Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Father Brown Mysteries, Part Two

“‘What we all dread most,’ said the priest in a low voice, ‘is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is only a nightmare.'” ~Father Brown, “The Head of Caesar”

Within the vast majority of beliefs and traditions in this world lies a needlessly complicated mess. The core of both modern and old religions exactly match the state of this world—confused and hopeless. Nothing really lies at the center to pull all the facets of life together and both explain and solve the world’s wrong. This principle, Brown claims, is what separates religions like atheism from Christianity. Every single thing we encounter in this world, no matter how fleshly that thing may be, can be explained through the Holy Scriptures. As a result, the maze of life on Earth has a joyful end for those who love God.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” ~Matthew 24:35, NKJV

“There was another silence. ‘Well,’ growled the detective, ‘and so this great numismatist and coin-collector was nothing but a vulgar miser.’

‘Is there so great a difference?’ asked Father Brown, in the same strange, indulgent tone. ‘What is there wrong about a miser that is not often as wrong about a collector? What is wrong, except…thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image; thou shalt not bow down to them nor serve them[?]'” ~Father Brown, “The Head of Caesar”

I do not include this quote to rail against coin collectors. (I should be the last one to do so; I’m one of them myself:) Nevertheless, Brown’s insight stands to serve a terrific point, whatever one collects or uses as an avocation. See, entertainment—or anything we enjoy or prioritize higher than our spiritual pursuits as Christians—does not deserve the holy pedestal of God. As Brown points out here, though the specifics of the Old Testament law is rendered invalid, giving anything or anyone the title of “God” besides God Himself is not only dangerous but is also a direct violation of the first and second commandments (see Exodus 20:1-6). What we want to gain more of, then, we must set at the feet of Christ in prayer, asking Him what we ought to do to glorify Him and not to satisfy ourselves.

“‘I know the Unknown God,’ said the little priest, with an unconscious grandeur of certitude that stood up like a granite tower. ‘I know his name; it is Satan. The true God was made flesh and dwelt among us. And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity.'” ~Father Brown, “The Purple Wig”

When I first read this quote in “The Purple Wig,” I was utterly and bitterly shocked. How could Chesterton, unbelievably knowledgable about theology as he is, miss that Paul was talking about the one true God in Acts 17 when he discussed “the Unknown God,” that Satan was indeed the last thing Paul had on his mind at Mars Hill? Then it dawned on me—Brown and Paul used the word “unknown” in two different senses. Paul, at Mars Hill, used “unknown” in the sense that the Greeks did not know or were not accepting the Gospel. Father Brown, though, used it to mean not that God was not evident, but that because God is evident all around us, Satan comes to us in ambiguity, so that we feel uncertain as to sin’s true identity when the temptation to commit it overwhelms us. In other words, Brown uses “unknown” to mean that God never will nor ever did hide His identity. He is truthful, while Satan, in his attempt to “assume a pleasing shape,” is the father of lies, and it is that “mystery of iniquity” which surrounds him that is unknown.

“The little sins are sometimes harder to confess than the big ones—but that’s why it’s so important to confess them.” ~Father Brown, “The Strange Crime of Dr. John Boulnois”

If you think of the “little” and “big” in this statement as “little” and “big” in terms of what is least and most obvious, we hit upon a striking point in theology. Whatever sin is “big,” or most obvious, sometimes does not equate voluntary confessing. Either massive in the level of offense or massive in the evidence refuting denial of the sin, “big” sins seldom require much bravery to confess; thus, we are typically more confident in confessing them. But little sins are where we stumble most. In that case, it is not obvious, not of much significance in terms of malice or the law. Sometimes no one notices, and we slowly form a habit of continuing these “little sins” until we do not feel remorse anymore, and we are convinced that, “If this does not make me feel bad, why ‘confess’ as if what I’m doing is not right?” Our insensitivity, in addition to the lack of evidence against our evildoing, consequently makes it more difficult to lay the sin out before anyone, and so we don’t do so. But doesn’t God see and judge all sin?

“Anybody can be wicked—as wicked as he chooses. We can direct our moral wills; but we can’t generally change our instinctive tastes and ways of doing things.” ~Father Brown, “The Strange Crime of Dr. John Boulnois”

No matter how diabolically clever we are or unsuspicious we may seem, there is always something that will lead us to our proper punishment when we do ill against our neighbor or our God. We each have something unique about us, some way we do things both good and bad that can possibly separate ourselves from those around us, and if those things fail to give us our poetic justice, God will, when the time comes, use His omniscience to give us His holy judgement.

“In the corrupted currents of this world, offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice, and oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself buys out the law. But ’tis not so above: there is no shuffling; there the action lies in his true nature, and we ourselves compelled, even to the teeth and forehead of our faults, to give in evidence.” ~King Claudius (see “Literary Wisdom: Hamlet, Act Three”)

I dearly hope this little “Literary Wisdom” series inspires you to start reading Father Brown and explore more of the insight Chesterton has to offer through his character. I’d recommend you begin with this collection, which contains all the stories I’ve read, my three favorites being “The Blue Cross,” “The Queer Feet,” and “The Absence of Mr. Glass.” Hope you like it!


~Sarah Merly

April 27, 2018

Isaiah 53