A Little Light Reading

by Ron Julian


Entertainment is everywhere. At this very moment you probably have access to enough material to keep yourself entertained twenty-four hours a day: music on the radio in your house; music on the radio in your car; music on tapes, CDs, and records; movies at the twelve-plex theater down the street; movies on cable; movies to rent from the video store; video arcades at the mall; Nintendo games at home; and on and on (not to mention the low-tech stuff like books, magazines, and the backs of Cheerios boxes). For most of us this is just a given; our world is filled with the technology of entertainment, and we have to decide what place it will have in our lives, the same way we have to decide what place potato chips, twinkies, and Pepsi will have in our diets.

I may sound stodgy and disapproving of all these entertainment options; I have no right to be. By nature I love it all: I love music; I love movies; I love reading, and theater, and art, and all of it. I could, if I let myself go, entertain myself into a stupor. I could build myself a home entertainment theater with a mega-screen television and surround sound, and I could go in and lock the door and never come out again. I hope I never do; a mind is a terrible thing to waste. (I know, because I heard it on a television commercial.) I have always had this internal struggle regarding entertainment and the arts; part of me is willing to be entertained by anything, any time, any day; another part of me, however, has been hearing another call. As the things of God become more and more valuable to me, how I respond to books and songs and movies is slowly changing. I still love the arts, but my priorities and tastes are changing, quite apart from any conscious choice

At one time I would have divided entertainment into three basic parts: Trash, Fluff, and Art. As a Christian, I thought I understood each category fairly well. Trash, of course, was out of bounds. Trash is a flexible category, but certainly includes things like slasher movies and pornography. (And commercials. Writhing, dripping, near-naked bodies are becoming so common I can’t keep track of what they are selling any more. Cars? Gum? Beer? Dental floss?) The second category, Fluff, is the stuff that gives you nothing but a way to kill time. Most of what is on the radio and what is on TV and what is at the local bookstore is Fluff. A little Fluff can be soothing at times, but too much of it is dissipation, like the difference between taking “a little wine for your stomach” and going on a binge. Finally, Art is the category I cared most about. By Art I don’t mean something necessarily serious and heavy; the words I think of are “creative,” “thoughtful,” “true,” “insightful,” “skillful,” and so on. In my thinking “Death of a Salesman” is Art, but so is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Such Art has played a significant role in my life. It doesn’t have to be created by Christians; there are still many truths about this world that a talented artist can communicate powerfully, even if he or she doesn’t understand the gospel. All this is what I would have said before.

I still would say the same thing, but with a growing restlessness. My heart and imagination have been feeding on the promises of the gospel for more than twenty years now. With Paul I am waiting by faith for the hope of righteousness; I am a citizen of another country. I believe more strongly than ever that only when God has made me truly good will life ever be truly “right.” Frankly, even the most profoundly brilliant creations by non-believing artists are starting to taste a little “flat” to me. I still like them; I just feel like I am slowly losing my connection to them. Even to a very imperfect person like me, the knowledge of God satisfies in a way that nothing else can, and I find myself drawn to Art that suggests that the artist knows the same God I do. I am not saying that I will only patronize “Christian” artists. I still think there is an awful lot of Fluff (and some Trash) in Christian book and record stores. I just find myself these days more interested in watching, reading, or listening to things that are touched with the wisdom I crave, that give me a taste of the goodness I long for. G.K. Chesterton said once, “Books without morality in them are books that send one to sleep standing up.” I have been sent to sleep too often, and I would like to stay awake for awhile.

Are there books, records, and movies that reflect both Christian truth as well as artistic quality? Sometimes they seem few and far between. But they are out there. As evidence I nominate something Chesterton himself wrote, a series of mystery stories that are personal favorites of mine-the Father Brown mysteries. I have always liked mysteries, but I have to admit that most of them are Fluff-little more than an amusing way to kill some time. The older, classic mysteries by writers like Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie have reasonably interesting characters, clever plot twists, and a suitably brilliant detective. Some modern mysteries have more complex and believable character development, but portray such an unvaryingly bleak picture of life that I have difficulty getting through them. Father Brown is different than all of them. Alone among fictional sleuths, Father Brown solves his mysteries precisely because he is a Christian. He sees what those around him fail to see, because his Christian worldview has given him understanding of the world and its misleading ways. (By the way, if you have ever seen any of the made-for-television versions of Father Brown stories, you still haven’t met Father Brown. Those productions managed to strip away everything unique and interesting- and Christian-about Chesterton’s stories.)

Chesterton found the inspiration for Father Brown as a result of two ironically juxtaposed conversations. In the first conversation, he was amazed to be corrected by a Catholic priest concerning some horrifying details of vice and crime of which Chesterton had been unaware. Immediately afterwards Chesterton found himself talking to some college undergraduates who were lamenting the naivetŽ and ignorance of the realities of life that must characterize the life of priests. The ironic counter-point of these two conversations struck Chesterton forcefully; they became the basis for Father Brown. Always, the worldly and sophisticated assume that Father Brown is a simple, unworldly priest; always, Father Brown ends by seeing the truth where others fail.

Chesterton builds this irony into his first story, The Blue Cross. In it, a thief, disguised as a priest, abandons his disguise and taunts Father Brown as a “celibate simpleton” who was easy to rip off. The thief discovers, however, that Father Brown had seen through his disguise all along; the priest is shown to be entirely the master of the situation, even to the extent of knowing more of the terrible trade secrets of thievery than the thief himself:

“How in blazes do you know all these horrors?” cried [the thief].
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.”

And so the tables are turned; table-turning is perhaps the defining feature of these stories. The naive, cloistered little priest turns out to understand the world better than the worldly-wise. Not just because he is a priest; that is where Chesterton started, but very soon a broader theme emerges; Father Brown has insight not just because he is a priest, but because he is a Christian. Perhaps this is what I find particularly satisfying about the Father Brown stories. Christians are often stereotyped as being gullible and naive; after all, anyone who would believe the stories of the miraculous and supernatural in the Bible must be gullible, right? Chesterton challenges this perspective head on; Father Brown is always the one who does NOT gullibly fall into some trap or another. His Christianity makes him not gullible, but discerning. In The Oracle of the Dog, people interpret a dog’s unusual behavior as a kind of supernatural knowledge of his master’s murderer. After Father Brown shows that this was not the case, he delivers a rebuke:

“The dog could have told you the story, if he could talk,” said the priest. “All I complain of is that because he couldn’t talk, you made up his story for him, and made him talk with the tongues of men and angels. It’s part of something I’ve noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that’s arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other… It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can’t see things as they are.”

That last statement is very far from the spirit of our age, but it is profoundly true. A willingness to believe whatever anybody tells me is not Christian faith; the Christian has embraced certain truths that should, if Christianity is true, put the believer more firmly in touch with the real world, more so than his worldly neighbor ever will be. This theme comes up again and again:

“Come now,” [said Aylmer], “don’t you think there’s a lot in those old wives’ tales about luck and charms and so on, silver bullets included? What do you say about them as a Catholic?” “I say I’m an agnostic,” replied Father Brown smiling. “Nonsense,” said Aylmer impatiently. “It’s your business to believe things.”
“Well, I do believe some things, of course,” conceded Father Brown; “and therefore, of course, I don’t believe other things.”

¥ ¥ ¥

“I’m afraid I’m a practical man,” said the doctor with gruff humor, “and I don’t bother much about religion and philosophy.” “You’ll never be a practical man till you do,” said Father Brown.

As Proverbs tells us, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. The knowledge of God comes with a price, of course; in order to know God, we have to be willing to know ourselves. That is why He is so little-known among us. For Father Brown, his success as a “detective” comes not from professional skill but from Christian self-knowledge. Bear with me while I quote his explanation of this at some length; it is one of the most interesting things Chesterton ever gives Father Brown to say:

“I’m afraid,” said the American . . ., “that you’d have to explain a lot to me, before I knew what you were talking about. The science of detection-”
Father Brown snapped his fingers with the same animated annoyance. “That’s it,” he cried, “that’s just where we part company. Science is a grand thing when you can get it; in its real sense one of the grandest words in the world. But what do these men mean, nine times out of ten, when they use it nowadays? When they say detection is a science? When they say criminology is a science? They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect; in what they would call a dry impartial light; in what I should call a dead and dehumanised light. They mean getting a long way off him, as if he were a distant prehistoric monster; staring at the shape of his ‘criminal skull’ as if it were a sort of eerie growth like the horn of a rhinoceros’s nose. When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbor; probably his poorer neighbor. I don’t deny the dry light may sometimes do good; though in one sense it’s the very reverse of science. So far from being knowledge, it’s actually suppression of what we know. It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and pretending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious. It’s like saying that a man has a proboscis between the eyes, or that he falls down in a fit of insensibility once every twenty-four hours. Well, what you call the ‘secret’ is exactly the opposite. I don’t try to get outside the man. I try to get inside the murderer…. Indeed, it’s much more that that, don’t you see? I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thought, wrestling with his passion; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Chace, . . . “And that is what you call a religious exercise.”
“Yes,” said Father Brown, “That is what I call a religious exercise. . . . No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”

Christians are often beat over the head with the club of science. We either hear that “Science has shown Christianity to be false,” or else that “The scientific method shows all religious questions to be irrelevant and unknowable.” As it happens, Father Brown’s attitude toward science exactly mirrors my own. Science (or at least what is called “science” nowadays) makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master. As a servant it tells me, “Here, let me count those for you.” As a master it thunders at me, “If you can’t count it, you can’t know it.” The scientific quest for “objectivity” can be good; it is designed to protect me from my prejudices. But as a philosophy “science” is bankrupt if it is asking me to put aside life experience for the sake of an elusive “objectivity.” Life can’t be lived that way-shouldn’t be lived that way. We are better knowers than that. The knowledge of the scientist, the professional, the expert, can be true knowledge as far as it goes, but it often does not go far enough. Our expertise can become a shield against that part of reality that we desperately want to avoid: the truth about ourselves.

Father Brown is profoundly right that true knowledge must be based on self-knowledge. I will never know other things as they are if I am unwilling to know myself as I am. For one thing, my instrument for knowing the world is myself; if I am never willing to acknowledge that the instrument is warped, I will forever get a garbled picture of the world. If the Christian message is true, then the central truth about the world is that it is a creation of Another; I will never see Him for what He is-I will never see His creatures for what they are-if I will not admit the truth about me. Father Brown is not just “explaining the mystery” to the onlookers; like all good ministers he’s trying to open their eyes to the truth about themselves:

“I know it was a strange crime,” asserted Brown, in a low voice. “Stranger than murder perhaps-to you. The little sins are sometimes harder to confess than the big ones-but that’s why it’s so important to confess them. . . .” “It make’s one feel,” said the philosopher slowly, “such a damned fool.”
“I know,” assented [Father Brown], “but one often has to choose between feeling a damned fool and being one.”

¥ ¥ ¥

“Well, that’s all I can tell you about the new religion,” went on Flambeau carelessly, “It claims, of course, that it can cure all physical diseases.”
“Can it cure the one spiritual disease?” asked Father Brown, with a serious curiosity.
“And what is the one spiritual disease?” asked Flambeau, smiling.
“Oh, thinking one is quite well,” said his friend.

The tables are turned in the most satisfying way when worldly values like “tolerance” prove inadequate in the face of true Christian virtue. In one of my favorite stories, The Chief Mourner of Marne, Father Brown urges that a certain recluse be left alone. Years earlier he had killed his brother in a duel; now his friends are accusing Father Brown of “walling him up alive and starving him to death with fasts and penances and pictures of hell-fire. And all because a bullet went wrong.” Ignoring Father Brown’s advice, they seek out the recluse, only to discover the true nature of his horrible crime. Now the tables are turned, and they start calling for his blood:

“There is a limit to human charity,” said Lady Outram, trembling all over.
“There is,” said Father Brown dryly, “and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness today; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.”

Father Brown takes us, in an entertaining way, into some of the most relevant issues in the Christian life; self-knowledge, humility, repentance, and forgiveness.

The Father Brown mysteries are, of course, more than just Father Brown making speeches. They are marvelous stories: funny, spooky, clever, and entertaining. They are not particularly realistic and some of them are rather implausible, but that is because they are more like “detective fables.” They are not heavy religious instruction; they are mysteries, after all. But the joy of reading Father Brown for me is that of being entertained by something that seems, in the deepest sense, “true.” I couldn’t tell you how many forgettable TV shows and books and movies I have looked at in my time, but I haven’t forgotten Chesterton’s stories; I think about them after I’ve read them; I carry them with me always.

I’m not saying that all Christians ought to or necessarily will share my tastes; I love these kinds of stories, but you may not. But I would like to think that all of us will find ourselves with a growing attraction to certain kinds of art, even in our light entertainment: things with a certain shine of goodness, a mysterious scent of wisdom- hints and intimations of our true home.

Copyright June 1992 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Ron Julian