Jul 21, 2015

What Cozy Mysteries Can Teach Us About Vocation

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

Sitting with my fellow students during the lunch break of an on-campus session about vocation, I listened as one of them bemoaned the difficulty of choosing her degree. She was interested in a particular program that might lead to a good career, but wondered if she would really enjoy the job. She also felt drawn toward a more philanthropic field, but wondered if it was foolish to take on debt for low-paying work. We all agreed that selecting one’s vocation was hard--there were so many ways to serve one’s neighbors. How was one to know which was best?

A well-meaning older lady turned around to join our conversation. She reminded us of the lecture that we had just heard, and pointed out that a Lutheran understanding of vocation freed us to pick any legitimate field of work. She seemed to think that this solved our problems. I’m afraid that we were annoyed. The truth was that no matter how liberating the doctrine of vocation is, we still had to pick our majors and live with the consequences.

Certain times of life require decisions. I was born into some of my vocations (for instance, that of daughter) but others (teacher, wife, and friend) have come about because of my own choices. Sometimes these choices are a source of delight. It can be awesome to be a newly-minted adult, able to pursue knowledge in a field one loves. It can be amazing to serve one’s neighbors--anyone who asks--with all of the freedom that accompanies the single life. Accepting a proposal of marriage, buying a house, or heading off to the mission field can make for deeply meaningful thrills. Yet sometimes, all of this freedom feels merely like an opportunity to select the wrong option. There is often a lot of stress involved in leaping into the dark and unknown future. As I get older, I can see that there is sometimes also stress involved in living, long-term, with the fruits of one’s youthful choices.

I wonder if sometimes we let cultural pressure merge with our theology until the way we think about vocation is too focused on being sure that we are making the decisions that are best for us. Perhaps we are influenced more than we realize by worldly pressure to find our dream jobs, our soulmates, and other fancy-sounding, 100%-perfect solutions to the questions of life. Ultimately, this can lead to a great deal of second-guessing, discontent, and self-doubt. We can even end up regretting our vocations and envying those of others.

Oddly enough, I think we can learn something about how to make life decisions from cozy mystery novels. The term “cozies” is used to describe stories in which amateur sleuths work within the confines of a single village, household, or other small circle in order to solve murders. The perpetrators are genteel, ordinary people who were pushed over the edge by greed, fear, or other relatable human passions-- “cozies” are not about psychopaths or the grittier side of life. The percentage of mid-twentieth-century individuals who were killed while attending house parties in England could not possibly be as high as the death toll in these books indicates, but that does not stop fans from snuggling up with the works of Dame Christie and other authors of the genre.

While reading Death at Wentwater Court, a sweetly implausible, cozy mystery by Carola Dunn, I was struck with the theological implications of the heroine’s activities. She travels to an English country estate. Naturally, a dead body is soon found. Even more naturally, within a few days she manages to discover the sad and shocking tale behind the corpse’s demise.

Skeptical readers might ask why a young lady, however curious and intelligent, would throw herself into the role not only of solving a crime but also of deciding how justice should be meted out afterwards. Is it her place to interfere with the police in the execution of their duties? Is it appropriate for her to meddle with the intimate secrets of someone else’s family? Fortunately for the plot, such scruples do not stop the heroine of Death at Wentwater Court. In this, we can find an unintended illustration of Christian doctrine.

When an amateur sleuth sees a body, she does not stop and ask herself if solving crime is really God’s will for her life, and/or the thing that will truly make her happy, and/or the 100%-guaranteed absolutely best investment of her time and money. She does not suffer angst from the knowledge that solving this crime will prevent her from being available for other good works. Or, at least, if she does suffer any of these doubts, the reader knows perfectly well that such questions will not prevent her from taking detective action.

When we as Christians question our vocations, perhaps we should behave a little bit more as if we were the heroine of a murder mystery novel. Perhaps we should agonize a bit less over “seeking God’s will,” and instead act with confidence in the roles that He has given us (assuming, of course, that those roles are in accordance with Scripture). Instead of trying to find the perfect way to serve, let us start by doing something--anything--to help the, er, corpses on our doorstep.

I appreciate the way Mark Surburg puts it on his blog:
“We make the best decision we can, and then we go forward, walking by faith.  We can do this because God’s great ‘Yes!’ to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20) gives us the assurance that God works for our good no matter how things may appear. God’s ability to weave together our contingent decisions into His divine purpose is wrapped up in the same mysterious working by which He was able to elect us in Christ from all eternity.  Paul tells us, ‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).”

When we make life decisions, perhaps it is good to merely to ask, “Is this a corpse upon which I could practice detection?” Or, in other words, “Is this a field of employment in which I could do honorable work, earn my daily bread, and not go completely crazy from a mismatch of personality and job duties?” “Is this a man whom I could love, honor, and serve as a wife?” “Is this a house that I could care for and make into a home for my family?”

When we question our past decisions, let us ask, “Is this the man that God gave me as a husband?” “Are these my children?” “Is this crotchety old man the neighbor who lives next door?” “Am I the person who could rescue this kitten?” and then, knowing that the answer is yes, move forward in the confidence that God wants us to love and serve the people (or creatures) whom we are amongst.

Of course we are allowed to consider the pros and cons of different options. Of course we should pray about them and ask for advice from our fellow Christians. However, for those of us who are agonizing over our choices with a vague notion that we’re supposed to find dream jobs, soulmates, or other nonsense, let’s just focus on making good (or even “good enough”) decisions. Decisions that solve mysteries, thwart crime, and lead to denouement on page one-hundred and eleven. Let’s not try to make perfect decisions. We’ll leave those to God.   


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their small son (and are awaiting the arrival of baby #2, due in July). Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.

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