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September 20, 2007

Book Blogging: Chesterton’s difficult certainty

I've really been enjoying the Father Brown stories (and the book is now, ahem, overdue at the library).  I've been reading them in the evening, and they're perfect because they're not so long that you have to stay up all night reading to find out what happened. They're incredibly creative, and the writing is wonderful.

There's something fairly typical about them in the terms of cozy mysteries, which is that Father Brown seems disheveled and unsophisticated, no one expects anything of him, but of course he's the one who always brilliantly figures out exactly what happened. A bit like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, I guess (though perhaps it's the other way around, since Chesterton came first).

One of the things that has struck me is Chesterton's certainty about his faith, which clearly comes through in the stories. Sometimes I think he writes in a way which would offend those outside the realm of faith.  For example, in the story "The Secret Garden," [spoiler alert] the detective Valentin, an atheist, commits murder (and then suicide) rather than see incredibly rich Brayne donate his millions to the church. It does not seem entirely realistic, almost like Chesterton is writing to make a point about the depths to which atheism will push one.

Or, in "The Sins of Prince Saradine," where the Prince asks Father Brown if he believes in doom, and Brown replies, "No, I believe in Doomsday."

Brown, and Chesterton, are nothing if not certain. But I think it's a certainty many modern readers would find difficult to swallow.

As an artist, and a Christian, there's a constant balance between speaking truth and speaking it in such a way as to make it approachable and appealing. (I guess this is nothing different than what our churches struggle with.) Of course, the first goal -- speaking truth -- can't be compromised. And I'm not saying that Chesterton isn't appealing, but I think our writing today is necessarily a little softer.

I'm full of questions about this -- thoughts anyone?

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Pinon Coffee

"Necessarily a little softer..." I hear what you're saying, but it makes me sigh. I am an extremely "soft" person that way--but I look at the heroes of the faith, and they had a habit of being blunt (tremendously eloquent, some of them, but not particularly sympathetic to whatever they viewed as heresy). I also notice that in the first part of the last century, a lot of people were attracted to Marxism for its hearty down-with-the-capitalists attitude, and others currently are attracted to Islam, apparently because it doesn't pussyfoot.

We don't want to go to Marxism or Islam for evangelism techniques! But--I wonder if there's something appealing about certainty. 'Course, it's also divisive. But that's Scriptural too--"I come to bring not peace but a sword..."

Ideally, we want to be perfectly faithful and perfectly winsome. I don't think I've got that combination down yet. :-/

Dan Gill

I haven't read Father Brown (I know, I'm a literary Philistine), but the line from "The Sins of Prince Saradine" doesn't seem out of place. He was asked about his beliefs, his philosophy, and gave an honest answer.

The situation from "The Secret Garden" seems as if it might be trying to paint atheists in a bad light, but it's very hard to say just from that quote. And an author has to have some motivation for murder. Certainly that is no more unlikely than some of the reasons real people commit murder..


It would help if you would explain what you meant that 'soft' should look like.

To me, reading those stories as well as other Chestertonian material, it is clear that Fr. Brown is not being harsh, but light-hearted, if truthful as he does it.


I think what people are looking for is certainty, not a lack of it.

Dennis Babish

I believe the problem and the reason why Christians are hard to distinguish from non-Christians is because we have been soft.
My feeling is if you want soft buy a pillow if you want to save somebody from eternal damnation tell them about doomsday.

Ted Slater

If it weren't for G.K. Chesterton, there may have never been a C.S. Lewis. If there were no Father Brown, there may never have been a Narnia.

The Lord uses each of us in our own unique ways to bring Him glory and advance His kingdom (and to bring us some great stories, it seems!). :-)


I think the problem the church is having communicating with the unbelieving world today is not necessarily in what we are saying, but rather the lack of authenticity in our Christian communities. Consider these verses:

John 13:34-35

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.


We are failing to show the world that love is the foundation of our lives, through Christ. Think of the serious exhortations that we have been able to receive from a fellow believer when their love for us was sure. I think there are many 'of the world' who desire such relationships--there are many believers who desire such a secure relationship with their brethren, that would enable them to set aside the world and become more like the Lord Jesus Christ.

If the world sees us sacrificially caring for one another, neither the witness of righteousness and humility in our lives nor the critical words that we say will be the stumbling blocks in the unfruitful way they may be now. (We must ALWAYS be prepared for the world to hate us when we speak the truth--Jesus assured us of this very thing.) The church soft-pedals the Truth because we are regarding sin in our hearts and our lives do not bear a closer look.

If only our contemporary Christian community would elicit this response by the surrounding pagans that Tertullian quoted in the 3rd century A.D.:

"Look," they say, "how they love one another" (for they themselves hate one another); "and how they are ready to die for each other" (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).

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