At one of the local parishes, I help to lead a series called “Evangelizing the Culture”. We meet once a month and different people lead discussions on various books, movies, TV shows, or other forms of media from our modern culture and we look at how we can find messages relating to our faith even in seemingly secular work. I’ve led discussions ranging from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Disney movie Moana, Homer Simpson, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Most recently, I gave a presentation on G.K. Chesterton and his fictional priest-detective, Father Brown.
Appropriately enough, I gave this talk on the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, patron of writers and journalists. G.K. Chesterton was one of the most prominent, prolific, and celebrated writers and journalists of his time, and it is doubtful whether any other writer of the modern era has had as big an impact on culture, the ripple effect of his writing still very much at play today. The sheer volume of his body of work puts most other writers to shame, but that is nothing compared to the quality of that writing and the depth of his thought. But it’s not just his own work that has had such a significant impact on our culture, but also the work of those that he has influenced, such C.S. Lewis, Alfred Hitchcock, and Neil Gaiman, just to name a few. These artists, and many others, credit the work of Chesterton as being the primary inspiration and encouragement for their own groundbreaking careers.
It is a tragedy of the modern era that Chesterton’s name has fallen into obscurity. I myself was only led to him through my research on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both of whom he influenced greatly. And oh, how I wish I had discovered Chesterton earlier in my life. I recently finished his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill and all the while I was reading it I was put in mind of the writers that I loved so much while I was growing up, such as Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, and Terry Pratchett; Chesterton’s wit could outshine them all, but with a depth of thought that keeps you pondering his words long after you have closed the book. In his non-fiction works Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, his common sense explanations for the truth of Christianity are so easily accessible to a casual reader that it’s no wonder that C.S. Lewis credits Chesterton with providing the final key to his own conversion.
So, who was G.K. Chesterton?
Born at the tail-end of the Victorian Era, Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Hilaire Belloc, J.M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and Winston Churchill. He and Churchill were actually born in the same year, 1874, though Chesterton died, leaving his substantial literary legacy, four years before Churchill first became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Chesterton was considered “friendly enemies” with George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, both of whom were very outspoken Atheists and disagreed with Chesterton and his friend and fellow writer Hilaire Belloc on nearly every topic under the sun. The four of them would regularly participate in public debates with each other, as well as write public editorials for various newspapers condemning the others’ views and standpoints. And yet, despite all the disagreements and differences of opinions, there seems to have been a genuine respect and admiration among them, as well; a civility that one never sees in the vitriol of media storms today. Shaw said of Chesterton that “He was a man of colossal genius.” And Wells once said in a letter to Chesterton, “If after all my Atheology turns out wrong and your Theology right I feel I shall always be able to pass into Heaven (if I want to) as a friend of G.K.C.’s. Bless you.”
Chesterton’s writing career spanned from 1900 until his death in 1936, and in that time he wrote numerous novels, short stories, poems, a few plays, and countless essays and columns published in various newspapers in London. He did two separate speaking tours in America, and in England he participated in many debates and lecture series, as well as a series of talks in the early days the BBC radio broadcasts. However, his work that has survived most prominently in the modern culture are the stories of Father Brown. These have been most recently reincarnated in the 2013 BBC series starring Mark Williams, but have also known a long history in television and film.
Okay, so who is Father Brown?
The first Father Brown short story, The Blue Cross, was published in 1910, a full twelve years before Chesterton himself officially joined the Catholic Church. But the fictional priest detective was indeed based on a real life Catholic priest and friend of Chesterton’s, Father John O’Connor. The story goes that shortly after their first meeting, Chesterton and Father O’Connor were discussing some indecent and lurid affair that was going around in the papers. During the course of the discussion, the priest had to correct Chesterton on the realities of some of the immoral practices that they were discussing, to Chesterton’s own shock. Later that night they were attending a dinner party and talking with two young undergraduates from Cambridge, and the two young men made a comment to Chesterton about clergy being shut up in cloisters and knowing nothing of the real evils of the world. Coming so closely after his chilling conversation with the priest, Chesterton nearly laughed out loud and reflected to himself that it was actually the two young academics who knew nothing about the real world. And so the character of Father Brown was born: a priest who is quiet and unassuming in appearance, but has a deep understanding of the human heart and the criminal mind.
Chesterton was himself an avid reader of mysteries and detective stories. He would have been about thirteen years old when the first Sherlock Holmes story appeared in print and in his late-teens and early twenties as the Consulting Detective was in full-force thrilling the literary world. By the time that Chesterton was making his own way in the literary world, and had just made the acquaintance of Father O’Connor, most if not all of the detective stories being written were just poor knock-offs of the Holmes model. But you can’t get much different from the cold, analytical Sherlock Holmes than the quiet, unassuming Father Brown. Rather than solving crimes with deductions and identifying different types of ash and the like, Father Brown solves crimes by putting himself in the mind of someone who could commit such a crime and then seeing who he is. But more than solving the crime, Father Brown is always most interested in saving souls. He doesn’t particularly care about turning the criminals in to the police, but he is very concerned about counseling the culprits to repent and confess their sins (and usually they then turn themselves in).
In my opinion, the current BBC series of Father Brown has done an excellent job of staying true to the ethos of the character while also updating the storytelling for modern attention spans and interests. Mark Williams brings a bit more liveliness to the role than is found in the original stories and in the earlier adaptations, but he keeps the heart and sincerity of Father Brown intact. And more importantly, he gives our culture a glimpse at the Catholic faith and a Catholic priest, a glimpse that is rarely (if ever) portrayed in movies or television. Father Brown is human and fallible, as we all are, but more importantly he is dynamic, compassionate, and merciful.
In the handful of years that I have been a member of the Catholic Church, I have been blessed to know some truly wonderful priests. These men have come from a range of backgrounds and ages, with vastly different personalities and temperaments, but each one of them has shown me an aspect of Christ; in their devotion, in their compassion, in their love of truth, or in some other small way, these men renew my faith in humanity, in the Church, and, very often, in the male gender. I love to watch Father Brown because in him I can see aspects of these real men that I admire so much. One of the buzzwords of our time is “Representation”, and it’s rare that the Catholic Church and its members get any representation at all, let alone positive and accurate representation.
What G.K. Chesterton, and the spirit of Father Brown, share with the world is the importance of seeking truth. Not just the truth about who committed a crime, but the truth about the universe, about God, about the human person. Chesterton was writing with a Catholic perspective long before he officially joined the Catholic Church, and when he did finally come into the Church it was because he could no longer deny that it was the Catholic Church that had the fullness of that truth which he had always known in his heart. The same could be said for my own acceptance of the Church; it was the final destination in the search for truth. Of course, that search is never-ending, at least in this world, and there is always more to learn and discover. But I’m happy to have finally discovered G.K. Chesterton as a traveling companion.
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