Luther the detective: Getting your hands dirty

Luther is the acclaimed British crime drama now available to Americans on BBC America.  Here is the Wikipedia description of John Luther, played by Golden-Globe winner Idris Elba:

He is obsessive, possessed, and sometimes dangerous in the violence of his fixations. But Luther has paid a heavy price for his dedication; he has never been able to prevent himself from being consumed by the darkness of the crimes with which he deals. For Luther, the job always comes first. His dedication is a curse and a blessing, both for him and those close to him.

Sound like any other Luther you know?  Sound like any doctrine you know?  Anyway, as we said yesterday, Jordan Ballor has an article in Cardus arguing that the series is, in fact, Lutheran.  I’ll let him tell you about a story line:

John Luther’s willingness to suffer, to be despised, and even to be killed for the sake of others is manifest throughout the series. In a line of work that is characterized by the daily risk of life and limb, the risks Luther takes on a regular basis are foolhardy, at best. When Jenny Jones’s mother, with whom Luther has a complicated history, comes calling, Luther finds himself unable to follow his safer judgment and remain uninvolved. He feels responsible in some way for the plight of Jenny, who after her father’s death has become addicted to drugs and a victim (“actress” seems like the wrong word) in the pornography business.

Luther ventures onto the set just as filming is about to begin and (to put it delicately) “removes” Jenny from the situation. He follows through and delivers Jenny to her mother, and the task he had been asked to complete has been finished. But everything is not well. Jenny knows that living with her mother will not be healthy. She knows she needs help and she pleads with John to help her. Again, despite his “better” judgment, Luther cannot resist helping. He cannot bring himself to simply tell her, “Go and sin no more,” and leave it at that. John Luther is thus in a very real way a natural lawman. His innate sense of justice and of obligation is so deep that he simply cannot stand by and leave broken things alone. He has to try to help, even if it means risking his reputation, his livelihood, and indeed his life.

He ends up risking all three in Jenny’s case. Those who run the porn ring have orchestrated the whole arrangement in order to get Luther into a position where he is exposed and compromised. At one point the gangsters nail Luther’s hand to a table: Luther is literally pierced for Jenny’s transgressions. He has put himself in this position willingly, knowing what it might cost. In the process, the gangsters do end up getting some leverage on Luther so that he has to appear to do their bidding, at least for a time.

To Luther’s colleagues, Luther seems to have been compromised. When DS Erin Gray asks Luther’s friend and protégë Justin Ripley about Luther’s suspicious actions, Justin expresses full, even perhaps credulous, faith in Luther’s fidelity. “There’s loyalty, and there’s naivety,” says Gray. Justin responds, “There’s a difference between getting your hands dirty and being dirty.” Justin knows Luther, and he knows that Luther will risk getting his hands dirty in order to do what he feels morally obligated to do. Likewise Justin doesn’t hesitate to get his own hands dirty to protect Luther. Luther’s brand of responsible action is contagious, it seems.

In this difference between “getting your hands dirty and being dirty,” we have a seminal expression of Bonhoeffer’s idea of vicarious representative action and Luther’s idea of moral ambiguity. We don’t always know when the line is crossed and we become dirty. But getting dirty, and even being dirty, is a risk we are bound to take, a risk we are bound to take in trust that it is not on the basis of our clean hands but rather on the redemptive work of Jesus that we might be justified. Jesus, in fact, is the exemplar of this vicarious representative action, the scapegoat of the Old Testament, who takes on the sins of others. As the Apostle Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). Because of Christ’s atoning work, we are free to risk getting our hands dirty.

John Luther is a deeply troubled man. We get no real insight into his spiritual life, and he begins the second series of episodes on the verge of suicide. There is likewise little overt religiosity in Luther. But in the vicarious representative action of the natural lawman DCI John Luther on behalf of others, we see a broken and fragmentary expression of common grace, God’s preserving work in the world.

The series is on Netflix–instant play!  So I’ve seen the first couple of episodes.  Just as crime drama–in the genre of police procedural–the show is excellent.   It has everything you might like in Law & Order, NCIS, etc.–action, suspense, intriguing mysteries, ingenious police work–but it’s grittier, more textured, and better written.

I had assumed that the theology Jordan Ballor sees in the series is unintentional, as when an honest work of art  finds truth, which by its nature is going to be consistent with the truth of Scripture.  But the show is full of explicit Christian–yea, Lutheran–language:  talk about evil,  (sinful) human nature, nothingness, Bible quotations (“why do the wicked prosper?”), the devil, guilt, “your calling.”  Then there is the character’s name and business such as nailing his hand to the wall.  The creator of the show knows some theology.

The character of John Luther is complex and compelling.  He’s something of a rogue cop (think the protagonist of The Shield but more sympathetic), brilliant but tormented.  His estranged wife who left him for another man, which tortures Luther, defends his preoccupations with “life and love.”  This is not romantic love or the kind of love that solves all your problems.  This is love that multiplies your problems and makes them worse.  But love is absolutely necessary.  At one point,  Luther identifies who the murderer is because when everyone else yawns, but she doesn’t.  Being able to resist the contagious yawn, he says, means this person has no empathy, the sign of someone who could kill without mercy.  (And  that woman, Alice, what a piece of work!  Though the unwillingness to yawn is not evidence that will stand up in court, he knows she did it, and she knows he knows.  They get together to torment each other and discuss medieval philosophy.  The shows’ villains are as complicated as they are chilling.)  John Luther,  struggles with the conflict between his compassion and his own lawlessness (when a serial killer is hanging on for dear life, he is not above stomping his fingers).  He is simultaneously a saint and a sinner, but he doesn’t understand that yet.  He is Brother Martin before his conversion.  Sherlock Holmes is characterized by logical deductions; Adrian Monk by obsessive compulsive disorder.  John Luther is characterized by Anfechtungen.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • WebMonk

    Might be a good series. On the yawning thing – total baloney factually. Sounds like an interesting development in a story, though.

  • WebMonk

    Might be a good series. On the yawning thing – total baloney factually. Sounds like an interesting development in a story, though.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    It sounds like a good show. I’ll have to watch for it.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    It sounds like a good show. I’ll have to watch for it.

  • mole

    How would you compare John Luther to another famous detective, Chesterton’s Father Brown, who describes his “secret” for identifying the culprit this way:

    “You see, I had murdered them all myself… I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

  • mole

    How would you compare John Luther to another famous detective, Chesterton’s Father Brown, who describes his “secret” for identifying the culprit this way:

    “You see, I had murdered them all myself… I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes, Mole, excellent connection! John Luther’s ability to solve crimes is definitely connected to his understanding of his own sinful nature. The main differences would be that Father Brown is much more “together” than officer Luther, particularly in his faith, and that Chesterton’s tales are much more light-hearted–even when they deal with murder!–than this BBC production.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes, Mole, excellent connection! John Luther’s ability to solve crimes is definitely connected to his understanding of his own sinful nature. The main differences would be that Father Brown is much more “together” than officer Luther, particularly in his faith, and that Chesterton’s tales are much more light-hearted–even when they deal with murder!–than this BBC production.

  • kerner

    “Luther” is a good show, but some things sit just a little funny to my. The old cross cultural thing, I guess.

    One thing I couldn’t get used to is that British organized crime is portrayed as being a lot more intimidating than the police. There was one scene in which some organized crime types are trying to intimidate Luther, and one of them stabs him in the hand, pinning his hand to a table top. Luther listens to their threats and meekly leaves the room trying to think of a way to out wit them.

    In an American cop show, the detective would have killed everyone in the room and then told the internal affairs people (truthfully) that he had been attacked, displaying his punctured hand as proof.

    Not saying who’s right or wrong. Just saying that you wouldn’t see that scene in an American cop show.

  • kerner

    “Luther” is a good show, but some things sit just a little funny to my. The old cross cultural thing, I guess.

    One thing I couldn’t get used to is that British organized crime is portrayed as being a lot more intimidating than the police. There was one scene in which some organized crime types are trying to intimidate Luther, and one of them stabs him in the hand, pinning his hand to a table top. Luther listens to their threats and meekly leaves the room trying to think of a way to out wit them.

    In an American cop show, the detective would have killed everyone in the room and then told the internal affairs people (truthfully) that he had been attacked, displaying his punctured hand as proof.

    Not saying who’s right or wrong. Just saying that you wouldn’t see that scene in an American cop show.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    British cops don’t even carry weapons! So John Luther goes into dangerous places completely unarmed and sometimes pays the price. When the British police do need deadly force, they can call in a SWAT team equivalent, which happens a lot on the show, but individual police officers, whether on the beat or detectives, do not carry firearms.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    British cops don’t even carry weapons! So John Luther goes into dangerous places completely unarmed and sometimes pays the price. When the British police do need deadly force, they can call in a SWAT team equivalent, which happens a lot on the show, but individual police officers, whether on the beat or detectives, do not carry firearms.

  • reg

    Both seasons of Luther were outstanding! I am looking forward to the rumored season 3.

  • reg

    Both seasons of Luther were outstanding! I am looking forward to the rumored season 3.

  • Helen K

    Well after seeing Dr. Veith’s topic yesterday, I’ve ordered the first disc from Netflix. We don’t receive BBC. Should be here tomorrow. Sounds interesting to me. Phil likes crime programs whereas I don’t. But I’ll have to watch this one and make a judgement.

    Nice all the things I’ve discovered on this blog. Thanks, Dr. Veith.

  • Helen K

    Well after seeing Dr. Veith’s topic yesterday, I’ve ordered the first disc from Netflix. We don’t receive BBC. Should be here tomorrow. Sounds interesting to me. Phil likes crime programs whereas I don’t. But I’ll have to watch this one and make a judgement.

    Nice all the things I’ve discovered on this blog. Thanks, Dr. Veith.


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