On occasion, I’ve made reference to the pleasure I take in watching mysteries on television—mostly British. Some shows please more than others. Grantchester, which I enjoyed for a season or two, lost its savor rather disappointingly to the point of insipidity. When it comes back for its new season, it will grind along without me.
Still, other shows are very good. Thanks to Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Acorn TV, my “mysteries” cup runneth over; I can watch any number of fine mysteries, even some that began airing twenty years ago and are still going strong, just as if they were new—which, in some cases, they are to me: the “Murdoch Mysteries” from Canada, “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” (a four-film series), “Lewis,” “Endeavour,” and “Midsomer Murders.”
“Midsomer” may well be my favorite. The series was inaugurated in 1998 and at 122 episodes is still running, albeit with a new cast. Currently, I’m watching shows from 2005, so the lead character DCI Tom Barnaby is played by the engaging John Nettles, who originated the role and bowed out in 2011 in favor of Neil Dudgeon. Barnaby is a shrewd sleuth, but he’s a far cry from Sherlock Holmes. His marriage is happy, his home thoroughly middle-class, his car generic (no red Jaguar for him), and his daughter smart and lovely though no pin-up.
When Barnaby solves a case—inevitably a murder—he must sift a lot of evidence, and although he does his share of sitting and thinking, he’s no armchair detective. There’s a lot of driving and walking around the mythical district of Midsomer, an idyllic English locality on the surface, full of quaint cottages and well-kept gardens but, like Edmund Spenser’s House of Pride, full of corruption behind the façade.
As I said, it’s great stuff, but, like all of the series, however worthy, its writers have their biases, which will bubble to the surface—rather disturbingly in this godless age. In “Midsomer Murders,” although Barnaby himself will show up at a church on Christmas, giving at least a nod to religious practice, for the most part, Christians fair badly in the series.
Take the episode from 2004, “The Straw Woman.” It takes place in a Midsomer village where a schoolteacher has revived, for education purposes, an ancient pagan custom of burning a straw figure of a woman. Turns out a local Anglican associate priest is found inside the effigy burnt to a crisp. An investigation must commence, but it proves to be an investigation into the sorry state of the community.
Among the unsavory details that emerge, we find the associate priest was the homosexual lover of the Reverend Jim Hale. The holier-than-thou Anglican M.D., John Cole, chases at least one young girl in the community, something of a breach of the Hippocratic oath. In addition, a famous pornographer, who has taken up residence locally in a renovated chapel and is, to complicate matters, while dying of cancer finds solace in his companion Agnes who comforts him in ways only a pornographer would appreciate. And Kate Malpas, the local alternative-medicine witch doctress, spends half her time competing with Cole and the other half scoffing at Christianity.
Just how far does the scoffing go? As Barnaby and Sergeant Dan Scott (John Hopkins) interrogate her about the possibility of various remedies being used to sedate the escalating number of victims, Malpas can’t help taking potshots at, as she says, the “Sado-masochistic death cult they offer in church.” To be fair, all religion appears to be the same delusion to her. “There’ll always be people who prefer aspirin to willow bark; they like religion: some people like slurping communion wine; some people like dancing naked around a bonfire.”
To clarify the point, she adds, “All over the world people make piles of stones when they’ve found God. If it gives them comfort, good and well. Personally, I prefer Agnes. If anyone can make death better, she can.” Agnes, you’ll recall, busies herself making the pornographer’s path to imminent death “better.”
The real focus of her rant, or so it seems to me, is the “Sado-masochistic death cult they offer in church.” To drive the point home, when Sergeant Scott later enters a church to scrutinize some ancient records, and, in passing, views a sculpture of a death’s head, he says, “Talk about a death cult.” There is no telling how many people fool themselves when they use such phrase to describe Christianity; certainly, given the sad state of the church in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, there must be thousands—and, I mean, of those who bother to think about Christianity at all.
In the context of “The Straw Woman,” the notion of Christianity as a sadomasochistic cult is absurd, as anyone who considers the source of the claim. Dr. Malpas (she was a conventional G.P. once) is plainly a grade-A cynic. From her point of view, any means of placing the various pains of existence at arm’s length are fair enough, They may include “slurping communion wine” or “dancing naked around a bonfire,” but, if you consider the range of possible consolations fit for a notorious pornographer, why not a sadomasochistic sex orgy—genuine sado-masochism? Surely, Agnes’ “rituals,” which the good Dr. Malpas prefers, can’t be confined by the limits of conventional male-female relations.
In sum, Malpas’, Agnes’, and Scott’s philosophy is nicely summed up in a verse they’ve probably heard and likely never truly realized is their reigning creed: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The real “sadomasochistic cult” is much larger than they think; it is, in fact, a good way of describing every manner of life without Christ, including a lot of religions whose practices involve more than dancing naked around bonfires.
There is only one way to life eternal, and that resides in the “very God” who became “very man” who became “sin for us” that we may enjoy life everlasting. Christianity, anything but a “cult of death,” has many doctrines, but, first and last, it revolves around a single point, the risen Christ who is the way, truth, and life, who is risen, and who will come again.
Only a caricature of Christianity — and a bad one at that — could miss the plain doctrinal promises of Christ. He is called the Savior. What he saves us from is death; what he saves us to is life ever full and ever filling. A paradox? Yes. Let’s call it a cult of life and, of course, a mystery.