Thursday, March 10, 2016

In Praise of the Mystery Story: The Problem of Good

I’ve been reading the Sidney Chambers mysteries by James Runcie, a series of books on an Anglican vicar near Cambridge in the 1950s and 1960s that’s the basis for the popular Grantchester mysteries on PBS. While it’s not as apparent in the television shows, Runcie’s stories do more than offer interesting mysteries with an engaging amateur detective. The stories typically pose theological questions, as Chambers wrestles with faith, doubt and the various issues that people of faith contend with.

I was reading Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (review next week) when a not terribly original thought entered my head. We hear so much about the problem of evil. Why does (or would) God allow evil? What do bad things happen to good people? Why does God allow a small child to get cancer? Why earthquakes and tornadoes? Why Hitler and Stalin? Why ISIS?

The not terribly original thought was that perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. What if the real question wasn’t about all the evil that God allows in the world, but all the good? Why is there so much good in the world?

I went looking for some answers.

A Presbyterian pastor, D. Marion Clark, published The Problem of Good: When the World Seems Fine Without God in 2014. A collection of essays by different writers, it takes a different view than the one I’m pursuing. The essays are more aimed at trying to explain why good seems to exist just fine without God.

Amazon has that one entry when you query “the problem of good.” Substitute “the problem of evil,” and you get 100 pages of entries. We Christians tend to be preoccupied with the question of evil, because it that set of questions from non-Christians that are perplexing without resorting to an in-depth lecture of the fall, original sin, marred creation, and related topics.

Why is there so much good in the world?

I found an answer that was intriguing because it went directly to a more basic issue: how do we know the difference between good and evil? What is it that says something is good, like helping the poor or sick, and something is bad, like gossip or physically attacking a person?

Most of us would focus on consequences or results – but bad things can often flow from good intentions (and we need look no further than our own federal government for untold numbers of examples).

Author and Christian apologist Greg Koukl concisely addressed my question in a blog post three years ago. We know the difference between good and evil because there is a pre-existing moral standard. Even if we are the most ardent of atheists or agnostics, we acknowledge that standard every time we raise the question of “why evil?”

I didn’t expect a mystery story to take me down a theological path, even a mystery story involving a vicar, but it did. It also reminded me that G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown Mysteries did much the same thing when they were written beginning a century ago.

Some mystery stories can possibly double as theological treatises.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

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