Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Logic of Father Brown

Chesterton's Father Brown stories may seem like detective stories on the surface, but different forms flow through their deeper streams. Maybe the first hint that these aren't the typical who-dun-its lies in Father Brown's reasons for solving crimes. He cares little about seeing earthly justice done; he's too aware of divine justice to fret much about putting criminals behind bars. Instead Father Brown seems to want only to help people. When someone approaches him disturbed by a mystery, the frumpy cleric starts looking for answers, but he never forgets the anxiety of the person originally asking the questions. And of course, when he finds the criminal, he often finds someone else who needs spiritual ministrations. " 'I have helped a few murderers in my time, it is true,' said Father Brown; then he added, in careful distinction, 'not, you will understand, helped them to commit the murder.' "

The stories also provide Chesterton with another way to treat some of the themes he explores in his essays. One motif that has shown up in several of the stories I've read this month is the power of God in creation, even in aspects humans have tried to tear away from the authority of the Creator. "All things are from God," says the little priest, "and above all, reason and imagination and the great gifts of the mind. They are good in themselves; and we must not altogether forget their origin even in their perversion." Father Brown praises a character who exposes psychic frauds -- praises him because he upholds reason. But Brown has advice as well: "Look here, don’t think I’m speaking disrespectfully of you or your work. You are a great servant of truth and you know I could never be disrespectful to that. You’ve seen through a lot of liars, when you put your mind to it. But don’t only look at liars. Do, just occasionally, look at honest men." About the power of marriage between unbelievers, he comments: "It is just because the strength in the thing was the strength of God, that it rages with that awful energy even when it breaks loose from God."

Many of the mysteries center around people's mistaken impressions. We filter what we see and hear, Chesterton reminds us, through our experience and expectations. One character, expecting an intruder, shoots at his own image in a mirror. In another story, Father Brown says, "Now we know who shot Mr. X," but his collaborators think he says, "Now we know who killed Mr. X." When the stories involve religious characters (Christian or pagan, sincere or self-serving), the theme becomes more pointed: proclamations about ultimate things often divert the attention from our distorted understanding of the raw facts of the immediate world.

In one of the best examples of a general view that ignores the facts, Father Brown sees through a fake Anglican clergyman because he makes himself out to be a puritan, even calling himself a "Puritan." Most clergymen, Father Brown points out, aren't self-righteous moralizers, and especially High Church Anglicans. But many people outside the Church assume that all men of the cloth fit the stereotype. "That is exactly the vague venerable old fool who would be the nearest notion a popular playwright or play-actor of the old school had of anything so odd as a religious man." Maybe the prejudice isn't all that antiquated, even now, sixty years later: I saw a Puritan on Law and Order just the other night.

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