3 Things I Learned From GK Chesterton
Chesterton was a prolific novelist, apologist, columnist, and poet of the early 1900s. As a young atheist, he slowly converted to Roman Catholicism over the course of decades by a process which he describes in his apologetic classic, Orthodoxy, as the construction of his own personal heresy, which, to his boundless surprise and chagrin, turned out to be orthodox Christianity.
He was remarkably gifted. Eloquent in poetry, prose, fiction and nonfiction, his writings are enjoyed today by all kinds of people, from John Piper (who has a popular article on Orthodoxy) to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, postmodernist unbelievers who dedicated their novel Good Omens to “GK Chesterton, a man who knew what was going on.” Not that he would have liked the book much,
but I think he would have been chuffed.
There were many facets to Chesterton’s genius, but the most amazing to me is his ability to look at the intellectual landscape of his day and see exactly what errors would go on to characterise the following century. He was blessed in many ways, but in none more remarkable than his gift of thinking Christianly in a world of sneering modernism--to an extent rarely equaled since, even by our greatest men. His insights are as keen today as when he wrote them. Postmodernism was not even a word in 1908, yet he refuted it in Orthodoxy. He warned us against feminism and compulsory state schooling in 1910 in What’s Wrong With the World, and against eugenics in 1922.
I could go on, but Lady B hinted that three pages was a good limit. I want to outline three specific lessons I learned reading GK Chesterton. Also, because I never tire of defending the honourable art of fiction against those who believe it at best a second-rate amusement compared to Serious Non-Fiction, these three things will all come from his stories.
1. The New Hypocrisy
In the brilliant short story, Ring of Lovers from TheParadoxes of Mr Pond, Captain Gahagan, an elegant young man-about-town, is invited to dinner by Lord Crome. Although the guests have all been carefully picked, none of them appear to have anything in common. Then, toward the end of the meal, an ancient ring goes missing, and sudden death strikes.
My favourite thing in this story is the revelation that comes to Captain Gahagan at the end. He’s a good man, you see, a man who would never seduce a woman, blot his honour, or tell a lie (although he is a talented fabulist). Inside he’s a Boy Scout, but on the outside, he cultivates a faint and artistic atmosphere of villainy. He enjoys being thought to be a dangerous man--enjoys it so much that his reputation nearly hangs him. Chesterton’s characteristic insight slices right to the heart of a common temptation.
"I was better than I seemed. But what did that mean, except the spiritual blasphemy that I wanted to seem worse than I was? What could it mean, except that, far worse than one who practised vice, I admired it? Yes, admired it in myself; even when it wasn't there. I was the new hypocrite; but mine was the homage that virtue pays to vice."This is an amazing insight, and since reading Ring of Lovers, I have seen the new hypocrisy everywhere. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious. I once saw a poster for a Christian youth event called the One Night Stand.
But we all do it, to some extent. Maybe we didn’t do the workshop, hosted by the local Gigaplex Christian Fellowship, on how droopy the Apostle Paul’s pants would have been if he’d been a modern youth pastor. But we enjoy shocking elderly church members. We’ll used minced oaths, just two letters short of blasphemy, to demonstrate our wild untameability. We write and read subversive novels featuring moody and dangerous romantic heroes.
The problem is that sooner or later, we become what we pretend to be. It’s dangerous to cultivate the appearance of evil, which is why the Apostle Paul warned against it in 1 Thessalonians 5:22. We mistake evil for maturity. We decide it’s time to move on from our wholesome childish image, and by a series of logical steps wind up cavorting in our underwear before a salivating crowd. The image becomes the reality.
And even if it doesn’t, we lock ourselves inside a dead-end role. We’re only playing at evil, so we can never really be any good at it. We do pathetic little villain impressions, constantly restricted by what morals we still have left, when we could actually be on the sublime adventure of holiness. We have sold our birthright to be hip and cool.
2. Good Knights With Bad Tempers
In the rollicking and delightful novel The Ball and the Cross, a naïve young Christian challenges a pugnacious atheist to a duel after the latter publicly insults the honour of Mary. To everyone’s surprise, the atheist accepts--but then the two men must flee, pursued by the wrath of a world which no longer believes in fighting for what you believe in. By land, sea, motor-car, and yacht, under cover of disguise or trapped in an insane asylum, the Christian and the Atheist look for a nice quiet place to
cross swords and finish their quarrel.
It’s a magnificent book. But my very favourite part comes when the young Christian is given a vision of a magnificent Christian London, a London to which (for he is a Jacobite) “the rightful king has returned”, where St Paul’s Cathedral is topped by a triumphant cross and ringed by a triple crown of swords. Knights, not policemen, patrol the streets. But then one of these shining guardians strikes an old man who stumbles at the crossroads.
“The soldier had no business to do that,” protests the young Christian. But the angelic figure, his guide in the vision, smiles and argues. On the contrary, the knight was quite right to strike the old man, in the interests of justice, or order, or beauty, or something. And with that Christian knows that the vision is a fraud:
“Why, you great fool!” cried MacIan, rising to the top of his tremendous stature, “did you think I would have doubted only for that rap with a sword? I know that noble orders have had bad knights, that good knights have bad tempers, that the Church has rough priests and coarse cardinals; I have known it ever since I was born. You fool! you had only to say, ‘Yes, it is rather a shame,’ and I should have forgotten the affair. But I saw on your mouth the twitch of your infernal sophistry; I knew that something was wrong with you and your cathedrals. Something is wrong; everything is wrong. You are not an angel. That is not a church. It is not the rightful king who has come home.”The thing that has always struck me most deeply about this passage is the part about good knights with bad tempers. I think, as Christians, we can be too ready to condemn those of our spiritual forefathers who have had faults. Martin Luther was prejudiced against Jews; Edmund Spenser may have oppressed the Irish; Thomas Aquinas made some poor philosophical choices. Atheists, taking the moral high ground, thunder at us about such things and we commit one of two errors in response. Sometimes--very occasionally--we defend the evil done by our own side. More often we curl up, concede every charge, and blackball the unfortunate target from our universities.
This is not entirely because we lack backbone. Far from it. We have a transcendant standard of right and wrong, absolute, inviolable, admitting no excuses. Because we stand for ultimate truth, beauty, and goodness, we draw our skirts away from anything that is evil, ugly, or untruthful. It is the enemy’s thing, and we are eager to let the enemy have it, to prove that it was never a thing of ours.
Unfortunately, in Solzhenitsyn’s wise words, the dividing line between good and evil cuts right through the human heart. Sin will be part of our experience until the Lord takes us home, and none of us is righteous. Does this mean the plans of God for His world will be frustrated? Will He fail in His purposes because His instruments are evil?
Good knights have bad tempers. And it is a shame, but it is no match for almighty grace.
3. Love and War
The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a book about war, a book about love (especially patriotic love), and a dramatically iconoclastic book about the necessity of both.
Eighty years into the future, the world has successfully suppressed patriotism when a surrealist humourist named Auberon Quin is quietly and routinely made King of England. On a whim, he immediately fabricates a pseudo-medieval system of boroughs, Lord Provosts, and halberdiers across the suburbs of London, since he fancies the idea of forcing dull businessmen to wear blazing medieval robes. Twenty years into the experiement, however, London is thrown into amazement when Adam Wayne, the young Lord Provost of Notting Hill, takes his role seriously. Wayne protests against a new highway being built through his suburb with an eloquent and impassioned speech on the sacred inviolability of Notting Hill. When the other Lord Provosts try force, Adam Wayne goes to war, and savage fighting breaks out in the streets of London, transforming them at once from dull commonplace suburbs into things that men can love enough to die for:
"I know of a magic wand, but it is a wand that only one or two may rightly use, and only seldom... But whatever is touched with it is never again wholly common. Whatever is touched with it takes a magic from outside the world. If I touch, with this fairy wand, the railways and the roads of Notting Hill, men will love them, and be afraid of them for ever.”And Adam Wayne points to his sword.
Notting Hill is the story of a war that brings London back to life, because it gives London a reason to fight. And it makes the highly politically incorrect argument that you cannot be a lover without also being a fighter. You cannot love a thing until you have faced death for it. And, “There were never any just wars but the religious wars,” a character says at one point.
A couple of months back I read Otto Scott’s brilliant, if somewhat nauseating biography James I: The Fool as King. In summing up this contemptible but dangerous man’s legacy Scott says, “His theory that peace can be purchased by cowardice helped move Europe into the Thirty Years’ War in his own day--and many more since.”
This is still a prevailing political theory, especially in Africa, where friends who have been there describe the United Nations as an army that only knows how to retreat. I am not endorsing war-mongering, empire-building, or intervention in foreign conflicts. However, it was once considered honourable for citizens to take up arms to protect their own family and community from a direct threat. Those days are long gone, and the reason is not that courage leads to war, but that according to prevailing Marxist philosophy, the state must have a monopoly on violence.
If The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be trusted, such a monopoly and such a policy of retreat is the opposite of love. But it also might explain something else. It might show a causal link between a disarmed and demoralised people, and the widespread contempt of country and heritage demonstrated by so many populations in the civilised world.
I could easily go on and discuss other lessons I’ve learned from Chesterton--the lesson of the Enchanted Commonplace, or the lesson of the Paradoxical Enthusiasms, or that of the Mirthful Creator. But I am already over my limit!
Most if not all Chesterton’s works are available for free in the public domain, and none of them are out of print. If you are interested in reading Chesterton, it may be easiest to start with his non-fiction: the wonderful Orthodoxy, or a volume of selected essays. His short stories are legendary for good reason; try the brilliant Father Brown mysteries, The Club of QueerTrades, or The Paradoxes of Mr Pond. Finally, his whimsical and visionary novels--The Napoleon of Notting Hill, TheMan Who Was Thursday, The Flying Inn, and The Ball and the Cross are my favourites--are essential reading for every Christian in this modernist world. I also recommend his poetry.
--Suzannah Rowntree, In Which I Read Vintage Novels