara Paretsky—also a Presbyterian when I knew her– called Davis “a deep explorer of the dark side of the human mind, but a side that we all have.” ( )


Now the “dark side of the human mind” is graphicly on display in the book of Judges, which depicts a world of chaos and increasingly grim treatment of women. A horrible murder has been committed and the quest for justice has been invoked by the husband/owner of the concubine, or secondary wife. This atrocity becomes the cause of a war, when the other tribes send troops to fight the tribe of Benjamin, almost wiping it out.


Yet from a mystery writing perspective, the behavior and testimony of the Levite are suspicious. When we meet him earlier in Judges, his concubine has run back home after being sold by her family. What caused her to flee? Then, when he has given her—in his place– to be abused all night by the rabble of the town where they are staying, he apparently goes to sleep. When he is about to leave in the morning, he finds her lying at the door and asks—without apparent care—are you ready to go? Finding her unresponsive—but is she possibly still alive?—he throws her over a donkey and takes her a day’s journey home—where he carves her body into 12 pieces to rally the tribes.


In our passage, he claims that it was the “lords” of the town who abused her, rather than the rabble. He commits an outrage to protest an outrage. Does he want punishment more than justice? A careful reading of Judges would suggest that his responses are the opposite of what should be expected of even a bronze age man.


Our Acts passage gives us two kinds of thrills. One is the experience of Paul having his identity disclosed by a slave-girl who is a fortune-teller, highly intuitive or clairvoyant—possibly a borderline personality drawn to try to undercut his mission. She detects Paul’s connection to God like a Geiger counter hitting radioactivity. Paul is pictured exorcizing her demon, shutting down her gift and her owners’ capacity for exploiting her.


Her owners then go after Paul for emptying her economic value. Notice that like the Levite, they testify falsely. They emphasize Paul’s Jewishness to play on the anti-Semitism among Romans and Greeks. The truth is that it is not Paul’s Jewishness that makes him different. After he is beaten and jailed, his identity is revealed in a dramatic jailbreak by earthquake—talk about escapism! The doors are opened, the shackles fall off. But then Paul doesn’t choose to escape.


What happens next in the constant thriller style of Acts is that the jailer converts to this God who has delivered Paul from the false arrest and unfair suffering. With our eyes open to the patterns of thrillers, Paul has gone from being hunted, on the run, and captured, to being the hunter—or perhaps, to be the agent of God’s hunting and God’s liberating both jailers and the jailed.


This is not escapism, but there is excitement in having the identity of the protagonist revealed, both in de-fanging evil and in the drama of the jailer’s conversion. The clairvoyant slave girl’s compulsion is transformed by Paul’s counter-revelation of the demonic in it. The jailer is revealed to be God’s prisoner, freed from service to oppression. Paul, as a hero in a thriller, can never be just an observer. He is changed himself, and can never go back to being Saul. As long as there are demonic spirits, he can never rest and in fact is given uncanny reserves of energy and insight. The good ultimately knows evil better than evil can know good, or even know itself. This is no mystery: The church survives by being a vehicle of that truth.


If these transformations are not escapism, what is going on? Conversion. Whenever we read a gripping novel such as a thriller we experience vicarious pleasure, yes, but part of us is also being converted. To be converted is to find our secret but true selves, hidden by the everyday. Think of Dorothy Salisbury Davis, finding herself part of a larger story that she did not write, but in which more of the parts of her life could fall into place. The danger is that we be converted to a cynical voyeurism or consumerism of violence. The Gospel identity energizes us and pulls out of our observer seats and into the arena—to take risks and challenge the evils that face us today.


The church is the solidarity of those who have found themselves changed people, unable to return to the gods of power and pleasure and tribe. With my predecessor interim pastor here, I must ask how First & Franklin’s true identity is being revealed as we go through testing and challenge and face crises. Your volunteer leaders, especially, are tested, and we live in a Baltimore that is being tested, amid larger ecological, economic, and political crises. Are we the center that in fact does hold?


The challenge I would leave you is to read the Jesus stories as God’s secret-and-public agent still being sent into a disordered world, not to escape the world or condemn it, but to be vulnerable and continue to meet us in it. God’s world is in fact the most thrilling world, as it promises the greatest transformations to us.


In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Author, Christ, and Sustainer, Amen.