Holy Whodunits

A village priest is hardly someone we expect to know the ways of the world. But the great Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton once wrote that he learned more about the depths of human depravity from a simple priest in a sleepy isolated little village in the English countryside than he’d ever known. "I did not imagine," Chesterton said, "that the world could hold such horrors." That priest became the inspiration for one of the most popular mystery series of all time: Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. Father Brown is a rotund, bumbling man of the cloth, yet he has the uncanny ability to solve even the most puzzling crimes. Why? Because his faith gives him insight into the human heart—and its capacity for evil. In a story called "The Secret of Father Brown," the priest explains that the reason he is able to identify sinners is because he is himself a sinner. "I try to get inside the murderer . . . think his thoughts, wrestle with his passions," Father Brown explains. And he adds, "When I am quite sure that I feel exactly like the murderer myself, [then] I know who he is." In another story, "The Hammer of God," the murderer is a fellow priest, who has killed his brother by dropping a hammer from the parapet of a church onto his brother’s head. Father Brown guesses the truth by observing what had been the daily habits of the two brothers—and then putting himself in the place of the priest, who is angry over his brother’s blasphemous attitude toward God. The secular world sometimes dismisses Christians as naive—people who don’t understand the "real world." But as Chesterton’s Father Brown shows us, Christians ought to understand evil better than anyone. We never romanticize evil as just a product of a disordered environment. Why? Because we know intimately the depths of our own sin. On the other hand, Christians are also profoundly optimistic. We know that even the worst evil has a remedy—in the Cross. And so Father Brown never treats his criminals as mere beasts, as less than human. He always confronts them with the opportunity for repentance—treats them as people still capable of responding to divine grace. For example, in the story "The Queer Feet," the thief tells Father Brown: "Stand still. I don’t want to threaten you, but—" "I do want to threaten you," [interrupts] Father Brown. "I want to threaten you with the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched." And then he offers to hear the thief’s confession. The next time you’re in a bookstore, why don’t you pick up some Father Brown mysteries. If you have unsaved friends who are mystery novel addicts, lend them your copies and then discuss the stories together. The books will give your unsaved friends a greater understanding of a Christian worldview. And you’ll all enjoy the stories about an absent-minded priest who prods the police and converts the criminals.


Chuck Colson



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