Have you ever read an author from the distant past whom you felt was responding to your news headlines and fighting your present-day battles? Most likely not. Have you ever read an author who transported you out of your own present situation only to bring you back with the realization that they had given you more than just a couple hours of escape; they had actually said something that you think could influence the course of people’s lives today? The list of such authors is very small, but one who has and continues to have such an impact is G.K. Chesterton. Gilbert Keith to be exact. When did British authors begin using initials?
If you have been enriched by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and even J.K. Rowling, you have been influenced and enriched by G.K. Chesterton. He is one of the most engaging, witty and insightful writers of the past 100 years. As you read his works, which included newspaper articles, novels, poetry, biography, Christian apologetics and beyond, you will find on nearly every page an insight, a way of saying something, a profound response to our modern and post-modern world, which affect you something like a fresh breeze and sunshine would after you have crawled and worked your way through a cramped, dark, dusty, stifling attic to its only window at the end of the house. There are very few writers who can communicate joy through their writing, but Chesterton is one of them. A joy, as C.S. Lewis said, which makes one serious.
My first taste of Chesterton came through his book Orthodoxy. It is one of three key apologetics books he wrote and it is unlike any contemporary apologetic for the Christian faith that I know of (at least that I have heard or read about). He doesn’t try to convince through iron-clad, rationalist arguments, he seeks to awaken your sense of adventure and humor and wonder and then invites you to see how they all draw us to the truth we wish, and know, to be true: there is a God, and thus there is meaning, purpose, love, joy, adventure, romance and wonder in the world. The things we truly long for, long to tell us that they are more than things, more than ideals, more than just material processes in our bodies. They are like shafts of light which we not only look at but look through by looking upwards toward their Originator, who Himself is the embodiment of love, joy, peace, purpose, adventure, wonder and, most astonishingly to me, humility (this idea is discussed not only by Chesterton but C.S. Lewis).
I want to pull myself out of the stagnancy of our present moment. I don’t see much around me to get inspired by. I look around and see us having to endure the latest vestiges of 60’s liberalism. Who would have ever thought that the flower-power generation would bring us such centralized, oppressive bureaucracy! But there have been much worse times and Chesterton lived through some of them. He was on the watch as Christianity lost its foundations in Europe and he saw the growing ugliness of the totalitarianism and scientism (Science as a religion) that replaced it. He foresaw some of the consequences of that great wreck. He brought fresh light and fresh fight to what was going on. And I need both of those to keep me focused and hopeful about what God is doing and preparing to do in the world. So, I want to work my way through Chesterton’s three apologetics books: Heretics, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, over the next few months (or years, gulp). These titles may be the most unfortunately titled works that I know of. About once a week I hope to highlight something that might be interesting for others, that just might encourage someone to jump in and check him out.
After having read Orthodoxy, I read Chesterton’s modern day parable, The Man Who Was Thursday, and then jumped into a book which has become, in many ways, my favorite: Heretics. In it he responds to and wonderfully refutes the guiding minds and ideas of his time. His style, humor, depth of insight, use of paradox and friendly concern for those who he strongly disagreed with are all instructive. He gives us a paradigm for how to respond to people we disagree with today.
As a way of jumping in, I have included four random quotes from the book. Just as an appetizer:
“A man who has faith must be prepared not only to be a martyr, but to be a fool.”
“Man cannot love mortal things. He can only love immortal things for an instant. ”
“The truth is, that it is quite an error to suppose that absence of definite convictions gives the mind freedom and agility. A man who believes something is ready and witty, because he has all his weapons about him. He can apply his test in an instant.”
“A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.”