The Theology of Father Brown

It sounds rather pretentious: ‘The Theology of Father Brown’. Like ‘The Theology of John Calvin‘ or ‘The Theology of Karl Barth‘, to mention just two random titles.  It sounds rather peculiar too. The theology of a fictional character, what is that supposed to be? But think of Dante and his Divina Commedia. Think of Milton and his Paradise Lost. Think of C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia. Gilbert Keith Chesterton and FrancesTheology clothed, or should we say disguised, in fiction. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are of a different league of course. Does it make sense to question these detective stories about their theology? Well, it seems so, at least according to the great Dutch phenomenologist and theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw. In 1944 he wrote an article ‘Het detective-verhaal als spiegel van dezen tijd’ (‘The detective-story as a mirror of the times we live in’). Van der Leeuw rooted in the so called Dutch  ‘Ethical Theology’. Many of the ‘Ethical theologians’ (like J.H. Gunning jr., Is. van Dijk, and many others) wrote about literature (Dante, Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc.). It is a very interesting tradition of engaging theologically with literature. So, let’s have a look into the theology of Father Brown…

Let me first mention a few facts about the author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936). He definitely was a flamboyant man and a brilliant writer. He wrote columns, stories, poems, books, and so forth. In his youth he felt himself attracted to occultism, but, thanks to his wife Frances Blogg, he was lead back to the (Anglican) Church. He often referred to himself as an ‘orthodox Christian’. In 1922 he became a member of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the final step in a long process, which was reflected in his many writings. Besides his polemic and apologetic writings, like for instance Orthodoxy (1908), he became also famous by his 51 fictional Father Brown detective stories. Chesterton based the character of detective-priest Father Brown on a parish priest in Bradford, John O’Connor, he knew well and who was intimately connected to Chesterton’s gradual turning to Roman Catholicism. Chesterton endowed the character of Father Brown with a charming combination of clumsiness and wit. Let me give, with this in mind, a sketchy outline of the theology implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the (early) Father Brown stories.

1. Chesterton presents Father Brown repeatedly as a man of reason. Take for example ‘The Resurrection of Father Brown’ (from: The Incredulity of Father Brown). In the story everyone is convinced that a miracle has happened. Only Father Brown refuses to believe in a miracle.

By the way,’ went on Father Brown, ‘don’t think I blame you for jumping to preternatural conclusions. The reason’s very simple, really. You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything.  There are thousands balanced on it today; but it’s a sharp, uncomfortable edge to sit on. You won’t rest till you believe something; that’s why Mr Vandam went through new religions with a tooth-comb, and Mr Alboin quotes Scripture for his religion of breathing exercises, and Mr Fenner grumbles at the very God he denies. That’s where you all split; it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things. But though it wanted only a touch to tip you into preternaturalism about these things, these things really were only natural things. They were not only natural, they were almost unnaturally simple. I suppose there never was quite so simple a story as this.’

Father Brown is, time and time again, presented as a reasonable thinker, not in spite of his belief in God, but because of his belief in God. Chesterton seems in his books especially fond of mocking French defenders of reason and logic. Invariably, they turn out to The Innocence of Father Brownaccept all kinds of irrational beliefs and opinions. To be sure, in the theology Father Brown mystery is not passed by. Miracles do exist, but only the real miracles. In ‘The Wrong Shape’ (from: The Innocence of Father Brown) “The modern mind always mixes up two different ideas: mystery in the sense of what is marvellous, and mystery in the sense of what is complicated. That is half its difficulty about miracles. A miracle is startling; but it is simple. It is simple because it is a miracle”.

2. An interesting question would be whether for Chesterton the domain of reason is limited to the realm of natural things, in contrast with the supernatural as the domain of faith. In that case, he would embrace the  dualistic theology  of the Counter-Reformation, as pointed out by Henri de Lubac and others. It seems to me however, that Chesterton doesn’t fit into such a dualistic scheme. Take for example this saying, already quoted above, from ‘The Resurrection of Father Brown’: “… it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things”. As far as I can see, this is a basic Augustinian position: it’s natural for man to long for God. Finding God is ultimately like coming home, not arriving in a strange country.
Chesterton stuffs his stories with lots of hints in this direction. For example: “The Christian is more modest,” muttered Father Brown; “he wants something” (in ‘The Wrong Shape’).

3. There is another feature of Father Brown’s theology that strikes me as Augustinian. It is his emphasis on the sinfullness of human nature. The best illustration of this feature in the Father Brown stories is offered in the following passage from ‘The Hammer of God’. “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.” So, the knowledge of his own evil heart enables him to trace the evil thoughts and deeds of others. It’s no coïncidence then in Chesterton’s book that precisely a priest turns out to be a clever detective.
In fact, the emphasis on man’s sinful nature is no sad or negative message. Take for example his passage from ‘The Three Tools of Death’, where a daughter caused, unknowingly, the death of her father:

“Don’t you see it was because she mustn’t know?” “Mustn’t know what?” asked Merton. “Why, that she killed her father, you fool!” roared the other. “He’d have been alive now but for her. It might craze her to know that.” “No, I don’t think it would,” remarked Father Brown, as he picked up his hat. “I rather think I should tell her. Even the most murderous blunders don’t poison life like sins; anyhow, I think you may both be the happier now.”

Sin is not the real problem, the denial of sin is! Or, to put it differently, the real sin is the denial of your own sinfullness, the evil in your own heart. “The foulest crime the fiends ever prompted feels lighter after confession; and I implore you to confess” (from ‘The Eye of Apollo’). The reverse side of this is that without repentance things will deteriorate. As Father Brown puts it in ‘The Flying Star’: “Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.”

4. A last distinctive feature of Father Brown’s theology is the emphasis on humility. We heard Father Brown already saying that the Christian is ‘more modest’. Let me give another example, from one of the earliest stories: ‘The Queer Feet’ (in The Incredulity of Father Brown). “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?” Passages like this, emphasizing the contrast between high and low, pride and humility, are nearly omnipresent in these stories. In  ‘The Hammer of God’ Chesterton writes:

“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.”

In the same story, Father Brown says about the murderer: “He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.” In short: kneeling before God is essential to retain our humility. And, I’d like to add, our humanity.

BBC Father BrownThere is, of course, much more to be said about the theology of Father Brown. His aversion to puritans, and especially Scottish puritans, for example. Or we could ask how Christ is brought to the fore in these stories. And we could compare our findings with other books of Chesterton, like Orthodoxy  or Everlasting man. But that would lead to another topic: the Theology of G.K. Chesterton.
Anyway, I hope you will agree with me, on the basis of what here has been said, that the Father Brown stories remain worth reading (and watching!), not only because of their plot and humor, but also because of their theology!