Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Why You Should Let G.K. Chesterton Baptize Your Christian Mind
If the title seems a bit irreverent, I hope you'll forgive me for quoting C.S. Lewis. Lewis said that what Chesterton did for him was to baptize his intellect much the same way George MacDonald had baptized his imagination. In other words, Chesterton persuaded a young and atheistic Lewis of the rationality and sensibility of Christianity. It would be some years before Lewis fully converted to Christianity, helped largely by J.R.R. Tolkien, but Chesterton's book The Everlasting Man was one of the most significant steps forward. (Here is more on that story.)
Yet that is only a fraction of what Chesterton accomplished. My prayer is that I can persuade you to increase your joy and encouragement by seeing what Chesterton has to offer every Christian.
G.K. Chesterton died 80 years ago today, but in life he was one of the towering intellects of the 20th century. There are certain Christians that virtually every believer feels they should know something about: Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, etc. Chesterton definitely qualifies. He contributed his reason and wit to almost every possible subject that a Christian might encounter. He wrote dozens of books applying Christian truth and reason to the problems of culture and society, addressing everything from materialism and secularism to the culture of death and the disintegration of marriage. He was not trained as a theologian, yet wrote on theology with a brilliance and perceptiveness that stunned professional scholars. His biography of St. Thomas Aquinas was called perhaps the best book ever written on Thomas by Etienne Gilson (himself probably the most significant Thomist scholar of the 20th century).
He debated George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells on philosophy, reason, science, and culture - but they were also his friends. Indeed, Chesterton had a gift for being on good terms with almost anybody, and an irrepressible joviality and cheerfulness that make his writing delightful to read. He wrote biographies of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson and more. He published a newspaper column for decades as well as his own newspaper. He wrote poetry. He wrote plays. He wrote detective stories that rivaled the Sherlock Holmes tales in popularity. He wrote on history and literature. He debated Clarence Darrow on evolution in New York City in 1931 after the Scopes Trial publicity. Several commentators believed Chesterton won the debate.
On top of all that, Chesterton was a tireless defender of the common man, and skewered political systems and social agendas that pretended to be progressive but in effect really hindered or oppressed the average person. He was relentless in holding ideas and people accountable to plain common sense, and showing how even the most sophisticated rhetoric often fell down when exposed to it. In the conclusion to his book What's Wrong With The World, he gives perhaps the most powerful and thundering defense I've ever heard for why government social engineering must give way before the basic virtue of individual human dignity. Chesterton was not about to tolerate for one minute any social scheme or government plan that made the man (usually the poor man) merely an object manipulated by the state.
As a Christian, you can probably find something Chesterton wrote that speaks to anything in your life. One of the remarkable resources to help you do just that is the American Chesterton Society. They have put an enormous variety of Chesterton's work online and indexed and explained it so that you can pick and choose where to start and what to explore. The Society is really responsible for much of the availability of some of Chesterton's work today, and is a very precious tool.
The American Chesterton Society's "Discover Chesterton" page gives a brief overview of the diversity of his work, and links broken down by category for a sampling of his most interesting writing in each area:
o The Poet
Additionally, they have 94 lectures covering both the major works and a generous variety of his other writings. I shared earlier today some other suggestions and an article for getting started with Chesterton. I hope these links will be a doorway to delight and inspiration for you.
As a post-script, the book I treasure most is Orthodoxy, Chesterton's spiritual autobiography. Although it may not be the most accessible place for some people to start, once you are ready for it, what awaits you is a story of enchantment that unfolds Christianity like a fairy tale - and demonstrates why only Christianity makes sense of the world. This is the story of how Chesterton discovered through his own ponderings about life, and his own experiments in searching for truth, beauty, and reason, the great story of Christianity and how it made sense of everything in life. The difficulty people encounter in reading it is that Chesterton uses metaphor and imagery very heavily, and some of it can require a lot of careful thought and imagination in order for the concepts and arguments to come through clearly. It is well worth the investment, but working up to it by getting used to Chesterton's style may be helpful.