The Rankin Files— Dead Souls. Is Therapy All There Is?

A deep seated need and desire and lust that leads one to impulsive and compulsive behavior. We’re talking OCD of a demonic sort. The sort pursued by ‘dead souls’ the subject of Ian Rankin’s eleven novel in the John Rebus series. In this particular case, we are talking about paedophilia and also psychopathic serial murdering. Here is a brief summary from Publisher’s Weekly of the plot of this Rankin novel.

“Edinburgh’s Det. Insp. John Rebus is beset by troubles from the past and the present in the loose and rangy 11th installment (after The Hanging Garden) of Rankin’s popular (and, in England, bestselling) series. At the outset, Rebus, who’s been drinking too much, endures frequent visitations from his recently deceased comrade-in-arms, Jack Morton, and suffers helplessly as his daughter struggles to recover from a hit-and-run accident that’s left her paralyzed. Rebus’s troubles are soon reflected in the old city around him: violent grassroots vigilantism breaks out in a housing project when Rebus informs the press that a convicted child molester is living in one of the flats; Cary Oakes, a serial killer just released from a U.S. prison, returns to Edinburgh; a rising star in the police department dies in an apparent suicide. In addition, as Rebus testifies in a high-profile case of sexual abuse of children, two old school friends ask him to search for their missing son. And as the cop pursues each of these cases, Oakes draws him into a sadistic game of cat-and-mouse. While the many plot lines pull the narrative in disparate directions, the whole is held together by Rankin’s drum-tight characterization of Rebus as a man deeply shaken in his convictions, but unwilling to fall apart.”

As for John Rebus himself, he’s gone in retrograde motion in several departments: 1) he’s back to drinking whiskey now that his AA buddy and fellow cop and minder Jack Morton has passed away, though apparently in less quantities than previously, and more watered down; 2) his relationship with the woman in his life is not growing. Patience Atkins personifies her name, but John is still spending the vast majority of his time on his job, which is what he is actually married to; 3) Rebus has even come to doubt his deep-seated and innate, often uncanny, sense of what does and does not amount to justice in a particular situation, justice not being narrowly defined by the limitations of the law.

This novel does not involve evil on the macro scale like it’s immediate predecessor where Big Ger Cafferty and other figures in organized crime come into the picture. No, this novel is about the havoc that can be wreaked by a single individual with some kind of power over other humans, and some kind of internal weakness and wickedness driving them.

And the repeated question and theme of so many of these novels is— ‘can people really change’? Can the paedophile really become a non-paedophile? It may surprise you to know that the vast majority of psychologists, including some Christians ones, answer that question with a big NO. This is why they talk about therapy, amelioration of tendencies, and the like,but not of cure or transformation. So for example, one especially popular ‘therapy’ these days is helping the mentally or emotionally unbalanced to work on their ‘cognitive distortions’, those mental aberrations that give a paedophile, for example, permission to do what they do. Those rationalizations or self-justifications that give permission to act out or misbehave. Rationalizations like— ‘I was born this way’, or ‘I just love being around children’ or ‘I can’t help myself so I may as well enjoy this instead of repress it’. Now these kind of rationalizations can crop up with all kinds of compulsive and sick behaviors— whether we are talking about stealing, or a compulsion to lie, or sexual misbehavior. What cognitive distortion therapy does is help people see, and correct, the mental thought patterns that give a person permission to act out. My own examination of the results of such therapy in case studies is that in fact it can help in various cases, but not always, and in any case it does not cure the person of their compulsive feelings or eliminate their deep seated needs to act in wicked ways.

Now as a minister of the Gospel, I am glad for any good thing that helps people cope with their sinful tendencies and abstain from them. I refuse to throw cold water on the notion of therapy, just because it doesn’t entail transformation. But I would not be in the Gospel business if I did not believe that by the grace of God, people can and do in various instances change. If the most God’s grace can accomplish in a life is better coping skills with one’s negative tendencies, then God’s grace is not as advertised. It just isn’t. So, I do believe in, and have seen cases of dramatic transformations of lives– for example of people addicted to porn, or drugs, or stealing, or sexual misconduct. In none of these cases should we ever encourage a person to think– ‘well you were born this way, or you were conditioned by your upbringing this way, or you have a genetic tendency in this direction, and so there is no hope that you can actually change’. Even if a person was born defective in some way, there is still with the help of grace and also the help of good counseling and therapy the possibility of not merely enduring one’s temptations and tendencies but actually prevailing over them.

Mind you I am not saying that a person will not continue to be tempted to do the sinful things they have done in the past. The temptation remains, but by the continual reliance on and power of the grace of God, it does not reign in a person’s life, more specifically in a Christian’s life.

John Rebus in these novels is a flawed person in various ways, and he deals with deeply disturbed and flawed people regularly. Dealing so often with wickedness, he has not lost his passion for justice and his outrage over injustice, but it is another thing to ask the question– has that passion quenched any compassion left in his heart for the lost? This novel shows that while he may deal with dead souls, he doesn’t yet have one. And yet he believes that when it comes to a psychopathic killer who kills often just for the sport and thrill of it, kills without any vendetta in mind against this or that person, in the case of the Cary Oakes’s of this world, they are better off locked behind doors permanently. The proof of this comes in a very revealing scene where Oakes wants to go pray in a church while traveling with a journalist who is going to tell his story. He has been a regular attender of chapel and a Bible reader while in prison, and has gotten out due to this and other forms of good behavior. But when he goes into the Catholic church during a quiet day time period, and after apparently praying for a while, the journalist sees the man then go urinate at length into the confessional booth. Cary Oakes is not a changed person— he’s just playing a game and stringing people along, waiting for his next opportunity to kill some more. Cary Oakes is well and truly… a dead soul, or at least one with a truly anesthetized conscience.

This novel is powerful at many levels, and it reminds us to never, never underestimate the power and reality of evil in this world, particularly in the form of human wickedness, for while nothing can really be done about tornadoes and hurricanes and the like which are natural disasters, there is something that can be done about human disasters. John Rebus and his work reminds us over and over again that human evil never sleeps, and that it is a constant battle to thwart its actions and proclivities. These novels do not allow a person to say stupid, glib and false things like ‘everyone is basically a good person at heart’. Nope. It’s no true. As the Bible says– ‘we have all sinned and lack the glory of God in our lives’. But the Bible also says, ‘if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creature…’. Reality lies between these two poles, and so does the issue of justice.

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