When one begins to read the works of G.K. Chesterton, the first impression is that the man has a way with words. If anyone claims any other first impression, it might very well signify that the person has not yet learned to read, for this much, at least, is obvious even to those who fervently disagree with him—who might claim that his competency masks his ignorance. He was the master, so it is said, of the epigram. He possessed the uncanny ability to take almost any phrase, turn it on its head, and make it dance; to take any idea, no matter how prosaic, and turn it to poetry. If a debate over some great issue ever turned into nothing more than a battle of clever phrase-turning (which, in fact, seems to be the case much of the time), there is little doubt that Chesterton would come out looking very large (pun very much intended, for Chesterton was a famously massive individual, both in terms of girth and in literary accomplishment), while making his opponent, or his opponent's ideas, seem very, very small.
While there is certainly something admirable about Chesterton's way with words, a certain clarification must be made: There is a very real difference between an accomplishment with words and an accomplishment of ideas, just as there is a difference between the concrete and the abstract. If there was no such distinction, I might be just as influenced in my ideas by Shakespeare, Shaw or Wilde as I am by Chesterton. But as much as Chesterton's ability to string together a fanciful sentence makes his words eminently readable, it is the heart of his ideology that make his words worth reading in the first place. Words may have some value on their own, but no words are more lasting than those that convey something true. This is why no mere nursery rhyme will ever have the lasting value of the Psalms, just as no romantic novel will ever compare to the Song of Solomon.
There are far more than words in many of Chesterton's works (I cannot say for certain that this holds true universally, as I'm not certain that even Chesterton has read his complete works; and the prolific nature of his writing certainly led to the occasional worthless essay or droning novel, worth little more than the paper on which it was printed). Hidden beneath the clever sentences and the endless epigrams is something missing from most eminent writers: there are often very real (and very consistent, which is no small achievement) ideas. Very important ideas.
There is nothing superficial, for example, about the steady progression of logical and reasonable leaps that make up Chesterton's seminal apologetic work, The Everlasting Man, which uses anthropology and history to show the futility of humanism. There is far more within the pages of Orthodoxy than clever sentences.
Even much of his fiction is founded very much on truth, for one of the underpinnings of Chesterton's entire philosophy was that there was often more truth found in myths and fantasies than in “proper” history, for in fantasy the truth of the soul is revealed, while a book of history only says anything about a person's ability to perform some research. There is something truly human in fiction—even the most fantastic fiction—that is necessarily absent from even the most accomplished work of history. I, for one, have probably found far more value and inspiration in Chesterton's little-remembered novel The Ball and the Cross than from any work of theology.
The Ball and the Cross is, in part, a work of pure fantasy, opening with a fanciful scene of a futuristic flying machine, driven by a demon, soaring over the streets of London and ends with the dramatic rescue of an angelic being from an insane asylum. There is never a sense that the events of the story are anything but an allegory, and yet, as is the hallmark of any good allegory, one cannot help but believe every word. Between these fantastic bookends is the story of two men, a devout Christian and a devout atheist, whose attempts to kill one another over their ideological differences leads to a tremendous friendship and the realization that the true enemy is a world that no longer cares; a message that has never stopped resonating. It is as searing an indictment against the apathy of our present world as against that of 19th century London.
Not to be ignored are Chesterton's Father Brown stories and perhaps his most well known novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. The larger and more lasting themes of these works may be less overt, but they are there, certainly, hiding just beneath the wit and cleverness of the words.
It is fair to wonder why I should mention so much about Chesterton’s works and so little about his life or personality. When I wrote previously about Malcolm Muggeridge I wrote almost exclusively about his story and what it meant to his theology. The reason is simple: When I consider Muggeridge, it is as a man inseparable from his life; his theology was a direct result of the events that shaped them. With Chesterton, there is certainly a life there—and an interesting one—but when I think of Chesterton I do not think of his life; I think of his words.
Still, there are many similarities between Muggeridge and Chesterton, which others have described at length. Both were British. Neither was raised in a particularly religious home, both, after accepting the truths of Christianity, began as Protestants and later converted to Catholicism. Both were inveterate journalists, making their living as "Vendors of Words." Chesterton died before he had reason to know anything of Muggeridge though it is fair to say that Muggeridge was, at least in part, influenced by Chesterton (though his reviews of Chesterton’s works are often quite mixed). “The only time I ever saw him in the flesh,” Muggeridge wrote, “he was seated outside The Ship Hotel at Brighton shortly before he died. His canvas chair looked preposterously small, as did a yellow-covered thriller he was reading. It was a windy day, and I half-expected him to be carried away. Though so huge, he seemed to have no substance: more a balloon than an elephant.”
Muggeridge would have been the first to note that the differences between he and Chesterton were stark (though, somehow, without being contradictory): Muggeridge was, even at his wittiest moments, almost endlessly solemn, while Chesterton could make light of even the most serious of issues (as is evident in his book Eugenics and Other Evils). Muggeridge excelled in taking the things that humanity finds great—governments, pleasures, wealth—and made them appear very small and worthless, for he knew that all earthly kingdoms pales in comparison to the Kingdom of God, while Chesterton considered things that were seemingly small and insignificant and made them appear very big and important.
The most perfect example of this tendency—which permeates almost all of his writings—is found in the collection of essays known, appropriately, as Tremendous Trifles. Chesterton explores all sorts of seemingly mundane things and shows his readers that they are really very important, for in them one can discover great truths, both about men and about God.
On trying to purchase a piece of brown paper on which to draw, he writes: “I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only liked brown paper, but liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I liked the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer, or in the peat-streams of the north. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-colored chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness.”
On the inviting prospect of drawing on his ceiling while lying in bed, he writes: “Nowhere did I find a really clear place for sketching until this occasion when I prolonged beyond the proper limit the process of lying on my back in bed. Then the light of that white heaven broke upon my vision, that breadth of mere white which is indeed almost the definition of Paradise, since it means purity and also means freedom. But alas! Like all heavens, now that it is seen it is found to be unattainable; it looks more austere and more distant than the blue sky outside the window. For my proposal to paint on it with the bristly end of a broom has been discouraged—never mind by whom; by a person debarred from all political rights—and even my minor proposal to put the other end of the broom into the kitchen fire and turn it into charcoal has not been conceded... I am sure that it was only because Michelangelo was engaged in the ancient and honourable occupation of lying in bed that he ever realised how the roof of the Sistene Chapel might be made into an awful imitation of a divine drama that could only be acted in the heavens.”
This was all meant, obviously, in good humor—for Chesterton was tremendous at making light of things while at the same time ensuring that the world is loved and seen as the brilliant place it is. His purpose, always, was to remind his readers that: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” This is where Chesterton’s theology begins and ends: with hope and happiness and the knowledge that this place, as the creation of God, does not merely offer the occasional miracle, but is, in itself, one endless miracle that goes, far too often, overlooked. That is the truth that he was endlessly revealing through his words.
The same joy and wonder he found in the world around him, Chesterton found ten-fold in the person of Christ. Chesterton realized that Christianity is not, as so many have said, a religion of woe or mourning. It is not a religion that makes one dwell on their sins or compels them to reject all earthly pleasures. “Joy,” he begins the closing passage of Orthodoxy, “which is the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men who they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was mirth.”