A dollop of reality in my cup of fiction

“Sir Arthur St. Clare, as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him. When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible? A printer reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads his Bible and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his and finds we have no arms or legs. St. Clare […] found in the Old Testament anything he wanted – lust, tyranny, treason. Oh, I dare say he was honest, as you call it. But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?

“In each of the hot and secret countries to which that man went he kept a harem, he tortured witnesses, he amassed shameful gold; but certainly he would have said with steady eyes that he did it to the glory of the Lord. My own theology is sufficiently expressed by asking which Lord? Anyhow, there is this about such evil, that it opens door after door in hell, and always into smaller and smaller chambers. This is the real case against crime, that a man does not become wilder and wilder, but only meaner and meaner.”

-From G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story, “The Sign of the Broken Sword”

I am new to the Father Brown stories and relatively new to Chesterton. The author’s nonfiction style appeals to me, and so when I found a small collection of his stories, I decided to give them a try. So far, I do not like them much, but “The Sign of the Broken Sword” struck me enough to want to post on it. It alone, among the stories I have read so far, has earned its place on my shelf. As the characters walked into the tunnels of nighttime wood, the story burrowed into the dark of  my soul and lit a lamp.

To a non-Christian, the above quotation might be “obvious,” as the faults of Christians are sometimes more obvious to the world than they are to ourselves. In fact, that is the primary reason for this post, and the primary reason this story struck me.

When I see the world unfairly criticizing my Christian brothers and sisters I bristle and my impulse is to defend. Sometimes that is the right response. The danger lies in becoming so eager to champion true Christianity that I fight for anything given that name, even if it is wrong. This defense of the indefensible has occurred throughout our history, and it is no good denying it. Many an evil idea or action has taken refuge in the protection of the Church*.

I believe that reading the Bible is Good. I believe that it is more than a book, and that it speaks to us. I believe too much control over interpretation can stifle readers to the point where they no longer hear the book speak in their hearts. Corrupted meanings can become mainstream and individual thought is needed to challenge them. However, when I read the above quotation I feel that Father Brown (the speaker) hits upon something desperately important:

The Bible is not meant to be explored in isolation.

Solitary Bible study can be, and often is, beneficial, but to be isolated in the study of the Word is something entirely different. Sometimes people form twisted ideas in isolation and they need interaction from others to either confirm or challenge their conclusions.  Our personal slants or prejudices take hold and may blind us unless checked by our fellows. I need such input from others as I have always been more solitary than social in my study and my thoughts. Also, time and again, we run across people who look to the Bible, not to learn, but to justify. We are too fallible and corrupt in our natures to be trusted alone with something so powerful.

We have overwhelming evidence of the Bible’s power to change lives for the better, but we also have overwhelming evidence of the destructiveness of its misuse.

Instead of allowing this vivisection of my Holy Book to undermine or polarize me, I think I will take a good long look at the story I have just read. Father Brown does not mince his words to make them easier to swallow. He does not try to defend his faith, God or the Bible to his companion or to the world. Only the truth about St. Clare shows that he was not of the faith he professed. Honesty alone shows the stark contrast between true Christianity and a man’s corruption of the faith.

I have several conclusions from all of this rambling.

First, if the Church hides her illness, she will only grow worse until she dies. She must allow her sickness to be seen and treated if she is to be strong and hale.

Second, that the Bible is intended to be both personal and communal. It is too potent a thing to be trusted either to the solitary individual or the mob, but between the two it may reveal to us its Truth.

Third,  that God and Christianity do not need me to defend them. I draw a line between explaining and defending. The former is often good, but the latter… if I am a soldier, I should not stand in front of my strong fortress and try to keep the enemy from touching its walls. I cannot defend God. God defends me.


* I use the term “Church” to refer to all Christians, not a specific organization or hierarchy.


About jubilare

Just another tree in the proverbial forest. Look! I have leaves! View all posts by jubilare

9 responses to “A dollop of reality in my cup of fiction

  • A dollop of reality in my cup of fiction | jubilare

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  • Colleen Whitver

    Perfectly timed for me. <3

  • stephencwinter

    That is the Catholic Chesterton on the dangers of the Protestant way of reading the bible. Catholics argue that Protestants make the individual conscience the supreme arbiter of the interpretation of the bible and when taken to the extreme you get Arthur St. Clare. What would Chesterton make of the way Pope Francis has given more weight to conscience in Catholic morality? My own conviction is that I will have to give an account of my own life to God but that only God will judge me. St. Clare is accountable only to himself, or so he believes. One day he will learn that he is not his own lord. And I am in agreement with you in your three points at the end of this piece.

    • jubilare

      Whatever Chesterton’s intent, he points out an extreme that does exist and that carries grave dangers. There may be some irony in the fact that the most hard-line collective interpretations of the Bible I am familiar with (in terms of “this verse means this, and only this, because it’s what I was taught that it means”) comes from the Church of Christ. The Catholics I know are not as strict.

      As with most things, I think there is a balance to be had, with neither the collective nor the individual conscience ruling supreme. Both are human, and therefore both are fallible and need to be open to correction, each from the other. Of course, that belief may put me at odds with a lot of other Christians. ;) But it is a big reason why I identify as non-denominational. I really do believe that the different branches of the Church need each other, desperately. They each do different things well and different things badly, and perhaps they each feed the needs of different types of souls. An Episcopal(Anglican) friend of mine have been having a conversation on that lately. ^_^

      What I want, desperately, is to be able to walk into any church and learn from them without anyone trying to “convert” me.

      • stephencwinter

        Of course all churches are looking for new members and that often means a form of conversion. There were four new young couples in the church where I was yesterday and I had to curb all desire to want to convert them because I agree with you. I do want them to come closer to God though.

        • jubilare

          While I understand the need/desire for new members, I think we would be far more successful if we stopped considering the membership of individual denominations and started considering, instead, the full body of Christ. But I also know that, practically speaking, that is unlikely to happen until our overall attitudes have changed. God help us. We have generations of infighting to overcome.

          Aye, always closer to God. But I think we have to be very, very careful how we judge that. Who are we, afterall, to judge another’s servant? ;)

          • stephencwinter

            I agree with everything that you have said here. It is, perhaps, an expression of my weakness that I want to see more folk in the pews! I do my best to restrain the temptation to act on that desire!

  • jubilare

    Lol! Well, I don’t think that desire is a bad thing, or a weakness. Wouldn’t it be an expression of your desire to see more people come to God?

    What gives me pause isn’t conversion, per se, but… hmm. What is the right word… I can’t recall… but it is like we try to duplicate our own relationship with God in others, duplicate our own worldview, and sometimes even control others. I see it a lot, in every denomination. I think it is part of the fallen human impulse for control. We like to think that our way, whatever it might be, is the Best. And it probably is the best for us. But I think it may be naive/arrogant to assume that the best food for one of us is the best food for us all. God is big enough, and humanity heterogeneous enough that there may be other ways, equally legitimate.

    I say all that warily. I know it can be misinterpreted in an “all paths lead to God,” way, but I think you will know what I mean. We get caught up in the forms of our faith. forms that may well be important, and that may very well help us, but forms that are not, at bottom, the Faith itself.

    Does that make sense? That’s why I don’t want other Christians to try and convert me. I am already a Christian. I want that to be recognized. I want to learn about other forms of the faith, to learn aspects of God and faith that are absent from the form I have grown up in, but without the assumption that I am in the wrong. …then again, maybe my own pride plays a part in that, too. I may not want to tell others that they are wrong, but I don’t want to be told that I am wrong, either. ;)

    Maybe the first step is simply to put aside our pride and preconceptions enough to actually listen to what the other has to say.

    Pride. If there is a more poisonous sin in all existence, I don’t know what it could be.

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