Holmes Sweet Holmes

Teaching at a theological seminary has its fun moments, but it is mostly the serious business of trying to provide survival skills for the leadership of the church.  Presbyterians especially obey Our Lord’s command to worship God with the mind (Mk 12:30; Mt 22:37; Lk 10:27).  Obviously we need first-rate institutions to nurture first-rate ministry.  I am truly grateful for my quarter century on a seminary faculty and the importance of the subjects I teach.

Nevertheless, I confess to an occasional nostalgia toward, a strong appreciation of, and a genuine regret for, the former fine frenzy freedom of college teaching.  In those days, restricted only by the range of my whimsy, I was allowed to offer courses in Bible, history until 1815, literature nobody else was interested in, and religious studies, which means anything you want it to mean.  Mainly, I chose subjects I wanted an excuse to study.  However, being hired by his predecessor to teach philosophy, I was concerned when a new dean arrived on campus.  I was even more concerned when I learned he had some very good friends in the philosophy department at the college he left.  Dean Ecks thought philosophy courses should be popular.  My classes were always small and (I liked to think) select. Since I was without tenure, I found myself between a rock and a hard-nosed dean.

Displayed in a prominent place of honor on my bookshelves is the text that convinced the dean he should not fire me.  In the January term, students enrolled in only one course and nearly the whole student body signed up for mine.  I was only somewhat sorry that other instructors had to cancel their offerings.  The title of my textbook and my course was “The Philosophy of Love.”  Although sex had not then entirely replaced love, even college students in the seventies had figured out there was what we call an intimate connection.  I have always believed that I was granted tenure based on my outstanding expertise in this area.

In another January term, I taught The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes.  We did a lot of delightful digging around in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by William S. Baring-Gould (who must be related to Sabine Baring-Gould who wrote “Onward Christian Soldiers”).  The class also took in the movie version of The Seven Percent Solution, which is sometimes called a pastiche.

A few years ago in Pittsburgh there were two Holmes societies.  I attended meetings of the “Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers” named in honor of the army regiment Dr. Watson served as assistant surgeon.  Not everyone understands that the Holmes stories written down by Conan Doyle are factual not fictional.  Indeed there is a marker at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital where Mr. Sherlock Holmes greeted John H. Watson, M.D. with these immortal words, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive” (“A Study in Scarlet”).  We learn that Dr. Watson was wounded near Kandahar in the Second Afghan War when a Jezail bullet shattered the bone in his left shoulder and grazed the subclavian artery (see also “The Cardboard Box” and “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”). Strangely, according to the Canon (or Conan) eight years later Watson is limping because of his old war wound (“The Sign of the Four”).  The question, of course, is what kind of wound to the shoulder causes a man to limp?

Scholars think the most likely explanation is that Dr. Watson was leaning over a fallen soldier in a posture that allowed the bullet to hit his shoulder first and then his leg.  Moreover, Jezail bullets can wander a bit and injure other organs which Victorian modesty and delicacy would consider unmentionable.  This sensitive situation explains why Watson, married three times, had no children.

In a recent column, William Safire of the New York Times cited Holmes’s deduction in the story “Silver Blaze” concerning the dog that did not bark. Safire mistakenly assumed that the curiously silent watchdog was named Silver Blaze.  At last count, he ruefully confesses, 753 irate Sherlockians wrote to correct this terrible error.  One wrote, “Safire, you butt head, Silver Blaze was the name of the race horse, not the dog.”  Another wrote, “The failure of Silver Blaze to bark can be attributed, primarily, to his being a horse.  The dog, alas, goes unnamed.”

In my own letter, I suggested that any pundit who thought Silver Blaze was the dog’s name would undoubtedly believe that “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” was a medical story featuring John H. Watson, M.D. lancing a boil.  The truth is the Countess of Morcar’s carbuncle was a garnet cut with a domed top.  Garnets are found in the colors red, orange, yellow, brown, purple, black, and white.  Among the more remarkable facts of Sherlock Holmes’s remarkable career as the world’s only unofficial consulting detective is that this gemstone was the only blue carbuncle ever seen.

This nostalgic essay has a sequel.  On a trip to Zurich last week, son Charles and I paid our respects to Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, especially Bullinger.  For most of my life I defended Calvin’s view of the Eucharist.  I now think Bullinger was more correct.  Anyway, after Zurich we drove to Meiringen and by cable car up to Reichenbach Falls where Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty fought and fell. For a number of years, I have picked up a common rock from the ground in places I wanted to remember.  Therefore, next time I see you, remind me to show you the rock both Zwingli and Bullinger stepped on, as well as the one Holmes and Moriarty fought over.   

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