My Mental Attic: Christian Vocation in A Study in Scarlet
Besides having memorable characters that have seen numerous television and movie portrayals in recent years, the quality of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works also stands out through the thinking that comes through his characters. Several times in conversations throughout these stories I have been forced to stop the story to think about the depth of what was just uttered. I believe my favorite of these such conversations comes in his novella, A Study in Scarlet. Early in this story, the first of the Sherlock Holmes collection, Dr. Watson is reflecting on the strangeness of Holmes’ knowledge. He has detailed knowledge about things as mundane as cigar and cigarette ashes, and yet he is unaware that the earth revolves around the sun. When he confronts Holmes on this absence of fundamental knowledge, Holmes has an interesting reply:
“’You see,’ he explained. ‘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 to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful 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 out of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.’”
This brief exchange has been the subject of many hours of contemplation on my part, and here I aim to put those thoughts into some sort of organized reflection. Among the many thoughts ruminating in my brain on the topic, three stand out. First, as a Christian, what is my work? Second, as a Christian, what are the tools necessary for doing this work, and what knowledge do I need in order to obtain, use, and refine these tools? Third, what knowledge am I filling my brain with that is crowding out knowledge important to my task as a Christian?
- As a Christian, what is my work?
Immediately upon consideration of this topic, my mind is drawn to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:58. Following the most detailed passage in Scripture about the importance of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of our own resurrection, Paul writes: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” One recognizes instantly that while the nature of this work needs more description, the question of whether or not the Christian has work to do is already settled in Paul’s mind. We have work, and because Jesus was raised from the dead, this work is not in vain.
It remains, then, to understand the nature of this work. Certainly books and whole libraries could be filled with such a topic, and I am limiting myself, for the benefit of my reader, to a mere few hundred words. What, then, lies at the heart of the Christian’s work? I have settled on two, because Jesus himself settled on two.
(1) A Christian is called to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. The Christian life must be characterized by worship, and not just on Sunday mornings. Every aspect of our life—our work, our families, our hobbies—must be approached through the lens of worship. All of our life, which is created by God and purchased by the blood of His son, belongs not to us but to Him, so it must be lived in worship of Him.
(2) A Christian is called to love his neighbor as himself. This command to love one’s neighbor includes a multitude of applications. It means to care for the needs of others, to do justice and ensure justice is done for others, and most directly to proclaim the gospel to others. It is in this final way that these two commands become intertwined. John tells us that we know we love God if we love one another (1 John 5:1-2). Paul says that the love of Christ controls us to proclaim this message (2 Cor 5:14). In the same passage, he says that because we have been reconciled to God through the blood of the cross, we have become ambassadors for Christ, ministers of reconciliation to the world who does not yet know Him (2 Cor 5:18-20).
- What are the tools necessary for doing this work?
Unlike many occupations which require specific tools to complete a task, the Christian work may have a wide variety of useful skills. The reason for this is partly because Christians have a wide variety of vocational work. One Christian may be a science teacher, thus requiring a detailed understanding of biology, chemistry, physical science, and more. Another Christian may be an accountant, thus requiring a detailed understanding of tax laws, mathematics, business and personal finances, and more. Inevitably, our vocational work will influence the way in which we are able to do our Christian work. Although our overarching task remains the same, the way we accomplish that task looks different on a daily basis.
In order to determine the tools, then, we need to speak more broadly. First, we must possess the right tools for our vocational work. Christians are called to bear witness to Christ in all areas of our life, including work, and part of this idea means doing our job with excellence. Therefore, we should strive to improve the tools that will make us excel at our work, not for personal glory, but to bear witness to the God who has given us these talents. Second, we ought to learn as much as possible about God and His Word. If we are to accomplish our task of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, then we need to ensure we are worshiping the true God as He has revealed Himself, as not an idol that we have created in our minds out of ignorance. Moreover, we cannot love others and be ministers of reconciliation if we do not rightly understand first how we have been reconciled to God. This knowledge comes through His Word, and we need to be diligent in studying it. Third, we need to learn as much as we can about God’s world. If God is the One who created the world and the One who will redeem it again, then we cannot simply dismiss this world as irrelevant. Gravity, the Pythagorean theorem, first principles of logic, and more are all true because God has created a world with order and consistency. As Arthur Holmes (no, not fictional, and therefore not related to Sherlock) once wrote, “All truth is God’s truth, wherever it be found” (All Truth is God’s Truth by Arthur Holmes). We should not be afraid of the truth, nor should we act afraid of what we may discover in various disciplines. We can be confident that when we pursue truth and find it, then it will confirm God’s existence and sovereignty over this world.
- What knowledge am I filling my brain with that is crowding out knowledge important to my task as a Christian?
This final question poses some difficulties. The tendency of many would be to become legalistic and exclude certain activities as worthless. A good example would be television. Much of what is on television is simply difficult to redeem (use for God’s purposes). I certainly understand those who hold this view. Nevertheless, even television can be beneficial if used rightly, with caution, and in moderation. The problem seems to come on two accounts, and these are summative of the dangers related to anything we put into our brain: (1) Quality and (2) Quantity. By quality I mean the actual content of the knowledge. Does this knowledge lead us into sin? Does this knowledge disorient or distract our focus on Christ? Is this knowledge largely useless in our Christian task? If the answer to these questions is yes, then we ought to take care about filling our mental attic with such things. By quantity, I mean the actual amount of information we are putting in our brain. Is my knowledge of things that are primarily entertainment-driven ill-proportioned to my knowledge of Scripture? Is the majority of my time spent on the most important knowledge, or is my time spent primarily on those things, although they may be of benefit to the Christian task, that are of minimal impact? Once again, if the answer is yes, then I think we are over-crowding our mental attic with junk that is crowding out our useful knowledge.
For me personally, I try my best to fill my mind with things useful to my task. I have improved over the years at this task, and yet I still find areas for improvement. One key area is not so much about things that I am filling my mind with that I should not, but rather the glaring omissions in my mental attic. I find that my knowledge of history and science continues to erode the more that I neglect it, so I need to create opportunities to fill my mind with these things. I am constantly working on organizing my thoughts rightly and keeping my mental attic clean so that I can stand before God and know that I loved Him with all my mind and did everything I could to prepare my mind for the task He has given me.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, in The Complete Sherlock Holmes Vol. 1 (),