Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Father Brown Mysteries, Part One

I never thought I’d willingly pick up another mystery book for the rest of my life until I met Father Brown. As a child, I loved mysteries, and would read everything from The Stolen Sapphire to Maureen the Detective to Nancy Drew. When I hit middle and high school, though, I was introduced to Doyle’s Holmes and Poe’s Dupin, and my love for the genre was almost forever sucked out of me. Holmes, I felt, was completely aloof from the reader; Watson wasn’t enough for the story to have a significant amount of relatability for me. Then, when I read Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories featuring Dupin, I was convinced Doyle nearly plagiarized from Poe’s work, as the characters were achingly, tediously similar—just a few all-too-comfortable, self-oriented, smoking rich men living in luxury, spending much of the story lecturing the audience to sleep.

But, as I said before, G.K. Chesterton’s devout, hobbling little English priest named Father Brown completely turned my boredom in the mystery genre on its head. He showed me that not all detective stories and their detectives are so stiff and dull. Through tracing this little unassuming detective’s footsteps throughout Europe, with his trademark parcels, little umbrella, and solid Christianity, Chesterton showed me through Father Brown that you could even teach deep theology through mystery, a genre that usually seems devoted only to a pleasant diversion. And as a Bible- (and God-) lover as well as a Chesterton fanatic, I am proud and more than happy to share and reflect upon one of my favorite detectives in the quotations that follow.

“I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason…You attacked reason,” said Father Brown. “It’s bad theology.” ~Father Brown, “The Blue Cross”

Would it really be such a controversial, heady thing to say—that the church esteems reason as supreme? I don’t think so. The Christian faith is not based on mythology, but fact; not based on emotion, but observation; not based on blind faith, but an acceptance and understanding of the world as it is. If anything, I would say that reason leads to God and an understanding of God to an understanding of reason’s existence. See, reason—whether exercised in studying creation, exploring human nature and souls, or simply making day-to-day decisions—leads us to see everywhere that either something or someone is above and beyond ourselves. As the Bible has a tremendous amount of supporting evidence behind its accounts and claims, Christianity is indubitably the scientifically acceptable worldview. Conversely, if we accept the Christian God as true, we will inevitably value reason along with it, as it is both proof that we were made to have dominion over nature and that we were made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28).

“A crime,” he said slowly, “is like any other work of art…every work of art, divine or diabolic, has one indispensable mark—I mean, that the centre of it is simple, however much the fulfilment may be complicated.” ~Father Brown, “The Queer Feet”

Ah!—if more people could grasp the truth of this statement! As America continuously suffers under school shootings, terrorists, and hatred, the general public tends to point fingers almost everywhere they possibly can and as far away from them as possible—things like gun rights, women’s rights, intolerance, conservative heads of government. Yet an acceptance of Christianity deems these as mere excuses—that the fault lies in our original sin nature, described in Genesis 3. What people blame instead of sin, in short, can never be fully accounted for even in a hundred think volumes; how and why people should recognize sin as it is could be adequately summed in a paragraph. Thus, the way sin manifests itself is infinitely more complicated than the evil lying behind it—the root cause of all destruction.

“Odd, isn’t it,” he said, “that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man?” ~Father Brown, “The Queer Feet”

It is odd, Brown—the Bible itself supports your statement of this principle:

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” ~Matthew 19:23-24, NKJV

See, the nice thing about converting from the most depraved of wretches to a child beloved of God is that you are more clearly able to see what God has saved you from. As a converted thief or vagabond, you are able to see humanity at his worst and thus see God at His brightest. One of my favorite things about the Father Brown tales is that we see a full example of that kind of conversion in the notorious villain Flambeau. What a beautiful depiction of grace!

“Look at that blacksmith, for instance,” went on Father Brown calmly; “a good man, but not a Christian—hard, imperious, unforgiving. Well, his Scotch religion was made up by men who prayed on hills and high crags, and learnt to look down on the world more than to look up at heaven. Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” ~Father Brown, “The Hammer of God”

In figuratively looking upward, we see the world both as it should be and how it truly is. In looking downward, however, we only see the world as it appears to be, thus being as utterly deceived as those who have not looked to heaven for salvation. God is over the things of the world, but the world is not over the things of God. Why do we treat it as such?

“Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.'” ~First Peter 5:5, NKJV

“How do you know all this?” he cried. “Are you a devil?”

“I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.” ~Father Brown, “The Hammer of God”

Though it is not possible to be demon-possessed as a strong, mature believer in Christ, the devil always is whispering in our hearts. I do not mean the stereotypical devil, sitting opposite the good-natured angel on our shoulders. What I do mean is that we are constantly tempted to sin, that we have a sin nature, and that we of ourselves cannot do anything about it. Our hearts truly are “desperately wicked,” and Father Brown knows it. Who’s not to say our hearts are devilish in the absence of Christ?

“The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” ~Jeremiah 17:9, NKJV


~Sarah Merly

April 24, 2018

Isaiah 53