Chesterton and ‘The Riddles of the Gospel’

More incisive and startling gems from Chesterton:

It was Francis Bacon who once said: “Some books are to be tested, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Many of us have our favourite books in this regard. And Charles Spurgeon said this about the matter:

Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them, masticate and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analysis of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be, ‘much not many’.

Not just books, but authors as well need to be regarded in a selective fashion. Some are good to briefly read and then move on from, while other authors you keep going back to, over and over again. Obviously for me G. K. Chesterton is one such author.

I just looked it up, and in nearly 200 articles I have written about, referred to, or quoted from Chesterton on this website. As I keep saying, he is one of my all-time favourites, as he would be for so many others. Just yesterday I featured a number of quotes from his 1925 classic, The Everlasting Man:

One Chesterton fan just sent in a comment with one of his fave quotes from the book (thanks Steven). But it made me think I need to pen another piece of quotes from this amazing book. The quote he mentioned came from a chapter I did not quote from at all yesterday, and it is such a vital chapter.

I refer to Chapter 2 of Part 2: “The Riddles of the Gospel.” One can argue as to which chapter in this book is the most important, but surely this would be one of them. While only 13 pages in length (in the 1955 Image Books edition that I have), it is loaded with wonderful truths. As I noted in my earlier piece, it was this book especially that helped C. S. Lewis to abandon his atheism and convert to Christianity.

So this book – and this particular chapter – is well worth quoting from. The whole chapter of course should be read, but let me offer some select portions of it.

Image of The Everlasting Man (Christian Heritage Series)
The Everlasting Man (Christian Heritage Series) by Chesterton, G. K. (Author), Belmonte, Kevin (Translator) Amazon logo

“We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well….” p. 190

“A man simply taking the words of the story as they stand would form quite another impression; an impression full of mystery and possibly of inconsistency; but certainly not merely an impression of mildness. It would be intensely interesting; but part of the interest would consist in its leaving a good deal to be guessed at or explained. It is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather-chart of their own. The Peter whom popular Church teaching presents is very rightly the Peter to whom Christ said in forgiveness, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He is not the Peter upon whom Christ turned as if he were the devil, crying in that obscure wrath, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’.p. 191

“If there is one aspect of the New Testament Jesus in which he may be said to present himself eminently as a practical person, it is in the aspect of an exorcist. There is nothing meek and mild, there is nothing even in the ordinary sense mystical, about the tone of the voice that says ‘Hold thy peace and come out of him.’ It is much more like the tone of a very business-like lion-tamer or a strong-minded doctor dealing with a homicidal maniac. But this is only a side issue for the sake of illustration; I am not now raising these controversies; but considering the case of the imaginary man from the moon to whom the New Testament is new.p. 192

“First, a man reading the Gospel sayings would not find platitudes. If he had read even in the most respectful spirit the majority of ancient philosophers and of modern moralists, he would appreciate the unique importance of saying that he did not find platitudes. . . . The morality of most moralists, ancient and modern, has been one solid and polished cataract of platitudes flowing for ever and ever. That would certainly not be the impression of the imaginary independent outsider studying the New Testament. He would be conscious of nothing so commonplace and in a sense of nothing so continuous as that stream. He would find a number of strange claims that might sound like the claim to be the brother of the sun and moon; a number of very startling pieces of advice; a number of stunning rebukes; a number of strangely beautiful stories. He would see some very gigantesque figures of speech about the impossibility of threading a needle with a camel or the possibility of throwing a mountain into the sea. He would see a number of very daring simplifications of the difficulties of life; like the advice to shine upon everybody indifferently as does the sunshine or not to worry about the future any more than the birds. He would find on the other hand some passages of almost impenetrable darkness, so far as he is concerned, such as the moral of the parable of the Unjust Steward.” pp. 193-194

“The statement that the meek shall inherit the earth is very far from being a meek statement. I mean it is not meek in the ordinary sense of mild and moderate and inoffensive. To justify it, it would be necessary to go very deep into history and anticipate things undreamed of then and by many unrealised even now; such as the way in which the mystical monks reclaimed the lands which the practical kings had lost. If it was a truth at all, it was because it was a prophecy. But certainly it was not a truth in the sense of a truism. The blessing upon the meek would seem to be a very violent statement; in the sense of doing violence to reason and probability.pp. 194-195

But the point here is that if we could read the Gospel reports as things as new as newspaper reports, they would puzzle us and perhaps terrify us much more than the same things as developed by historical Christianity. . . . The moral is that the Christ of the Gospel might actually seem more strange and terrible than the Christ of the Church.” pp. 195-196

The freethinker frequently says that Jesus of Nazareth was a man of his time, even if he was in advance of his time; and that we cannot accept his ethics as final for humanity. The freethinker then goes on to criticise his ethics, saying plausibly enough that men cannot turn the other cheek, or that they must take thought for the morrow, or that the self-denial is too ascetic or the monogamy too severe. But the Zealots and the Legionaries did not turn the other cheek any more than we do, if so much. The Jewish traders and Roman tax-gatherers took thought for the morrow as much as we, if not more. We cannot pretend to be abandoning the morality of the past for one more suited to the present. It is certainly not the morality of another age, but it might be of another world.” p. 196

Whatever else is true, it is not true that the controversy has been altered by time. Whatever else is true, it is emphatically not true that the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth were suitable to his time, but are no longer suitable to our time. Exactly how suitable they were to his time is perhaps suggested in the end of his story. The same truth might be stated in another way by saying that if the story be regarded as merely human and historical, it is extraordinary how very little there is in the recorded words of Christ that ties him at all to his own time.pp. 197-198

“The truth is that when critics have spoken of the local limitations of the Galilean, it has always been a case of the local limitations of the critics.p. 198

“I maintain therefore that a man reading the New Testament frankly and freshly would not get the impression of what is now often meant by a human Christ. The merely human Christ is a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man. Moreover there have been too many of these human Christs found in the same story, just as there have been too many keys to mythology found in the same stories.pp. 199-200

“There must surely have been something not only mysterious but many-sided about Christ if so many smaller Christs can be carved out of him. If the Christian Scientist is satisfied with him as a spiritual healer and the Christian Socialist is satisfied with him as a social reformer, so satisfied that they do not even expect him to be anything else, it looks as if he really covered rather more ground than they could be expected to expect. And it does seem to suggest that there might be more than they fancy in these other mysterious attributes of casting out devils or prophesying doom.p. 200-201

“It were better to rend our robes with a great cry against blasphemy, like Caiaphas in the judgment, or to lay hold of the man as a maniac possessed of devils like the kinsmen and the crowd, rather than to stand stupidly debating fine shades of pantheism in the presence of so catastrophic a claim. There is more of the wisdom that is one with surprise in any simple person, full of the sensitiveness of simplicity, who should expect the grass to wither and the birds to drop dead out of the air, when a strolling carpenter’s apprentice said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’.” p. 201

(Australians will find this book at Koorong: )

[1841 words]

4 Replies to “Chesterton and ‘The Riddles of the Gospel’”

  1. Thanks, Bill. I am enjoying your pieces from Chesterton, as you have noted. Once again I am simply going to share this on my FB page and in several emails.

    By the way – I have no Chesterton books on my shelf. That is about to change. Why, you might ask, no Chesterton? I am much like Spurgeon, who you quoted in this article. I read the my few books and digest, rather and own many books out of pride.

    In saying that, I think of your nice library. Yours is not owned out of pride – it is obviously a storehouse yet to be devoured.

    Keep on keeping on. Your work is needed and appreciated.

  2. Very important post, especially to me what was highlighted about with some authors and books not rush reading but to take time reading and soaking in the thoughts. I certainly do that with my favourite books and authors and the Bible, and I might add some of your posts especially over last 3 years. Thanks Bill for your work.

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