“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.