What’s Your “Mystery” Threshold?

by Mike Duran · 14 comments

Science operates under the assumption that everything can be understood. From human nature to the migratory patterns of birds, the cosmos can all be distilled down to a formula, equation, series of chemical reactions or causes and effects. I don’t prescribe to such a philosophy. Some things will — and should — remain a mystery.

But if life is full of grays, why do we expect our art to be so black and white?

I recall a conversation with a friend about the film No Country for Old Men. The movie ends abruptly and without real resolution. I loved the ambiguity and felt like it served the material, while my friend hated it for the exact same reason. “The good guy doesn’t win or lose,” he said. “The bad guy doesn’t lose or win. And the last scene makes you wonder if the projectionist fell asleep.”

That day, I came to the conclusion that I have a high threshold for mystery.

David Taylor, on his wonderful blog Diary of an Arts Pastor, in a recent post regarding, among other things, Sophia Coppola’s films, wrote this:

Art has long been a way for people to make sense of their lives. From Sophocles’ dramas to the tales of the Brontë sisters, art is a gift that God has given us to understand obliquely the many non-straightforward parts of our lives.  (emphasis added)

I love that idea that art helps us “understand obliquely the many non-straightforward parts of our lives.” Webster defines “oblique” this way:

a : not straightforward : indirect; also : obscure

So art provides a “not straightforward” understanding to the “non-straightforward parts of our lives.” Films and books flesh out what is intangible, “indirectly.” They hold up a “dim mirror” (I Cor. 13:12) to a very foggy world. However, the “understanding” they evoke is often in proportion to their “obliqueness.” It is the “out of the corner of your eye” vibe as much as the “in your face” punch that causes a good film or book to leave a lasting mark.

Ending a story ambiguously is not automatically good art. Nevertheless, this much is true: non-oblique art (i.e., straight-forward, didactic, preachy art) can’t niggle into our psyche the way a more “obscure” piece can. Such art is not nuanced enough to summon our deeper cognitive abilities, only galvanize our emotions. Propaganda posters may have stirred the Party spirit, but they are hardly worthy of long-term contemplation.

The apostle Paul “was caught up to paradise [and] heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (II Cor. 12:4 NIV). Perhaps part of God’s “revelation” to man is to disclose how much he actually doesn’t know. So great is “paradise” that the writer of 2/3 of the New Testament, upon seeing it, was suddenly without words. I guess that’s one way to shut up a writer.

Putting words where none will suffice is not only potentially blasphemous, it is bad art.

That’s why message-driven art is so dangerous: Not only does it trivialize Mystery, it attempts to codify non-linear elements of our lives. We systematize the Ineffable until it is little more than a splayed toad in biology class, organs nicely labeled.

In life, good guys don’t always win, bad guys don’t always ride black horses, and stories don’t always end tidily. So why do we demand it of our art?



Nicole January 13, 2011 at 6:22 AM

“In life, good guys don’t always win, bad guys don’t always ride black horses, and stories don’t always end tidily. So why do we demand it of our art?”

I don’t think “we” collectively do demand it, although some of us do. As you noted, it depends on our psyche for mystery, justice, whimsy, or whatever we need to feel like life is in order or under control and/or how much that affects how we perceive any artistic venue.

I love symbolism if it isn’t buried in elistist concepts or, as you wrote, in message-driven propaganda. But I also think “message-driven” can be a misnomer because I’m of the mindset that most art delivers a message whether bold and determined with its agenda or subtle and suggestive in its in beauty or angst.

Mark January 13, 2011 at 11:46 AM

You are right, real life doesn’t always have nice tidy endings. And it doesn’t always have the good guy win.

But that’s why I read fiction. I like to espcape to a world where stories end and the good guy (usually) wins. If things just end abruptly, then the author wasn’t telling a story. That was my frustration with Lost. They never answered many of the questions they brought up over the course of six years. What we got to watch was a very engaging first draft of a story.

Mike Duran January 13, 2011 at 7:14 PM

Mark, it’s funny that you mention Lost. I was going to use it in place of No Country for Old Men as an example of something that baffled, infuriated, and also profoundly affected people. I didn’t watch the series, but loosely kept up with the storyline (however vague it was). While I know of folks like you who didn’t like the finale’s ambiguity, there plenty of others who praised its sublimity. I think it may actually be a good example of what I’m suggesting here. thanks for your comments!

Mark January 14, 2011 at 1:05 PM

I’ve got to admit I am conflicted about Lost. They manged to give us a great emotional send off without telling us any of the things they had promised to tell us for six years. Emotionally, I walked away happy, but the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve disliked it because it didn’t really tell us a story. It was a character study, and I signed up for a story.

Tim George January 15, 2011 at 7:23 PM

Not to diverge into a LOST debate (thought I was part of a great podcast roundatable about it) but those looking for a neatly packaged three part play (like most everything else on TV) should have been dissapointed. The questions that needed to be answered were: they really did land on the island, it was a dream, and they all did die.

In the end it was a character study and the ambiguity of it was a part of that study. A lot didn’t make sense to the main characters but what finally did was their need for each other.

Tim George January 15, 2011 at 8:22 PM

Correction: they really did land on the island, it wasn’t a dream, and they all did die.

I really do need a posting editor.

Kevin January 13, 2011 at 11:50 AM

You pretty much just summed up why I don’t read Christian fiction at all (With the exception of Travis Thrasher, T. L. Hines, and some guy named Duran). I already know where most of it’s going to go. And probably heard a message just like it in Sunday School the previous weekend. Why would I then want to read it?

Sorry if that’s snarky. I’ve gotten over my gripes about the CBA, simply by not reading it anymore. But it’s the truth. And I can say this in all truthfulness: no CBA novel I’ve ever read has done for me as reader what secular fiction has.

Jay January 13, 2011 at 12:56 PM

I’ve only read one “modern” Christian fiction book, and it was alright…couldn’t remember the name of it, though. The only other “Christian” fiction authors I’ve read are C.S. Lewis / Chesterton / Tolkein triumvirate, but they seem to be so far removed from the state of things now that they might not even be considered that.

Johne Cook January 13, 2011 at 6:53 PM

Count me as one who hated the ending of No Country For Old Men. As a storyteller, if you’re going to get me to invest myself in characters and storylines and carry us to the very end and reveal that none of the building blocks meant anything, I’m going to feel lied to. It’s like Chekov’s gun, a literary technique whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later in the narrative. If an element (or Main Character) is introduced but the element or MC’s signficance never becomes clear, I’m going to feel that either A) the author was incompetent, or B) I was lied to. Either way, there is a way and place to do mystery, but teasing something and then never delivering doesn’t strike me so much as imparting oblique wisdom so much as bad storytelling.

Mike Duran January 13, 2011 at 7:28 PM

Johne, in the case of No Country for Old Men, I don’t think the “building blocks” of the story (the killer and the sheriff) became less clear at all. Both wandered into their prospective destinies — the killer, bloodied, ruthless, random, and very much alive; the sheriff into a “retirement” of confused, helpless, aging impotence in the face of such evil. But, again, perhaps that’s the fun of ambiguous endings — there’s lots of room for interpretation! Had the sheriff killed the bad guy, the moral of the story is all too obvious.

Johne Cook January 13, 2011 at 7:40 PM

This might have made for a compelling story, but it wouldn’t have had the traction that the original has:


xdpaul January 14, 2011 at 8:53 AM

I love They Might Be Giants (well, both the movie and the band that gets theirn name from it, but I’m talking about the movie) and the clop-clop-clop of horses hooves that ends it.

Donnie Darko made perfect sense to me, and the Sixth Sense was way too obvious. I liked Brewster McCloud and thought that Blade Runner’s ending wasn’t quite ambiguous enough.

So there you go. High threshold.

Johne Cook January 14, 2011 at 1:30 PM

I’m sitting here amused by words. ‘Mystery’ is fine and good, especially where it evokes sehnsucht, but a central tenet of ‘mysteries’ is combining mystery (whodunnit) with resolution. To me, sensawunda is indispensable but at some point in time, the plot has to advance and there has to be some resolution, even if, (as in Empire Strikes Back) the resolution itself is temporary and bittersweet. That makes the ultimate payoff all the sweeter, I think.

Having no payoff at all is too amorphous for my tastes. The journey may be important, but if there’s no proper destination when you arrive, I’m going to say the journey was wasted.

I’m reminded of the film Glory where we’re rooting for specifically African American characters, and it appears they’ve finally bonded together to become a capable, formidable fighting force. Taking terrible losses, they fight their way to the final wall, and spill over it… And die a quick, brutal death. At first, I felt my building exultation bleed away, and I felt distraught and disappointed. But then I read the final crawl, and that’s where the ending was, not in the final image but in the final text. From Wikipedia: “The film’s epilogue displays a series of graphics stating that Fort Wagner was never taken. It also notes how news of the regiment’s courage spurred the creation of voluminous black volunteers, and by the end of the war, there were more than 180,000 African American men in uniform; a fact which President Lincoln considered instrumental in securing a victory for the Union.” That was an ending that didn’t conform to my preconceptions, but which still remained true to everything that had come before. It was more of a cerebral ending than a visceral one, but upon reflection, it was no less stirring and satisfying despite being a tragedy instead of a triumph. It can be done.

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