Priests and anarchists

The thing about having a magic palimpsest an electronic book is that, if you are a particularly voracious reader who was previously limited mostly by the amount of reading material you could carry without dislocating your shoulder with the messenger bag, it will suck up loads of your spare time. I've also been working on another, larger project -- an autobiography, sort of -- which has eaten up the rest of it.

I'll try to catch up. Really I will.

One of the... er, three hundred and seventy-seven... things that have been eating all my time is The Innocence of Father Brown, a collection of short mysteries by G. K. Chesterton. Featuring, obviously, a Roman Catholic priest named Father Brown as the primary detective.

If you're a fan of deadpan absurdity, and you haven't read anything by Chesterton, you should. His description in the very first story of a small out-of-place restaurant as "an unreasonably attractive object" is but a faint ancestral echo of Douglas Adams' description of a spaceship hanging in the air in "exactly the same way as bricks don't."

And of Dirk Gently, for that matter. Another detective spends his time rattling through town, knocking on random doors. His theory is that this is the absolute worst way to proceed if you have a clue, but if you don't, it's the best -- if there's something about the door that makes you stop and knock on it, your quarry may have done exactly the same thing moments ago.

Because this is Chesterton we're talking about here, this actually more or less works. But you can read it for yourself.

The casting of a priest as a detective may seem a terrible fit to modern readers, who are accustomed to religious people running strictly on faith and jamming their fingers in their ears when confronted with logic. Not necessarily so when the stories were written. It is sometimes difficult to remember that there was a time, not all that long ago, when to be a theologian was to be a highly-educated intellectual. In order to study theology, you were expected to not only know the Bible backwards and forwards -- with selected passages in Greek, Hebrew, or both -- but also to do a great deal of both research and synthesis. You needed to have a decent familiarity with the history of the Church and the organizations it touched -- so, essentially the entire history of Europe, plus large chunks of the Middle East -- and to have read pretty much all the theology that came before you, picking up any necessary foreign languages along the way. You were also expected to back up any argument you made with actual logic, in the original rhetorical sense that later evolved into the mathematical one. Some of the papers can get quite technical, particularly about linguistic points. It was also not unknown for theologians to keep up on the physical sciences, on the grounds that if God had given us both a world of wonders and brain with which to decode it, failing to try was at the very least grounds for declaring you an ungrateful sod, and was possibly an actual affront unto Him that would land you in Hell.

The point is, Chesterton -- who was in fact a Catholic theologian, and published papers about such in other venues -- writes a devoutly religious man who is quite different from the one we would picture today. Father Brown comes down as vehemently in favor of reason as he does in favor of kindness, forgiveness, and mercy. A salient point of his character is that most people think he is some sort of simpleton, good only for platitudes and absolution, when in fact he is quite well-read, and has a great deal of experience with all the kinds of humanity who come trooping through his confessional week after week.

Most of what Father Brown has that we would recognize as what priests should be -- and too often aren't -- are his infinite capacity for patience and tolerance. His usual sidekick, Flambeau, is a giant Gascon of dubious and mostly criminal background (reformed), and his connection to official law enforcement is Valentin, head of the French police forces and vehemently, Holmesian-ly anti-religion. Both are also renowned for being among the cleverest men in the world. Father Brown holds neither of their faults against them, even when Valentin occasionally pops off and makes his distaste for the clergy momentarily personal.

G. K. Chesterton, of course, wrote far more than the Father Brown stories, which are available free from Project Gutenberg. He also wrote The Man Who Was Thursday, which has made it onto the list of wonderfully dream-like things with Die unendliche Geschichte, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and most of what Neil Gaiman writes. The book defies description. It's a satire, an allegory, a light comedy, a black comedy, an homage to Kafka, a newly-minted myth, a written hallucination, and probably a lot of others. The best description I could come up with, when trying to explain it to others, was that it was a fairy tale about anarchists. You really just have to read it and see.

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