Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Transiting with Father Brown

Sometime in June up in our old attic, packing books day after day, I chanced across a box, never even opened since our last move, in 1989. In it I encountered a thick book I still recalled owning but not having but briefly sampled. It was The Complete Father Brown, by G.K. Chesterton, printed in 1982 under the Dodd, Mead imprint. I set the book aside. And since then, every evening, Father Brown has kept me company throughout the trials and tribulations of our move from the East to the West side of the Detroit Metro. The book contains all but one of the 52  Father Brown stories, the first written in 1911 and the last, “The Mask of Midas,” in 1936; that last is not in the collection but may be read here.

I am still not finished with the book. I usually read it before going to sleep; what with the fatigues of the move, it has taken me two or three days to finish each story. I’m now at around page 700, a few more to go before 993 and the end is reached; already, however, I’m feeling twinges of sadness that this occupation will eventually end.

Chesterton’s life, which began May 29, 1874, is almost continuous with my own. He died on June 14, 1936, thus 48 days before I was born on July 31, 1936. His views on the world as they developed over time might be characterized as a resistance to modernity in the name of the timeless values that Christendom represents. Thus they match my own, as they in turn developed over time—passing through very similar phases.

Perhaps this is just an impression of mine born of ignorance, but I never thought of Chesterton as a convert to Catholicism—perhaps because he did not have any linkage to the Inklings (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others). But he was. He came from a Unitarian family background, became an Anglo-Catholic thanks to his wife Frances’ influence, and a full-fledged Roman Catholic at age 48.

What lies ahead, for me—consoling me for the end of the current book—is reading such non-fiction titles of his as Heretics and Orthodoxy and his novels.

Those who know Father Brown only through two major television series, will be a little puzzled by Chesterton’s actual stories. Virtually all TV episodes make use of the Father Brown character—with one or two appearance, as well, of the criminal-turned-detective Flambeau—but they use new stories written for the modern public. The first such was a 1974 series with 13 episodes by the British ITV. The second appeared here in 2013 and in 2014 (20 episodes, BBC1), with a new season projected for 2015. Father Brown is true to Chesterton’s conception of him, but the plots lack the deeply philosophical, and indeed theological, twists and turns that make the actual Father Brown stories so interesting.

What stuck me most forcefully during the last few months of seeing things through Father Brown’s eyes is that Modernity, as Chesterton then saw it, has pretty much ceased to be the actively growing and largely triumphant movement that it still was in his day, having become, in my old age, a growing shatter in which its chief doctrine of progress is crumbling from its clay feet upward.

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