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Visiting Joe Leaphorn again

After reading Ken’s recent post about how the internet may be adversely affecting our reading habits, I thought it time to finally put together a post about a book I’ve recently read to prove that isn’t happening to me. Really. Hrm.

Anyway, one of my favorite fiction authors is Tony Hillerman, who’s well-known for his series of 18 mystery novels about now-retired Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and young Sergeant Jim Chee. My husand and I discovered Hillerman about five or ten years ago, and promptly acquired his entire collection of Leaphorn/Chee novels (yes, all 18)—most recently, The Shape Shifter. While most of them are good, often suspenseful mysteries, what really draws me to the stories is the world (and the characters) Hillerman brings alive. Having grown up in and fallen in love with the Southwestern desert and having lived in state where a portion of the Navajo reservation resides, these books are like a visit home. I read these stories slowly, savoring the vistas and views, the scents of desert rain and the inner workings of the characters’ lives and experiences.

Another aspect I savor is Hillerman’s exploration of both the beauty and problems associated with the Navajo culture—including the Navajo religion. Through the novels, I’ve run across several aspects of Navajo religion that resonate with me as a follower of Jesus. I’ve long appreciated that elements of God’s truth and goodness can be found in other religions (as Paul points out and brings into play as stepping stones towards Jesus in his conversation on Mars Hill), and Hillerman’s latest novel in the series seems to have a flurry of them. For example, at one point Leaphorn is explaining to another investigator a Navajo ceremony, the Enemy Way, that helps his people let go of their grudges rather than hang onto them:
“You keep your bad memories, grudges, hatreds, and all that alive with you, and it makes you sick.” Leaphorn chucked. “Not bad reasoning for people who never enrolled in introduction to psychology.”

“Christians have that thought in their Lord’s prayer,” Tarkington said. “You know: ‘Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ . . . .”
Another bit of truth has to do with the way we all are bent towards selfishness (sin)—and what that looks like. At one point Leaphorn is retelling the Navajo creation myth, and he explains that they still have a lot in common with their earlier counterparts: “The same tendency to push and shove, try to get on top, try to get out in front, and they still had to get revenge, for example if someone hurt them. The habits that always got them into trouble. I guess you could just call it selfishness. Being greedy.” Another time, Leaphorn explains further that greed is “the root of all evil in the Navajo value system.” This concept has a lot in common with biblical truth. Sin is ultimately selfishness, choosing one’s own desires above God’s. And those images of pushing and shoving and getting out in front reminds me a lot of Romans 1. And then, of course, there’s Paul’s description of the love of money (aka, greed) as the root of all kinds of evil (1 Time. 6:10).

How this plays out in the world comes up at another point in the story, when another character tells Leaphorn: “I heard that you Navajo say the way to find . . . anybody evil, is to look for people who have more than they need and their kinfolks are hungry.” That’s a good image of how selfishness and greed plays out around us, and one that perhaps should make many of us more than slightly uncomfortable.

There’s a lot more I could write about but this post is already getting too long for those of us whose attention spans have been reduced by too much Internet exposure, heh. Oh, one last thing—if you like the Leaphorn/Chee novels, check out the PBS American Mystery adaptation of Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits and Thief of Time. I saw Skinwalkers when it debuted on PBS several years ago, and the other two are on the top of my Netflix queue. But don't skip the books—read them first!


*Means "it is good" in Navajo; also a common phrase for hello or welcome.