Mining Netflix: “Father Brown”

What Do You Get When You Cross Sherlock Holmes With Pope Francis and Arthur Weasley?

Todd Brewer / 10.16.19

What do you get when you cross Sherlock Holmes with Pope Francis and Arthur Weasley? You get a slightly bumpling but brilliant Catholic priest who moonlights as a murder detective. “Father Brown” is the literary creation of G.K. Chesterton, and the BBC show based on him is now airing on Netflix in its entirety. I began watching this sleuthing priest out of curiosity, wondering how Christianity might be portrayed for a modern audience. Brown is, in many ways, the almost fantastical ideal of what a Catholic priest might be today. He is tolerant of everybody (even Protestants!); he’s insightful about human nature, protective of his flock, and aims to save as many souls as he can. No murderer is too far gone for grace. In the face of truly tragic offenses and the worst kind of plotting and deceit, he does not flee from the sinner but begs for repentance. Salvation is for everyone.

As the episodes turned into seasons, I kept waiting for a turn or development in Father Brown’s character, some long-standing weakness or flaw that might prove to be his Achilles heel. I kept waiting for a dark past of his to be revealed or a mistake that haunts his conscience and clouds his judgment. I wondered whether a tension would arise between his two callings—solving crimes and saving souls—if he would forsake one for the other. But five seasons in, there has never been even a hint of misconduct or mixed motives. Sure, he has a weakness for adventure, a good pint, and predicting the winner of horse races, but he never wages money on the races, is never drunk, and always meddles for the sake of justice. He is a paragon of virtue in almost every way.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times, but I genuinely wanted to find out that Father Brown was another fallen hero, to find solace in his weakness to become as he otherwise is. To humanize Father Brown in this way is to make him an ideal one can hope to be. Sinlessness is not an option for anyone, so the best we can hope for is to be the reformed criminal. Father Brown does not have a shadow, and his reliably impeccable conduct forestalls any possibility of imitation. He has next to no biography to speak of, nor does he have a family, or even a first name.

Father Brown is an ideal, but he is not held up as someone to be emulated. He exists to reveal the shadows cast by his brilliance. Next to him, everyone appears misguided or corrupt, whether it be Cardinals from Rome, the police, or British aristocrats. Father Brown’s bishop cares too much about appearances and worldly treasure. The local inspector never charges the right criminal. Were it not for Father Brown, everything would appear to be just and proper. He is rightly called a troublemaker because he alone reveals the injustice of his surroundings.

The narratives of Father Brown overtly recall for me the narratives of Jesus, and the impossibility of a viewer emulating Father Brown mirrors what I see in the Gospels.

I grew up in a Christianity that held Jesus up as an example to follow, and I briefly wore a bracelet that incessantly asked me “What Would Jesus Do?” If I read about the kindness of Jesus to strangers, this was a call to follow his example and do likewise. When Jesus forgave sins, this was a call to forgive as he forgave. There are certainly times when Jesus does instruct his disciples to follow his lead, but the more I read the Gospels, the less I believe the authors of these texts were interested in presenting Jesus as a genuine model for how we become better people. Jesus’ identity is unique and unrepeatable; it cannot be replicated. In Platonic terms, he is the archetype of moral perfection but not an example for how to become morally perfect. The Gospels have next to no interest in Jesus’ state of mind, let alone detailing how he navigated the awkward transition to adulthood. Like Father Brown, there is no narration of Jesus “becoming” Jesus, no montage where he learns how to do miracles or preach to a crowd. He was human, for sure, but that doesn’t mean he worried about what his father thought of him or lived with an unremitting existential dread of failure. His life is not a model for how one can become a better person. He is an ideal, to be sure, but the sheer otherness of Jesus’ identity does not provide a model for how one might become like him. He is already a perfect person and does not provide a template for how to become perfected ourselves.

The Evangelists put pen to paper to reveal the shadows cast by Jesus’ brilliance. Next to him, everyone appears misguided or corrupt, whether they be disciples, scribes, Pharisees, Herod, his family, or Caesar himself. The Pharisees were aghast when Jesus forgave sins, his family thought he was out of his mind, and the disciples couldn’t imagine a crucified Messiah. He was rightly called a troublemaker because he overturned everyone’s assumptions about who God was. The advent of Jesus revealed who we are and the brokenness of the world. As Luther recognized, the more Jesus becomes a model to follow, the less he becomes a savior. We are not called to become the second person of the Trinity but to share his in his inheritance. Jesus’ life is not a “how-to” manual, but the gift of salvation to a lost world. We are not the saviors of the world, he is.

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2 responses to “Mining Netflix: “Father Brown””

  1. Margaret says:

    Terrific piece! Incidentally, if you’re looking for a series about a deeply flawed, past-haunted priest who solves crimes, try ‘Grantchester’ on Amazon Prime.

  2. Christiane says:

    I LOVE watching ‘Father Brown’ . . . the kindness of the character is what is so powerful in that production . . .

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