How To Tell A Puzzle From A Mystery

July 17, 2012 — Leave a comment

What_the_dog_sawTwo weeks ago I introduced Malcolm Gladwell with his bibliography. Last week I gave you some food for thought from Blink, and now we’ve got some more thought snacks from What the Dog Saw. Unlike Gladwell’s other books, this one is a collection of essays published elsewhere rather than a coherent narrative.

How To Tell Which is Which

One of the essays introduces the distinction between puzzles and mysteries. The example of a puzzle, which was relevant in 2007, is the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. As Gladwell observes, “we can’t find him because we don’t have enough information” (153). Puzzles then can be solved by gaining more information and then figuring out how that information fits together into a coherent whole or solves an existing problem. Since Gladwell wrote this article (which was on Enron incidentally) the bin Laden puzzle was successfully solved.

Mysteries in contrast cannot be solved by gaining more information and in some cases are actually complicated by it. They may not even achieve a nice, tidy resolution. As Gladwell puts it, “Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much” (153-154). Gladwell applies this idea to the motivations and methods of the September 11th attacks. If they were a puzzle, then the response is to increase our channels of information collection in the intelligence community. If they were a mystery then the better response would be to “improve the analysis within the intelligence community.”

So, when there is a problem to be solved, it is helpful to determine whether you are looking at a puzzle or a mystery. Think for a minute how you would apply this to theology and biblical studies. It would certainly be helpful to know whether an exegetical or theological issues is a puzzle or a mystery. Consider for example, the Incarnation. Was that a puzzle or a mystery?

Theological Puzzles

From one perspective it looks like a puzzle, since we can go back to the Old Testament and see all the pieces were there. Once Jesus actually came, and showed us how to interpret the pieces, we could see how they fit together to teach that Messiah was not just an anointed man sent by Yahweh to save his people from their sins, but God himself incarnated as a human. What was ambiguous with less information (the predicted Messiah would be both God and man) became clearer as more and more information was gathered.

A theological puzzle then, is something that can be solved once you have enough information. Modern biblical studies (modern in yesterday’s sense) treats biblical interpretation as being almost exclusive a game of puzzles. An interpretation is a hypothesis about what a text means and this hypothesis must make the best account of the available information. As more information is gathered, the hypothesis is subject to revision (and therefore hoped to be more accurate). Biblical and theological studies seem to favor a puzzle approach if I’m looking at modern trends correctly.

Theological Mysteries

Now, from another perspective, the Incarnation was inherently mysterious. As Jesus was walking the earth, who could have possibly had more information necessary to solving the Incarnation puzzle than the Pharisees? Yet the people with the most information missed the boat in perhaps the most dramatic fashion. There problem was not lack of information but lack of insight, and if insight is what is needed then we’re dealing with a mystery, not a puzzle.

One of my Hebrew professors remarked that the resurrection served as a kind of “box top” that showed how the pieces of Old Testament were supposed to fit together. Before that, it was not inherently clear that Jesus was both God and man. He certainly claimed to be God, but that could be written of as blasphemy by the puzzle solvers. But, if the disciples who were dedicated to following Jesus needed a post-resurrection Sunday School lesson to see how the pieces fit, I think we have a mystery on our hands and not a puzzle.

Further, I think all biblical interpretation is inherently mysterious. It’s not just that some things are puzzles and some are mysteries, the entire enterprise is working with mysteries that require divine insight to interpret correctly. Any person approaching biblical studies that denies this is liable to drown in the Sea of Galilee while they think they’re walking on water.

Does that mean we can’t really ever know the truth? No, it just means we need to know the Truth first, and even then, some aspects of Christian theology will always be mysterious no matter how much information we gather. But that’s because Christianity isn’t about solving mysteries, it’s about worshiping the Creator of mysteries.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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