Reading Chesterton: How and Why

Reading the marvelous book Orthodoxy for the second time has reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s genius as a writer and a thinker. Whether he ever went out of vogue or not, Chesterton is now growing in popularity. The Chesterton Society is quite active on Facebook and one has to wait for his books to be available at the library. Many people hear about Chesterton because of his influence on C.S. Lewis. However, people who have attempted to read a book like Orthodoxy for the first time often fail to finish it, myself included. Chesterton’s style is an acquired taste; one that few people now have now. Because I finally succeeded in reading Orthodoxy, I have decided to give some tips on reaching Chesterton.

First, is that Chesterton is the king of paradoxes. He frequently set out a commonly accepted saying and then proceeds to prove the opposite true. In an early chapter of Orthodoxy Chesterton states the common idea that people in insane asylums are irrational. He then argues that reason, when relied on too exclusively, leads to insanity and that asylums are full of some of society’s most rational people. By the end, even if you don’t agree, you are forced to admit that he has made a valid point about the limits of logic.

Second, is his use of humor. Unlike other writers, who use humor like sugar to make the medicine go down better, Chesterton’s humor is essential his arguments. Reading his work without expecting sarcasm, puns, wordplay, and irony will cause confusion. To extend an image that C.S. Lewis made for him, Chesterton is like a man engaged in a sword fight which will have deadly consequences. Not in spite of this, but because of it he fills the duel with witty riposte (I’m not left-handed) and colorful flair. He speaks like a giant with a booming voice, but moves like a cat. In the first chapter of Orthodoxy he writes, “The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth. I find myself under the same intolerable bondage.” Or again, “A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian, and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism. Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies…Materialists and madmen never have doubts.” Chesterton was the Douglas Fairbanks of apologetics.

I must warn you though that his writing is heady. Brilliant and playful, quick and pointed, Chesterton takes work to understand. A helpful introduction to his style is his novel The Man Who Was Thursday. It includes all that is Chesterton in a form that is easier to digest. If you are able to find the ironic humor in his farce, then Chesterton is for you. Come away from it frustrated and utterly confused, then he might not be the best author for you to read.

Now we come to the question, why read Chesterton at all? I could explain all the things in his book that are relevant to people today, but it would be better to read the book to get them. Instead it is his approach. Though being a traditionalist and a defender of Christianity, he was quite popular in his time. Unlike writers such as Lee Strobel or Norman Geisler, who are unknown outside the Christian subculture, Chesterton was a sought after thinker in the culture. In fact, he was a good friend of the writer George Bernard Shaw, even though they disagreed on just about everything. Shaw admired him despite being an object of fun in Chesterton’s writing. Christianity needs more people in this polarized culture who can stand firmly for orthodoxy Christianity, without embittering those with different points of view. Chesterton’s unique and imaginative approach to defending Christianity shows that it just might be possible. 

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