Thoughts on Chesterton

After finishing a reading binge on exegesis and linguistics, I decided to change it up a bit.  In place of biblical studies, I decided to read G.K. Chesterton’s classic Orthodoxy, which my girlfriend gave me for Christmas last year. Orthodoxy  is a follow up to his book Heretics. It’s ironic how heavy and dogmatic the titles sound when compared to their contents.  Even 100 years later, Chesterton is still a blast to read.  Both titles are full of wit and humor, despite their dogmatic titles.

The sequence of events on the books goes something like this.  Chesterton wrote Heretics first.  In this book, he critiqued the prevailing philosophies of the day by attacking their chief expositors.  He did this in good humor with wit and style.  Even though the title is “Heretics,” the book has almost a whimsical tone at times as he plays with thoughts and ideas.  Still, the disagreements are sharp and he doesn’t beat around the bush.  He is blunt with what he likes and doesn’t like.

Following the publishing of Heretics, one of Chesterton’s opponents issued a challenge to the effect of, “you critiqued my philosophy, but didn’t give me your own.  I’ll consider mine more carefully when you give us yours.”  Chesterton replied to this challenge at the beginning of Orthodoxy with a characteristic line, “It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.”  Thus, his famous work Orthodoxy was birthed.  It is much more of an autobiography than a typical apology (or defense) of the Christian faith.  He writes in the preface, “It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it,”   noting that he will be “egotistical only in order to be sincere.”

Chesterton then guides us through his own thinking about Christianity.  He can jump around so much that sometimes it’s quite hard to follow him.  However, the prose is so much fun to read that I end up not minding too much.  Always the prince of paradox, in the portion I’m reading now he tells the story of how reading all of the chief opposition to Christianity very nearly persuaded him to become a Christian.  He recounts how Christianity was accused of being all sorts of opposite things.  It was both too peaceful, and the cause of wars.  It both destroyed the family, and thrust it upon us.  It imprisons women, yet the great cry from many men was that the church was too feminine!  He notes that if the critics are right, then Christianity is much more frightening than any of them had ever imagined.  He quips with the possibility that a man might be too fat in some places, and too skinny in others, but he would be a very strange man!

Instead, he envisages an average man.  Those who were “too tall” accuse the man of being “too short.”  Those who were “too skinny” accused the man of being “too fat,” and so on.  The man, however has the right proportions.  His detractors are wrong.  He then moves the analogy into his present day showing how the detractors of the Faith were really quite extreme in the opposite direction of however they were criticizing.  The writing is excellent, since all of this is revealed in narrative.  This means you get the sort of build up and climax you might expect in a novel.  Chesterton was a novelist and this talent carries over into his nonfiction.

This post has gone on long enough, and ironically praises Chesterton for good writing and fails to emulate his craft ;-)  If you’re looking for something fun to read, Chesterton should be considered.  He’s loaded with all sorts of  wit, but manages to explain truth through it all.  For a dry, analytical writer like myself, he’s a good example to learn from.


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