Father Brown's Graffiti
by Tim Weldon

"On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice board, "Thou shalt not steal." G.K. Chesterton, "The Blue Cross"


"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. With his keen understanding of paradoxes and penchant for unraveling them, Chesterton was the very embodiment of first-rate intelligence. We learn this from his commentary, fiction, biographies, and especially in the short stories centered upon the faith-informed perspicacity of his utterly likable detective Father Brown. One short story in particular, "The Blue Cross," represents as succinctly as possible Chesterton’s worldview and his ability to reveal the exalted place of goodness and reason-derived order in the world.

In a clever, entertaining tale of good versus evil, Chesterton’s objective in "The Blue Cross" is to defend the order and principle of the created universe, reason and justice (for "reason and justice grip the remotest and loneliest star") against the anti-rational, corrupting disorder of criminal behavior.

The plot of the story is a simple one: in an attempt to prevent the theft of the valuable, blue-gem laden cross of silver from the clutches of the cosmopolitan (as "international as the Kaiser") felon Flambeau, Fr. Brown, the "Norfolk dumpling" of "moon-calf simplicity," maneuvers to protect the cross that is in his possession and arrange for the arch-criminal’s arrest.

Disguised as a priest, Flambeau pretends to befriend the suspecting Fr. Brown and the two spend a leisurely afternoon walking and dining and talking through London streets. With the police and the suave sleuth Valentin, "the world’s most famous investigator" in anxious tow, Chesterton has Fr. Brown mimic the very criminal he plans to capture with acts of attention-getting disorder. To the grimacing dissatisfaction of coffee drinkers, salt is put into the sugar basin, an apple cart is overturned, produce is laughably overpriced, a window is broken, and drunkenness is feigned in the street, all in a bread-crumb line to the evil Flambeau. Perhaps Fr. Brown’s most egregious misdeed is flinging soup upon the white wall of a bistro. Such graffiti is the public signature of chaos signed by the desecrators of God’s created order.

In his display of delinquency, Father Brown, representative of The Church, which "alone on earth," Chesterton explains in the story," makes reason really supreme," at once reveals through cynosure the aberrational nature of the criminal and celebrates the rule of order. In their scheming and deviancy, the former defy God and God-given reason while the reason exercised by the faithful, like Father Brown, succeed in supporting created order, advancing it for the betterment of civilization.

Against the strength of such order it is small wonder then that Flambeau is captured sooner rather than later and the cross safeguarded. Asked by Flambeau if the criminal’s charade was obvious, Fr. Brown reminds the felon of their afternoon of conversation. "You attacked reason," said the real priest. "It’s bad theology."

It is Chesterton’s good theology that enables us to see in the story of "The Blue Cross" how and why it is in God’s creation that good rightfully triumphs over evil and why soup belongs so wonderfully in a bowl.