Intellectual Jerks and an Intelligent Priest

I’ve been needlepointing a lot, and as such I’ve marathoned the BBC series Father Brown over the past week/week and a half.

I really, really enjoyed it, honestly, and I was sad when I realized I had finished the final episode. I now have the actual Father Brown stories on hold at the library, and I look forward to reading some Chesterton in the near future 🙂

While I was in the midst of enjoying Father Brown, some new episodes of Sherlock became available on Netflix. I held off watching them because I was enjoying my other series. When the final episode of Father Brown ended, I switched immediately to Sherlock, but then I stopped.

I couldn’t go right from one to the other. The difference was too shocking and strange… to go from Father Brown’s humble, curious intellect to Sherlock’s egotistical super-intelligence was just too hard.

I remember when House M.D. was a hit, some people were grumpy about it, citing the character’s rudeness and abrasive personality. As an adult, I’ve encountered my fair share of arrogant medical types, and as such, Dr. House’s treatment of people is less entertaining now than it was then.

There’s a problematic premise floating around in society… and that premise is that if you’re smart enough, you can get away with being a jerk. HouseThe Social Network, and Sherlock aptly demonstrate this trend, starring abrasive, highly intelligent jerks whom we root for because they’re just so darn clever.

[ at this point, I should acknowledge that Dr. House and Dr. Wilson are clearly based on/inspired by the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson dynamic and character types. But, that’s not the purpose of this post… ]

Four years before House, there was CSI and the nerd-protagonist Gil Grissom. He could be a jerk on accident because of his tendency to forget things (like approving forms for members on his team) or walk away in the middle of a conversation as he became enveloped in thought. But Grissom wasn’t a hyper-intellectual ass–he was eccentric. These days, they’d call him autistic, but that label is far from the whole picture. Grissom was intelligent, and he enjoyed being with other intelligent people, but he didn’t use his intellect as an excuse to be a jerk.

Eccentric, but not a jerk on purpose

Gregory House and Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, do exactly that in addition to accidental slights brought on by their eccentricity.

This is in sharp contrast to Father Brown. A Catholic priest, Father Brown’s character is marked by humility and a never-ending curiosity that gets him into trouble regularly. Above all, Father Brown’s goal is to bring people to repentance before God. Solving the puzzle is an enormous part of this, yes, but his goal is distinctly different from that of House or Sherlock or even Grissom. The puzzle is an enjoyable means to a glorious end, and not an end in itself.

Father Brown, then, illustrates correct use of the intellect, which is to glorify God.

Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you should be able to get away with being an ass. Being smart doesn’t make you better than your fellow man. Instead, it makes you obligated to help your fellow man, whether that be on a small scale, like assisting your neighbor with his taxes, or a large scale, such as furthering medical research that saves lives.

I admit that I’m a sucker for the intellectual-jerk protagonist, and I do enjoy Sherlock, but I couldn’t go directly to Holmes after watching Father Brown… it was simply distasteful.

~ Lee



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