I enjoy “Father Brown” the English mystery series but heartily dislike “The Vicar of Dibley.” which is similar except for the gender change of the Vicar. The episode of “Father Brown” I watched last night (E3 S8, “The Lair of the Libertines”) crossed over into “Dibley” territory, which so offended me that it was helpful in understanding why I get aggravated. Everyone has stereotypes in their heads and when they come to consciousness, either from being insulted or being insulting, it’s a worthy exercise to think about where they came from and why they persist.
In this case the idea was that the four “stereotypical” small town church personalities: a fancy lady who writes, her down-to-earth chauffeur, an Irish busy-body church secretary, and Father Brown, who is a perpetually curious fellow with no chin, a lisp, spectacles, and a school girl’s hat. The premise of the show is that there is a murder to solve and by combining the gifts and motives of the basic characters, it CAN be solved.
What saves the show is its roots in the books of C.K. Chesterton, who was a serious theologian and moralist. Here are some quotes to give a taste of his ideas:
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.
Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.
If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.
The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.
Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.
To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.
So Chesterton, speaking through Father Brown, is interested in turning over the coin to find a far more honorable way of looking at it, a re-framing in terms of the New Testament. This particular episode does not do that. Instead, it is a whole new set of stereotypes based on a Victorian understanding of the underside of life and actually, I would argue, referring back to a far earlier sort of play, the medieval mystery, miracle and morality plays that were performed outside churches and meant to entertain while condemning extravagant devils and Bible characters. Eventually they faded, but their descendants — Punch and Judy shows and music hall burlesque perpetuated the kind of slapstick comedy in which people endure mishaps that would injure or even kill people in real life.
This episode begins with two young women traveling on a motorcycle with a sidecar who are suddenly shot to death with no warning. The Vicar’s team has been put on foot by auto failure and are blundering their way to some town when they come upon a mysterious estate where a stark naked Arab — very handsome — saunters past in a fez. He is a “naturist” he says. But he ends up shot through his fez. The lady of the manor has also invited to this place a Falstaffian dominator; a strange little man who immediately falls in love with the Parish secretary who can’t think how to react; and a frankly lesbian maid who kisses the lady, disconcerting that normally permissive soul. The line is never drawn in this company, but the telephone line is cut. It is a version of the Ship of Fools.
One by one the caricatures are shot until finally it is Father Brown who must run for his life, without his cassock and across a landscape booby-trapped with spring-loaded iron jaws. Where is the morality? But there is a reversal when it turns out the maid is actually the privileged sadist, suddenly sporting a long fur coat and a fedora, looking vaguely Nazi, while she explains how the ultimate hedonism is the extremely pleasant act of killing others. I’ve already given enough spoilers, so I won’t reveal how the writers managed to get a message of loving kindness and forgiveness out of such an undeserving bunch.
The writers make fun of perversion and wickedness. The two young women shot at the beginning turn out to be local prostitutes ordered by the insatiable Colonel Blimp because he cannot wait for the Geishas promised the next day. And there we are — confronted with a totally unwarranted understanding of women who are"geisha (芸者) or geigi (芸妓) are traditional female Japanese entertainers. They are skilled at different Japanese arts, like playing classical Japanese music, dancing and poetry. Some people believe that geisha are prostitutes, this however is false." (Wikipedia)
So there we are with racist, old white male empire assumptions that persist today, though the burlesque reversals meant to mock offensiveness are still in play. The belief that geisha are a clever kind of prostitute is the result of men who cannot imagine the delights of intimacy and beauty, but only want to fuck. Many of the less grotesque and exaggerated plots of other episodes are about something similar, which is to say they are about people who are deprived of the real joys of living and loving because of their militant ignorance. Sin may be the ultimate ignorance, though Father Brown insists Sin is estrangement from God. He and Chesterton with all their sophistication are unable to step away from a religious system imagined from living with hierarchies and empires. They don't enter a new order because it can't be imagined. Everything revolves around the King-God.
I should force myself to watch “The Vicar of Dibley,” which at least one of my parishioners thought was about me -- which made me very indignant. I tried to hide it. The “Dibley” version of Vicar is about everyone being sensible and kind at the same time as modernizing. This is the Netflix teaser: “A Holy Wholly Happy Ending” “It doesn’t take a miracle to shake up a stuffy village, just a church lady with a huge heart — and a bigger bra.”
So — an ordained woman with an education in theology is really “just a church lady” addressing social friction. This is far from Father Brown arguing against suicide contemplated by a murderer. And the stereotype that makes Father Brown ridiculous so that we’re surprised by his wisdom, is now reduced to a fat lady who is, no doubt, a good hugger but has no dark side. Just as some complain about Unitarians.
And Universalists, which Father Brown is, clearly. He believes all can be redeemed, but his understanding of sin is both informed and confrontive. It is an agony. And it is sometimes unceasing because of free choice.
I left the ministry in 1988, but then, confusing everyone, took the Browning Methodist pulpit for a year because I had no job and they had lost their minister. I was on the books of the Methodists as a lay leader. I am still in good standing with the Unitarians but would need a retread to take a pulpit. I have no desire to do so. They have become far more like Dibley than Father Brown’s parish where people’s anguished suffering is acknowledged and addressed. But so has Valier and even Browning become more like Dibley.
Maybe I should leave it there for now. But it does help explain why we have a slapstick burlesque president. And how easily Putin toys with us.