Thursday, November 5, 2015

Why Chesterton Chose a Priest to Be a Detective - Father Brown's Reason and Religion

There's an interesting and thoughtful take here from Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian on how Chesterton had Father Brown employ spiritual rationality (retaining a healthy balance of reason and common sense right alongside his very deep convictions about the supernatural - in fact, retaining it because of them) to solve crimes, along with a Christian insight into human nature and human depravity. 

One of the delightful treasures about Father Brown is the story of how Chesterton got this idea of creating him. Chesterton had been visiting a friend, father John O'Connor, and he was repeatedly stunned by how broad and deep the priest's knowledge of human depravity proved to be. It had been no surprise to him that the Church would know a good deal more than him about good, but that it also knew a good deal more about evil was a shock. After one such meeting, Chesterton overheard a couple of young men saying to one another that they felt it wasn't right for a man to be like that priest and shut himself up all cloistered and cut off from life, that it created a naiveté and ignorance of the world. This was Chesterton's reaction to this irony:
To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me, this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a loud harsh laugh in the drawing-room. For I knew perfectly well that, as regards all the solid Satanism which the priest knew and warred against with all his life, these two Cambridge gentlemen (luckily for them) knew about as much of real evil as two babies in the same perambulator.
To this broad experience of the fallen human heart and its consequences, Chesterton added a deep conviction about reason and common sense. He exploded the shallow myth that a churchman must be a bit weak in reason and somewhat gullible simply because he happens to believe in miracles and the supernatural. Chesterton rather proved that point himself in his life: even his atheist friends like George Bernard Shaw considered the Catholic writer to be one of the towering intellects of the 20th century. In his first Father Brown story, The Blue Cross, his priest-detective defends reason against a tall impostor posing as another priest:

   The taller priest nodded his bowed head and said:
   "Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?"
   "No," said the other priest; "reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. 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."
   The other priest raised his austere face to the spangled sky and said:
   "Yet who knows if in that infinite universe—?"
   "Only infinite physically," said the little priest, turning sharply in his seat, "not infinite in the sense of escaping from the laws of truth."

As the impostor reveals himself, demanding the priest surrender a holy relic he wants to steal, an exchange takes place where the priest one-ups the thief each time in criminal tricks:

   "How in blazes do you know all these horrors?" cried Flambeau.
   The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent.
   "Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose," he said. "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren't a priest."
   "What?" asked the thief, almost gaping.

   "You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."

Chesterton wrote some 52 short stories featuring his "dumpy little priest" detective, and for a time in the early 20th Century, Father Brown was nearly as popular as Sherlock Holmes. Part of this charm was due to the very different style and reasoning Chesterton employed in the stories. Father Brown knew what was in his own heart, as a human being corrupted by sin, and therefore he was in a position to deduce the desires, motives, and passions that tempted other men and women to commit crimes. I would be remiss if I didn't give you a link to where Father Brown himself explains his method of solving crimes, but this commentary captures the contrast well:
Father Brown was inspired in part by Chesterton’s good friend Father John O’Connor, a priest in Yorkshire. The central idea was that no other figure was better suited for solving crimes. In one story, the cornered murderer, having listened to Father Brown’s explanation of how he worked out the sinister truth, cries out: ‘How do you know all this? Are you a devil?’
‘I am a man,’ replies Father Brown, ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.’ ...
The great pleasure of Father Brown is that he represents a step away from the icy inductive logic of Sherlock Holmes. There are still clues, though they do not just stand there as facts; it is how they are interpreted that counts. And the interpretations are frequently paradoxical. On the other side of Father Brown are the sleuths of Agatha Christie — Marple and Poirot — who, while understanding crimes of passion, have nothing in the way of passion themselves. Conversely, Father Brown has an innate, unstoppable optimism; whatever one’s beliefs or non-beliefs, as a narrative device it is very clever.
Sinclair McKay, Bring back Father Brown (The Spectator: Dec. 14, 2009). 

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