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Clever and True

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, December 1, 2014

Clever and True

P.D. James, one of the true masters of crime fiction, died this past Thursday at her home in Oxford, England. She was 94.

Best known for her fourteen Adam Dalgleish mysteries, she also saw her dystopian novel The Children of Men become a major motion picture.

I met Baroness James while studying at Oxford in 2005. She was invited to be a guest lecturer to a select group of students, and I was fortunate enough to be included. She was even gracious enough to inscribe my copy of Death in Holy Orders, one of my favorite Dalgleish tales.

That night she offered an exceptionally engaging commentary on the interplay between her Christian theology and her mysteries. She said she was often asked how she could write about murder as a Christian. Her answer was that she was writing about the human condition, including sin, and murder brought that condition into the clearest of lights. 

I recall her saying that she also liked separating fact from fiction. She then added that the world needs such clear thinking, rooted in reflection, and then she went on to say “For there is much in our world that is clever, yet is not true.” 

In his fourteenth encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), Pope John Paul II expressed dismay that philosophers no longer wrestle with the big questions of life, the questions that most define who we are. What does it all mean? Does life have a purpose? Is death the end? Is there a God? If it is increasingly rare among philosophers, one can only imagine the degree of scarcity among the rest of us.

To reflect means to give thought to something to such a degree that it brings some kind of realization – an “a ha” moment. It takes an idea and lives with it until it is burned deep within. It takes a question, and like Jacob wrestling with the angel, does not let that question go until some form of answer emerges. Christian reflection takes what is read, taught, suggested, announced, and brings it into confrontation with a biblical worldview. 

It is thinking Christianly.   

It is significant that the Latin word schola, from which we get our words scholar and scholarship, means “free time,” joining the importance of fallow time given over to reflection for true intellectual development. 

Most think this means time devoted to study; in truth, it means the time to study coupled with the time needed to reflect on what we have studied.   

Henri Nouwen insightfully wondered if the fact that so many people ask support, advice and counsel from so many other people is not, in large part, due to their having lost contact with the practice of such reflection. Sometimes one feels, wrote Nouwen, “as if one half of the world is asking advice of the other half while both sides are sitting in the same darkness.”

Reflection does more, though, than bring insight. It brings a sensitivity, an awareness of things. It provides penetrating insight, an intuitive assessment of the world that cannot come any other way.

And this is what we lost last week.

Not simply the “Queen of Crime,” as she was sometimes called, but one of the great Christian “reflectors.” Thankfully, for the rest of us, she then wrote from the overflow of her mind. 

Words and ideas that were not only clever,

…but true.

James Emery White


Anita Singh, “PD James, acclaimed detective novelist, dies aged 94,” The Telegraph, November 27, 2014, read online.

James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).

Ralph M. McInerny, A Student’s Guide to Philosophy.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Clever and True