Most stories-whether written or onscreen-are about a character who faces conflicts. Today another kind of story is in vogue: The character-and with him the reader or viewer-has to solve a puzzle.
The hit TV show Lost is not just about castaways on a desert island, on the order of Robinson Crusoe or Gilligan. A strange sequence of numbers keeps showing up-in a mental patient's ravings, on a winning lottery ticket, inscribed on a mysterious bunker, and in lined-up police cars. And then the characters have to enter those numbers into a computer every 108 minutes or something unspecified but bad will happen. And that's only one strain of a labyrinthine plot that defies explanation, with each episode dropping clues as to what is going on, with viewers weighing in on the internet as to what it all means. Lost is an elaborate puzzle.
The same can be said of other top-rated TV shows. On House, the enigmatic diagnostician faces bizarre symptoms that he has to interpret so that he can identify the disease and work the cure. Typically after several wrong guesses, Dr. House solves the puzzle and the patient is healed, though the doctor with his twisted personality is himself a puzzle that his colleagues and his viewers keep trying to figure out. CSI and its clones have to do with solving forensic puzzles. In police procedurals, like the various Law & Order series and its imitators, the audience tags along watching detectives gather clues and solve crimes that are, literally, puzzling.
The biggest puzzle story, on both the page and screen, is probably The Da Vinci Code. The overall plot of the 40-million selling novel and hit movie is about deciphering a "code." Along the way, the protagonists must solve a whole series of riddles, anagrams, trick containers, and other traditional puzzles. The novel also turns famous works of art into puzzles. Each solution leads to another clue for the overall puzzle, until the protagonists solve the biggest puzzle of all. Which, to author Dan Brown, is the Christian faith, which he turns upside down into a sexually permissive goddess worship.
Back in the 20th century, cutting-edge novels and dramas presented life as absurd. There is no meaning in life, according to the prevailing worldview, so how can there be meaning in a work of art? The Theater of the Absurd presented stories with meaningless details, pointless actions, with nothing tying together or making any sense.
That was Modernism. In the Postmodernism of the 21st century, life does have meaning. People just don't know what it is. In serious contemporary films like Magnolia or Crash, events are tied together. There are no coincidences. There is a sense of an unfolding order, with people crossing paths with each other in significant ways, but the meaning is not clear. People have to interpret what it means for themselves. That is, life is a puzzle to be solved.
This may represent progress from 20th-century nihilism. But the puzzle-mad, with their conspiracy theories and interpretive paradigms, cannot accept anything at face value. And they often use their interpretations to shield themselves from the truth.
The Bible, for example, is not a puzzle to be interpreted in hundreds of different ways, according to the preconceived interests of the interpreter. This is how many theologians treat the Bible, allowing them to get around what the Bible teaches about sexual morality or the claims of Christ.
In contrast, the Reformers taught the important but now little-known doctrine of the "perspicuity of Scripture." That is, the Word of God is essentially clear. We may not understand it all, but the Bible is not that hard. Yes, there are differences of interpretation, but we are called not so much to interpret as to accept God's words.
Contrary to The Da Vinci Code, Christianity is not a puzzle. It is the solution.