Investigating Father Brown: Chesterton’s Detective Stories As Practical Theology -- By: Mindy L. Withrow

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 10:4 (Fall 2001)
Article: Investigating Father Brown: Chesterton’s Detective Stories As Practical Theology
Author: Mindy L. Withrow

Investigating Father Brown: Chesterton’s
Detective Stories As Practical Theology

Mindy L. Withrow

It may be reasonably maintained that a detective story is meant to be read in bed, by way of courting sleep; it ought not to make us think—or rather, it ought to be a kind of catharsis, taking our minds off the ethical, political, theological problems which exercise our waking hours by giving us artificial problems to solve instead. If this is so, have we not good reason to complain of an author who smuggles into our minds, under the disguise of a police mystery, the very solicitudes he was under contract to banish?1

These words from Ronald Knox’s 1954 essay “Chesterton’s Father Brown” apply to the series of Father Brown detective stories written by British author and critic G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936). Chesterton, one of the most controversial writers of the last century, wrote nearly every genre of literature including poetry, novels, essays, plays, and short stories, and was for many years the editor of G. K’s Weekly. Both a social and literary critic and a brilliant Christian apologist, he made great use of paradox and symbolism, and his witticisms are among the most quoted.

The best known of Chesterton’s works is his Orthodoxy, an autobiography of sorts, a declaration of his coming-to-faith and the theology he embraced. In it, he admits a preference for expressing his beliefs through artful storytelling, rather than in plain language, and he recognizes that the basic elements of humanity are universal, and

always true to Scripture.2 He writes, “I have kept my truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine.”3 In another work, an essay titled “A Defence of Nonsense,” he further collates art and truth: “Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen out of mere art....There must always be a rich moral soil for any great aesthetic growth.”4 Chesterton’s belief in truth, art, and the commonality of human experience crosses over into all of his writings and sets the stage for the present discussion.

Featuring Father Brown

Possibly the most popular of all his literary endeavors, and the focus of our attention, are the Father Brown stories, five collections of short stories about an English detective-priest.5 Father Brown has become associated with Chesterton in the way Sherlock Holme...

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