“Useful Knowledge and Discriminatory Learning”

Picture courtesy of Susie-K (I do not own the rights to this image)
[For more fantastic artwork, see the artist’s collection here.]

“His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.” [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003] That is how John Watson, faithful friend and loyal companion described Mr. Sherlock Holmes knowledge of many aspects common to many a men. Of course the shocker for Dr. Watson was the fact that Holmes did not know anything about the Copernican Theory. Dr. Watson writes, “That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.” [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003]

Sherlock, accustomed to reading the face and features of individuals with whom he was communicating, quickly retorts, “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.” [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003] This completely dumbfounds Watson! Why anyone in the world would even think about forgetting such a basic fact of the universe was too much for him.

It is then that Sherlock gives his explanation,

“You see, 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 humbled up with a lot of other things, to 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 of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003]”

Now, you may be asking yourself, “What the deuce does this have to do with me?” Much! More than much, I would say. Now, our journey through the life and doings of Mr. Sherlock Holmes has application for any area of life. However, being that my focus in life is God and theology, we shall then apply it to our life with God.

Being in North America, and in the south in particular, there are some things that are just common to life. Football, baseball, (and let’s be honest, sports in general) and guns are the life of many. We can name the top Quarterback in the league, we can cite all of the stats for the catcher, and we can name off the type of gun and ammunition simply by a quick glance. Certainly these things are not wrong. In fact, there are many things such as these that I enjoy myself.

However, what if we had the same intensity to know God? What if we had the same desire to know what others believe? For example, there is so much information that is simply false floating around the interment and news sources concerning the Islamic faith. What if, insane as this may be, we searched the actual sources of their faith to discover what Muslims actually believe?

Let’s take this a step closer to home. What if we searched the Scriptures to determine what was right and wrong? What if someone was entering a difficult stage in their journey on earth and we could at a moment’s notice relate several accounts from biblical literature of people facing similar times. Or what if we could tell someone about who God is from our in depth knowledge of Scripture?

Sherlock Holmes was the master of his brain-attic. How do we fill ours up? Can we quote line upon line from our favorite show? Can we relate the history of an entire fantasy saga, including wild names and fantastical beasts, only to fail to adequately express the God we serve? The lesson that Mr. Holmes can teach us is discriminate knowledge. Let me offer an example.

Small talk is an important aspect of human relations. Being able to discuss the weather, the current political issues facing the local arena, and other issues is vital in order to connect with our fellow human beings. So some knowledge that does not have an immediate impact or importance on our lives is necessary. But here is the catch, you can know enough about a team without knowing everything, be able to carry on a conversation, and then move it onto deeper matters. If your goal is to share God with people, you should be more knowledgeable about God than any other thing in your life. If your goal is to bridge gaps between people of different skin color, then your knowledge should be focused on the historical and cultural development of each different people group. Do you see the wisdom in this? Holmes was the master consulting detective. Why? Because he knew what he needed to know and forgot what he didn’t. Simple, yet absolutely brilliant.

Our first objective, then, is to discover our goal in life. What is our purpose, our passion? I have several, and each one builds upon the other. So my learning, my retention of facts and information has several outlets but with one overarching theme.

Our next objective would be to determine to know about our goal and the subject material available. This may sound absurd, and it may be that some may think of this simply as an intellectual exercise. Be not mistaken, friend, for this type of discriminatory knowledge is vital for all of the children of men.

And our final objective is simple. Do not bother attempting to retain knowledge that has no applicable purpose in your life and work. A master electrician does not need to know the detailed information that a master plumber in order to accomplish his or her electrician work. In the same manner we should only use the information that is useful to us and our task.

So what is your Copernican Theory? What information do you need to let go? I end with the words of Sherlock to John concerning that theory, “If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003] Don’t let that information keep you from your work.

A Study in Details: Exact Knowledge and Sherlockian Advice for the Teachers of Scripture


I’ll admit, the title is lengthy. Fourteen words that could probably be summed up in three may be overkill, but it reminds me of older works written in the 18th century. However, it summarizes the main idea behind this post.

I love Sherlock Holmes. It is no secret. If someone asks me what my favorite book is I reply without hesitation, “Sherlock Holmes.” My favorite movie? Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Favorite TV show? BBC’s Sherlock. I love everything about him. But one of my favorite aspects regarding Mr. Holmes is that he has much to teach me. I have said before in passing that if I could be as studious and detailed as Sherlock my life as a teacher and student of Scripture would be much more productive. In this series of posts I want to share readings, whether long or brief, from the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I see applications to preachers, teachers, small group leaders, and disciple makers. So, if you fall into one of these camps, please read on. “The game is afoot!” [Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange]

In A Study in Scarlet, Dr. John Watson meets Mr. Sherlock Holmes for the first time. Being an injured former military man with no friends, no work, and soon to have no home, John was looking for an affordable place to stay. During a conversation with a former acquaintance, one young Stamford. By happenstance the young dresser mentions that another gentleman was looking for a roommate. This begins the long friendship which was to ensue between Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes. In describing Mr. Holmes Stamford informs Watson that “He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.” [Stamford, A Study in Scarlet]

The need for ‘definite and exact knowledge’ when studying, reading, and teaching the Scriptures should be evident in the most basic sense. Unfortunately, a brief look into blogs, a short ‘sermon’, or even a glance through many commentaries will yield ample proof that this truth is not so basic. Scripture is clear that study is necessary for both one’s personal growth as well as the mutual encouragement of others (Joshua 1.8, 2 Timothy 2.15 and 3.14-17 to name a few). Why would Holmes have this passion, as Stamford puts it, for ‘definite and exact knowledge’? For Holmes, it dealt with legal matters, with justice. These are, no doubt, of the utmost importance. The proper punishment for the guilty individual is vital. In the affairs of men there is not a higher calling. But students of Scripture are not to live in the affairs of men alone. Our minds are to be on heavenly things (Colossians 3.1) and as such should be filled with heavenly thoughts (or Scripture, if you will). As such we should have a passion, an all-consuming goal for ‘definite and exact knowledge’, and that of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the One Whom we teach. It is Him that we point to in our studies, in our messages, in our small groups, in our shopping trips, in our school assignments, in our friendships, in a word, our life.

Our description from Stamford seems to have an equivalent thought in the Tanakh, in the book of Nehemiah.

“He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.” -Stamford referring to Sherlock Holmes

“They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” -Nehemiah referring to the Levites

Do you see the connection? The Levites had  a passion for definite and exact knowledge of God’s Law and sought to pass that on to His people. May this be our goal, our prayer, each time we study and present God’s truth.