Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

“Father Brown,” facts, and forgetfulness

I discovered this week that a Facebook friend has family connections to Robert Heinlein, my favorite science fiction author as a teenager. That reminds me of my own (supposed) literary link, which in turn brings to mind a challenge to the profession I share with the person in question.

Family lore has it that we Butchers are a remote twig somewhere on the family tree of the great British essayist, author, newspaperman, and apologist G.K. Chesterton—whose surname my late mother shared before she married.

As a child, Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories bored me to tears—pious Poirot, I thought— and his other writings were way over my head. However, as a schoolboy I earned points with my English teacher each Easter when I was recited part of the classic poem, The Donkey, and boasted of my purported family tie.

In the years since, I have come to admire Chesterton’s brilliance in communicating and defending spiritual truths—in some ways a Catholic, pre-C.S. Lewis—and his many aphorisms. Like the way he skewers loud ignorance, or “Tourist’s Syndrome,” as I call it.

Corresponding with my friend about Heinlein, I mentioned my own rumored family link. And, how I had never wanted to delve into it too closely, in case it turned out not to be true. Then I realized that I was satisfied with the possibility of a connection that is really no more than a gold-plated rumor: not guilt, but gilt by association, you might say.

It occurred to me that this attitude contravenes the first rule of journalism, offered by just about every phone-chewing news editor I ever worked for: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” However, the typical newsroom commitment to the brutal facts tends to be more external than internal.

Just as Christians often find it easier to hear the Holy Spirit’s correction for others than for themselves, it can be less challenging for many journalists to be exacting when applying standards and yardsticks to others than to themselves. I’ve written before about the all-too-frequent double standards of some of the news media.

Years ago, I ran an intensive, three-month training program for a group of international Christian journalism students. Praying and reading the Bible, I searched for a “theme text” for our weeks together. Something from Luke, the first missionary journalist, might be good, I thought.

Instead, I unexpectedly found myself in Psalm 51 and at verse 6: “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts” (NIV). In us, before from out of us. How might that sort of exacting operational standard impact the news media, I wonder?

The Chesterton link remains uninvestigated for now, but my resolve to look into it one day is bolstered by some hints at a genetic match. Not only are we both journalists—though, of course, he played in the World Series, while I am still swinging away in the minors, in the twilight years—but we share another trait.

Notoriously forgetful, Chesterton once had to call his wife from a railway station to get her to remind him why he was there and where he was supposed to be going. Directionally challenged, I have been known when out and about running errands to have to call Marcia for directions home…

For now, I will take my defense from GK (as we “family” like to think of him), when he demurred: “I am not absentminded. It is the presence of mind that makes me unaware of everything else.”

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