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Notable Christians: G. K. Chesterton

Jan 24, 2011

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) is one of my favourite writers, and his 1908 volume Orthodoxy is one of my favourite books. He was an English writer, apologist, poet, essayist, and journalist. He was extremely prolific, having penned some 80 books, 400 essays, and many short stories, poems and plays. (I am obviously not a true Chesterton fan, as I only have around 30 of his books!)

He is as noted for his fiction as his non-fiction. Many have grown to love his detective fiction, via his Father Brown series. These short stories are available in various forms, including a five-volume set. His writing style (full of humour and the use of paradox), his sharp mind, and his acerbic wit all combine to make for memorable reading. He is simply a joy to read. Indeed, just writing this article about him and his work brings me joy.

He was a journalist and columnist early on, and many of his regular columns he continued writing for decades. After a somewhat wild and irreligious youth, he moved into Anglicanism, following his 1901 marriage to Frances Blogg whom he stayed married to till his death. But he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922 and became a staunch defender of it for the rest of his life.

He was certainly a character: quite tall and heavy set, wearing a cape and crumpled hat, carrying a walking stick, with a cigar in his mouth and even a revolver in his pocket. His was a formidable physical presence, but he has left us a formidable literary presence.

He was eccentric and feisty, jolly and insightful. A sort of absent-minded professor, there are plenty of amusing anecdotes concerning him. In one famous case he wired his wife, asking, “Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” to which his wife replied, “Home”.

Many other famous stories of him abound. One ripper is when The Times invited him and some other eminent authors to write an essay on “What’s Wrong with the World?” Chesterton’s reply came in the form of a letter: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton”.

His interests ranged quite far, with philosophy, history, poetry, journalism, literary criticism, politics, and Christian apologetics, all part of his repertoire. As mentioned, he became a Catholic late in life, and wrote The Catholic Church and Conversion in 1926, and The Thing: Why I am a Catholic in 1929.

While Protestants may not like everything he writes about Christianity, most of his enduring works of Christian apologetics are volumes which any Protestant can more or less warmly support and enjoy. To the extent that he was basically defending Nicene Christianity, his works are of universal Christian appeal.

His other writings are also of great value. For example, his works on literary figures such as Charles Dickens, Robert Browning and William Blake received widespread acclaim. He also helped to found the London Detection Club, a group which included such heavyweights as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Ronald Knox.

He took on the best minds of his day as he defended Christian orthodoxy. Thus he was quite unafraid to lock horns with H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Clarence Darrow and Bertrand Russell. His debating and writing skills were legendary, and he never shied away from a fight.

His Christian writings especially had a profound impact on a whole generation – and more – of other great minds. People like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and T.S. Eliot, to name just a few, were all greatly influenced by him. Plenty of accolades can be produced concerning his work.

Let me mention just one, referring to one of his great masterpieces, Orthodoxy. Popular Christian writer Philip Yancey said this: “I would say Orthodoxy had as much influence on my spiritual direction as any single book, and it’s one of the few books that I go back and reread.”

Indeed, given what a marvellous work this is, let me conclude with a few snippets from this amazing volume.

Quotable gems from Orthodoxy

As I mentioned, perhaps my all-time favourite book is Orthodoxy. I actually have purchased three copies of this incredible book over the years:
-On January 11, 1977 in Chicago I bought my first copy: a thin 1959 paperback edition. It is now well-worn and has been underlined mercilessly;
-On July 25, 1990 I picked up a rare 1909 hardback edition in a Melbourne second-hand bookshop, which no longer exists (the bookshop that is); and,
-On New Year’s Eve 2010 I bought my most recent copy (a 2006 hardback edition) so that I might have the joy of reading it afresh without all the old underlining. Of course it too is now hopelessly scribbled over in yellow highlighter.

There are not too many authors of whom I would have three copies of the same book. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien would be the only other authors that come to mind in this regard. But this book is one of those wonderful books that one never tires of.

For Chesterton, orthodoxy is simply the creedal affirmations found in the Apostles Creed which all Christians can adhere to. He wrote the book as a follow-up to his 1905 volume Heretics in which he critiqued various trendy isms of the day, including relativism, materialism and socialism.

In this book he recounts how he came to faith, and how the events of his childhood were such an important part of this. Perhaps my favourite chapter in the book is “The Ethics of Elfland”. In it he describes how all the things which delighted and amazed him in childhood were all to be later found by him in the Christian faith.

Childhood astonishment is not just found in fairytales, but in life itself. When we are very young, he says, “we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened the door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door….

“These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”

Life is seen as an adventure for the child, but it becomes a bore and a chore for adults. But real life is an adventure. Secularists simply cannot see this. They see repetition in nature, for example, as proof that everything is mechanical and lifeless. But just the opposite is the case:

“All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork….

“A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.”

One final quote. He speaks of life as being “not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege”. He refers to the book Robinson Crusoe. He says “the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.”

This book, like all his writings, is full of wonder, mirth, wit, wisdom, insight and joy. Because of this his material is a goldmine for quotable quotes. Chesterton loved life because he loved the author of life. He abandoned his earlier cold and heartless unbelief, exchanging it for the full-coloured, joy-filled wonder of life in God.

If you have not yet read Chesterton, by all means get to it. Starting with Orthodoxy will not disappoint. He will open your eyes and lead you into a whole new world of appreciation, amazement, wonder and life-affirming faith. C. S. Lewis once said that the fiction of George MacDonald ‘baptized his imagination’. The same can certainly be said of Chesterton’s writings.

For further reading:

Ahlquist, Dale, Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton. Ignatius, 2006.
Ahlquist, Dale, G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense. Ignatius, 2003.
Belmonte, Kevin, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton. Thomas Nelson, 2011.
Belmonte, Kevin, The Quotable Chesterton: The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton. Thomas Nelson, 2011.
Chesterton, G.K., Autobiography. Hutchinson, 1936.
Dale, Alzina Stone, The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. Eerdmans, 1982.
Marlin, George, et. al., More Quotable Chesterton. Ignatius, 1988.
Marlin, George, et. al., The Quotable Chesterton. Ignatius, 1986.
Ward, Maisie, Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Sheed and Ward, 1944
Ward, Maisie, Return to Chesterton. Sheed and Ward, 1952.

And if you are really a fan – or fanatic – you can obtain from Ignatius Press the 35-volume set, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton.

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22 Responses to Notable Christians: G. K. Chesterton

  • Very nice Bill.

    There was an interesting article in The Australian Spectator recently written by a school student on Harry Potter. Her point was that adults who just want to deconstruct and dissect books like Harry Potter into the various postmodern power themes just don’t understand the story! It is so true. Adults need to stop reducing everything to their pet ideology and take a lesson from children sometimes and appreciate the wonderful power of the imagination and help foster that in children. See “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child” by Anthony Esolen.

    “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child takes square aim at these accelerating trends, while offering parents—and children—hopeful alternatives. Esolen shows how imagination is snuffed out at practically every turn: in the rearing of children almost exclusively indoors; in the flattening of love to sex education, and sex education to prurience and hygiene; in the loss of traditional childhood games; in the refusal to allow children to organize themselves into teams; in the effacing of the glorious differences between the sexes; in the dismissal of the power of memory, which creates the worst of all possible worlds in school—drudgery without even the merit of imparting facts; in the strict separation of the child’s world from the adult’s; and in the denial of the transcendent, which places a low ceiling on the child’s developing spirit and mind.”

    Damien Spillane

  • See also G.K. Chesterton: Darwinism is ‘An attack upon thought itself’, which includes an account of his successful debate with Clarence Darrow as well as his astute criticisms of Darwiniac dogma.
    Jonathan Sarfati, US

  • Thank you for this, Bill. I haven’t read any Chesterton yet, but recently bought the Complete Father Brown Mysteries (all five volumes in one). Your article is indeed timely and it’s encouraged me to start it next.
    Kendra Mallock, US

  • Thanks Kendra

    Glad to have been a bit of assistance here. Don’t forget his non-fiction as well. But anything he has written tends to be well worth while.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • hi Bill,
    I know your an anglican and i just wondered why you’re not a catholic? I have no doubt its a long answer, (but even a very brief one would be fine) and i dont mind if you dont want to answer it, I was just curious.
    God bless, and thank you for all the wonderful work you do!
    Christina Schumann

  • Thanks Christina

    Actually I am not an Anglican. I am a Baptist, and you are right, the answer is long and complex. But the short reply is that for various biblical and theological reasons, I cannot at this point embrace Catholicism. But I don’t think this is the place for a major debate on all this!

    And as some may have noticed, I do try hard to work with Christians of all stripes where possible.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,
    Thank you for a delightful and inspiring article about a truly great man.
    It is like a ray of sunshine in these grim times.
    Chesterton taught Christians, whatever perils they faced, always to be cheerful warriors.
    Keep up your great work with CultureWatch, Bill!
    John Ballantyne, Melbourne

  • Hi Bill & all
    Phillip Yancey loves Chesterton so much that he actually resurrected & re-published ‘Orthodoxy’. He writes a chapter about GKS in ‘Soul Survivor (How my faith survived the church)’. It makes me long passionately for a similar graciousness, wit, intelligence & good-humoured friendliness in our arguments with our ideological ‘enemies’. I remember a story of GK defeating George Bernard Shaw in a public debate. Then they retired to a nearby drinking establishment and presumably resumed the discussion. Is it possible that our debates today can be founded on such freedom respect and confident joy in Christ?
    Terry Darmody

  • Chesterton is my favorite author. Another author to read as well would be Christopher Dawson, a Harvard Catholic historian, the best in the 20th century if not all-time, in terms of the intersection of religion and culture.
    Back to Chesterton, I loved the book Common Sense 101 about him, and I think it would be a great introduction to his works. His ideas are timeless, maybe more applicable to our time then his.

    “These are times when a Christian is expected to defend every creed except his own” – GK Chesterton

    Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis

    Julian Desouza

  • Thanks Julian

    It is always good to find another Chesterton fan. And I just recently mentioned Dawson – see early on in this piece:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I don’t know if I’ll get to read more GKC but I’ll put him on the to-do list. May I recommend his poem ‘The House of Christmas’? About the manger he wrote: ‘… the place where God was homeless and all men are at home’.
    Also Philip Yancey quotes a must-read description of his hilarious joyful & endearing debating style by one of his opponents. It’s on pp 54 & 55 of Soul Survivor. It makes GKC seem to me like a one-man Goon Show with a Christian heart & mind.
    Terry Darmody

  • Hi Bill,
    Of all your interesting articles, your G.K Chesterton offering is my favourite I just loved it. In fact I ordered the book “Orthodoxy” on the strength of your recommendation. I had a general knowledge of Chesterton, but no knowledge of many of the gems you offered there of his eccentricity. He sounds like the sort of guest I’d love to have in the home for Christmas dinner. His crumpled hat sounds fine, but some of his accessories, such as the cape might be unsuitable for mid summer in Queensland, not to mention the cigar in his mouth and of course the revolver in his pocket.
    I have always admired people, no matter what their faith, who are prepared to take on the bad guys, such as the four mousekateers, i.e., Shaw, Russell, Wells and Darrow. Also genuine people, who are replete with eccentricities are never boring.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld

  • Thanks Frank and Terry

    Yes Frank he was quite a character and deserves to be even more widely known than he already is.

    And thanks Terry for the reminder about Yancey. I had forgotten about his chapter on Chesterton. So I hunted around my library and found the 2001 volume, blew off the dust, and reread the chapter. I also noticed that Yancey had signed my copy of this book.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill
    I am a little perplexed.
    I did a bit of “google” research on Chesterton and there is lots of info on him converting from a rather agnostic Anglicanism to Catholicism but I can’t find anything on when he converted to Christ. If he did perhaps his notorious absent mindedness caused him to forget all the biblical injunctions against idolatry, praying to Mary or other dead sinners, baptismal regeneration, syncretism etc.
    He was definitely a brilliant writer and wit and philosopher of some note. He was incredible at debating and had many other gifts but if he wasn’t regenerated by faith in Christ alone then he is really not someone true followers of Christ should look to as an example.
    Glenn Christopherson

  • Thanks Glenn

    As part of my response, see my reply to Christina above. But let me make it clear, as I have done before, that I am not allowing this site to become a place where Protestants can bash Catholics, or Catholics bash Protestants. If that is your thing, please go elsewhere.

    And I am clearly in the evangelical Protestant camp. No one can have any doubt of that if they read this site. Thus I have plenty of theological and biblical differences with those who are not. But I also see the value of co-belligerency, of working together with like-minded folks against common enemies.

    I also believe that there will be plenty of Catholics who will make it into heaven, based on their faith in and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In the same way, I believe there will be plenty of Protestants who will not be in heaven, based on their lack of faith in and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

    While we have biblical guidelines on what makes for basic Christian beliefs, at the end of the day only God ultimately knows each human heart and where an individual is at in relationship to himself. He alone will make that judgment on the final day.

    But as I say, this is not going to become yet another opportunity for sectarian warfare here. There are plenty of other sites where people can engage in that if they so choose. If you can show grace in respecting my wishes here, that would be great.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill
    I never said I was a Protestant. Just a simple Bible believing Christian.My reference point is not the Reformation but the Book of Acts(and the rest of the NT)
    A lot of “sectarian warfare”would perhaps be avoided if more were to do the same.
    Glenn Christopherson

  • Thanks Glenn

    But almost every Christian thinks their faith is straight out of the book of Acts and the NT. Actually it is far more often spiritual pride and self-righteousness that results in such warfare.

    And while it may sound spiritual, there really is no such thing as a denomination-less or theology-less Christian. The very fact that you rail against one thing (Catholicism) means you affirm another. Everyone lies somewhere on a theological and denominational spectrum, even those who claim to be Jesus-only dogma-free Christians.

    “Bible-only” Christianity also sounds quite spiritual, but the truth is none of us are lone wolf Christians and all of us depend on and need others, even when it comes to understanding the Scriptures. The whole body of Christ, both past and present, is needed for our walk with God and following Christ according to his word. Again, it is pride which says I can do all this alone and I don’t need or want the rest of Christ’s body.

    But as I said, I don’t want a big debate here about some of these matters, and things are starting to get off topic here, so we may leave it at that.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Sold! Thanks for this post, Bill. I’ll try to find a suitable copy of Orthodoxy right now. Chesterton sounds wonderful!
    Ben McFadden

  • “The very fact that you rail against one thing (Catholicism) means you affirm another. Everyone lies somewhere on a theological and denominational spectrum, even those who claim to be Jesus-only dogma-free Christians.”

    A fine response, Bill. I think G.K.C would approve.
    Incidentally, (and quite fitting too) you might find that Chesterton’s walking-stick contained a sword.

    Kind regards,

    Zac Alstin

  • Bill and Zac,
    Unfortunately I have been mis interpreted in this comment thread. I am an equal opportunity “railer” and will expose false teaching wherever it’s found. Catholic Protestant or Caluthumpian
    And someone who puts their faith in the infallible word of God over the word of man is not dogma free. They just get their dogma from the Bible. Extreme heh?
    While men can and do shed light on the scriptures no one has the right to ignore, twist or invent new scriptures. To do so is not learning from the whole body of Christ it is succumbing to the false teaching the Lord warned about repeatedly.
    Glenn Christopherson

  • Thanks Glenn

    Most Christians would say they are getting their dogma from the Bible, so that is not the issue. The issue is acknowledging that while the Bible is infallible, we are not. Thus God’s Word may be inerrant, but our interpretation of it isn’t, which is why a bit of humility goes a long way here. There are basic doctrines we must affirm, but in many other areas a bit of grace extended to those with differing views will not go astray.

    Having said that, it should be clear that I do regularly take a stand against false teaching on this site. But we may just have to agree to disagree here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I’m half way through Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be). I am finding this to be an amazingly liberating book, so thanks for the review on it. In it I read a quote which goes like this; “We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

    I have never come across such beautiful writing, so I looked in the notes to see whose it was. It was of course, Chesterton and I remembered that you wrote an article on a G. K. Chesterton.

    Orthodoxy … Definitely getting this book.

    Annette Nestor

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