Blue Like Orthodoxy: When Donald Miller met G.K. Chesterton

Donald Miller recently offered this commendation of Chesterton to all of Christians:

Personalities like Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Kipling are gone now in the Christian world. Or at least they are unknown. Christian thinking is dominated by Americans who choose simplicity over reason. We like thinkers who pick an enemy and attack them. Lost is the humor, a winsome nature and even a robust intellectualism. The same figures who demand “thought” are hardly thinking at all, and instead attack those who do because they won’t submit to their linear, black-and-white view of life.

Now before I get going, I want to note my appreciation for this point.  People like Chesterton and Lewis are gone from the world and those of us who are admirers don’t come anywhere near them in stature or quality.  They saw things that we can only grasp the outlines of, which is why there is a cottage industry of trying to simply repeat what they said better than us all.

But it strikes me as, well, surprising that Miller is commending Chesterton so highly to us.  Especially given that in the same paragraph he chastises those inclined to exhort people toward thoughtfulness for attacking people because they “won’t submit to their linear, black-and-white view of life.”  Such titans are gone indeed, but Miller’s own approach isn’t going to bring them back.

Before I give my reasons for finding this all a bit amusing, though, I want to make sure my critique avoids Miller’s recently-articulated description of how internet critics operate: ”Somebody writes a “response” that is filled with vague, passive insults.”* Insults aren’t quite my thing, but I try to avoid vagueness and passivity at all costs too.  So let me be as clear as possible and take an aggressive stand:  I have read G.K. Chesterton, I have even written an introduction for a book by G.K. Chesterton, and Donald Miller is no G.K. Chesterton.Chesterton Orthodoxy

Consider the tacit critique of a “black-and-white” view of life.  To commend the opposite while lauding G.K. Chesterton so fundamentally misunderstands Chesterton’s outlook that the mind boggles.  Orthodoxy is a book written entirely for the purposes of describing Christianity’s sharp edges, her boundaries, her beautiful distinctions, over and against a host of fuzzy-headed competitors.  Chesterton may have approached things with a dazzling rhetorical brilliance, but he knew how an argument worked, as anyone who has slogged through The Everlasting Man would know.

But Chesterton lived and ate dogma, a word he seemed to have been abnormally interested in rehabilitating and that is no more popular these days.  After all, he knew the sharp edges mattered:  ”The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world.”  That’s from Orthodoxy.  But his most complete statement on the matter came at the end of his book he had the temerity to title Hereticswhere he named his contemporaries and proceeded to eviscerate them with his cheerful prose.  Chesterton is magical because he kept his sense of humor while using it at the expense of his intellectual foes.  He has his fun by attacking those with no interest in “black and white thinking.”  But that’s only an aside: I’ll let Chesterton sum up his own point in that section, as only he can:  ”Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas,” and “Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.”  

Now, compare all that with Blue Like Jazza book with a subtitle that sums up everything you need to know about it:  ”Nonreligious Thoughts about Spirituality.”  We critics only write vague criticisms, we’re told:  Miller made the New York Times peddling his form of vagueness.  (His subsequent work, which I have not read all of, is better but by no means more dogmatic.)

Or consider this bit, which Miller has recently sent out and which fits Chesterton’s way of doing things about as well as wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt to the LA Phil:

The fundamentalists want me to trust their truth. But I don’t. I look for truth. They sell confidence. Truth won’t make me proud.

I’d like to think that Miller was alluding to my own introduction to Orthodoxybut alas it didn’t come out until a day later.  But there I had this description of Chesterton’s work, which presents a slightly different picture of things:

[Chesterton's] sort of bold confidence has become uncomfortable to many of us only because it seems so unusual. We are more inclined to hide behind the safe, protective confines of “it seems” and “I think” and every other qualifier that traps us in our heads. Humility is a virtue, of course, and one that has always been on short supply. But contrary to what we might think, Chesterton’s outlook breeds a certain sort of self-suspicion rather than undermines it.  As he puts it, “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.”

Which is to say, Miller’s exactly right that the truth won’t make us proud, but he’s exactly wrong that it won’t make us confident.  Best just download Orthodoxy to see the rest of that introduction, as it only gets worse from there.  (Is this also an appropriate time to point to the subtitle of my new book and commend it to you as you might see fit?)

My point here isn’t to be mean or harsh or passive-aggressive, or whatever is wrong with internet commentators these days.  After all, if more of Miller’s substantial audience pick up Chesterton on his recommendation, we’d all be better for it.  And the praise actually gives me a sliver of hope that he’ll someday offer an Augustinian-style set of retractions and move himself closer to Chesterton’s way of looking at things.  (Miller and Chesterton are incredibly alike in one unfortunate respect:  they are both bad historians.  But that Miller took down that post also gives me hope!)

But Chesterton and Lewis were titans precisely because they affirmed their dogmas, because they held to them obstinately and tenaciously and somewhat pugnaciously, too.  It’s the lack of black-and-white thinking that breeds hubris and defensiveness and all the rottenness of the internet (save everywhere except these confines, I note cheerfully!), not the presence.  If Donald Miller and I meet on the happy plane where one of us must be right and the other hopelessly wrong, then we can have a good intellectual scrum and get on our way.  It’s clarity that allows differences to rise to the level of healthy disagreements; it’s fogs where things get lost and where people get hurt.  Ambiguity has its place in life and in art.  But that can only be a passing mood, a temporary phenomenon, for in the end when we finally see as we are Being Seen, our eyes will no longer be too dim to pierce the shadows.

*It’s impossible to know what prompted Miller’s thoughts on internet critics. But you can read Rachel Marie Stone for an interesting candidate, if you’re interested.

Update:  With apologies to my RSS readers.  I don’t know how I managed to send it down that pipe again, but there it went.

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  • http://mylifeonthebalancebeam.wordpress.com/ Jeremy Manuel

    I’ve read over this post a couple times, but feel that I’m missing the point. I’m not sure if the point is some swipe at Donald Miller or simply saying that his recommendation of Chesterton is weird because they don’t seem to agree. Maybe both? Maybe neither and your mind is just on all things Chesterton. I’m just not sure.

    Putting dogma and fundamentalism as the same thing, seems a stretch. You can adhere to dogma, even have confidence in dogma as truth, but still be wary of the truth that some fundamentalists (which looking at the tweet linked, there appears to be no target in particular except maybe Muslim fundamentalists) put forward. Such as certainty that certain disasters are caused by X, Y, or Z. Maybe he doesn’t agree with certainty that Chesterton puts forward, or maybe he does more than you think, but can still have a lack trust towards particular claims of certainty.

    Even if he doesn’t agree I guess the way I look at it, is it impossible to recommend someone who you may disagree with or not come to the same conclusion with? To me the answer is no. Sometimes I learn best by reading authors and theologians that I disagree with, rather than reading the safe people that I typically agree with. Or I can appreciate where they’re coming from or the way they write without buying into all they put forward.

    Truth be told I haven’t heard much of Donald’s dogma, it doesn’t seem to be where his focus tends to be, so it’s hard to know which is the case and you may know more about that. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have any, but I don’t think that’s the case. Maybe he even has dogma that I’d disagree with, he wouldn’t be the only one. I still enjoy reading his blog and I enjoyed the one book I have by him, which wasn’t Blue Like Jazz, even if I didn’t really like the tone of his blog post against critics. Granted, the post that is believed to have sparked that post wasn’t one I liked the tone of either, so to me nobody is really in the right on this one.

    Maybe this comment is too negative, I don’t know. If it is I apologize. My intention is just trying to come to an understanding of what this post was for, questioning some of the logic put forward, and perhaps maybe a bit of frustration. It seems like so many blogs out there are simply a critique of other bloggers, not the content of the blogs. Even this post seems to wobble a bit over those lines at times.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      No, no, your comment isn’t too “negative.” The pushback is welcome,

      Ahealthy, appropriate and so on. Your concern is well stated, and helpfully put.

      That said, my point is relatively straightforward: Miller commends Chesterton without realizing that, in fact, the entire trajectory of Chesterton’s thought stands opposed to Miller’s way of writing and operating. Isn’t that strange? Isn’t it odd for someone to bemoan the absence of figures like Chesterton and Lewis while simultaneously taking positions that, the argument goes, are antithetical to those Chesterton and Lewis fought for? In encouraging an “intellectualism,” don’t you think it important to be intellectual enough to realize that deep inconsistency?

      Which is to say, it’s not simply that he’s recommending an author despite a disagreement. That would be okay. It’s that *the reason* he recommended that author is so far off the mark that it is, frankly, laughable.

      As to your second paragraph, all very well put. I’d be thrilled if Miller would make those sorts of distinctions himself.

      Matt

      • http://mylifeonthebalancebeam.wordpress.com/ Jeremy Manuel

        Thanks for the response. I think I’m maybe getting it. The connection is between the idea that Chesterton and Lewis being consummate academics who fought for truth and certainty (at least in what is Mere Orthodoxy) and Miller seems to hold a suspicious view of academics (and at least certain types of certainty). So it seems laughable that Miller (assuming he does hold a suspicious view of academics) would lament that we don’t have men like Lewis and Chesterton. Is this more the right track?

        If that’s the point well. I’m still not sure what I think about it all. I don’t know as much about Chesterton, but Lewis seemed to try to talk about truth and everything in a way that average people would be able to understand. Also how many people who write works like Mere Christianity turn and write fiction books, particularly ones considered children’s literature? I can’t name many off my head.

        Maybe that’s part of the appeal that Miller sees here. Being scholarly can often have too little to do with accessibility, unless you are very intentional about it (and there are those who are). As a graduate of seminary, I often thought about this in the process. It often seemed that I was being taught how to be a professor or to know a lot of stuff more so than it was about relating with people and being able to take things to an understandable or practical level (some classes did do this, but too many didn’t). So if Miller’s worried about academics, I kind of understand why and I understand I could be part of that problem.

        Add all this to the fact that I don’t know enough about Miller’s positions on truth, what dogma he affirms, what his view on academics is, and what fundamentalism is to him and I’m just a little slower on the trigger I guess? You could be all right on the claims. Maybe at the end of the day it’s just easier to like someone who is dead and can’t twitter you back saying what they think of you or how different they are?

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Jeremy,

          It’s absolutely true that accessibility can be a virtue, and that Miller has that. The problem I am raising is not one of form *per se* but rather of substance. Miller is someone who seems to choose “simplicity over reason,” who has not demonstrated anything *close* to a “robust intellectualism” (that is *not* a claim about his intelligence at all, but rather about his public writing) and has, even in that above paragraph, taken a stance that seems obviously against dogma (what could be more “black and white” than the sharp propositions of the creeds?) while commending Chesterton.

          Do you see the glaring inconsistencies there?

          Matt

          • http://mylifeonthebalancebeam.wordpress.com/ Jeremy Manuel

            I guess bottom line I see a glaring inconsistency only if Miller declares all black and white arguments as invalid (ie content of the Nicene Creed). If that is the kind of black and white Miller is pitting himself against than I agree it is very inconsistent.

            The thing is I’m not particularly convinced that is what Miller means as black and white. It could be, or he could be talking about more peripheral issues that tend to be treated very black and white too. He could also be referencing the way in which we tend to dispense our rhetoric (which would explain the lack of humor and a winsome nature being something he misses from these men.)

            Don’t worry I’m not thinking that you’re attacking Miller’s intelligence. However, it seems like you want Donald Miller to be well someone other than Donald Miller. I don’t see him claiming to be a new Chesterton, I don’t see him as a guy I would go to for theology or doctrine (or even that he wants to be that guy). He is someone who asks questions, honest questions from his life experience. Maybe he knows too well that he isn’t cut out to produce “robust intellectualism,” and that’s why Lewis and Chesterton are needed today. It may be a fallacy to claim that people like this will never come again or that they aren’t here already, but I would agree that we do need people like them.

            Let’s just even throw Donald Miller out of the picture for a minute. I could totally see myself saying something like getting tired of people who see everything as black and white. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in doctrine, it means that I view some things as black and white, but other things not so much. So I could still say that I dislike the way people try to treat everything as black and white, but still very much appreciate Lewis and Chesterton for the certainty they bring to key issues. It would be pretty harsh for someone who doesn’t know me or my views to take that and assume I am against all dogma.

            A lot of the problem stems from Miller being quiet on what he does believe is black and white, and that silence allows the possibility that you have Miller pegged correctly. I’m just trying to refrain from filling in those blanks on my own as much as possible.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Jeremy,

            You’ve made the argument here really well. Thanks for pushing me further, as it’s given me a lot more clarity than I had before.

            I think there are two problems: one is that he is quiet about what he does believe is black and white, and the other is that much of his written work seems deliberately vague. I mean, that subtitle of Blue Like Jazz just *screams* deliberately avoiding putting himself in the middle of Christian orthodoxy and reflecting from that standpoint.

            The real question is why in telling us we need a “robust intellectualism” Miller himself seems to be contributing to an environment that trades on the opposite, namely a lack of clarity, distinctions, and so on. That just seems deeply inconsistent, and it’s that inconsistency that has gotten under my skin.

            Matt

          • http://mylifeonthebalancebeam.wordpress.com/ Jeremy Manuel

            Matt,

            I think those are very fair issues to raise. Personally, it doesn’t bother me all that much that Miller is deliberately vague. It’s the focus on the questions about life that he seems to be interested in raising, not so much the answering and also seems to be where his personal journey came from.

            Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste at that point though. To me it’s a good thing that Miller acknowledges we need a robust intellectualism even if he doesn’t personally provide it. Miller’s intentional vagueness attracts those who are asking the questions he’s asking, and may get them to think about and consider Christianity. If those type of people go to Chesterton or Lewis from Miller than that’s a great thing. He may always be one who gets under your skin, but that’s okay. I think we all have those authors.

            At that I think this discussion is pretty much wrapped up. It was a good discussion and I thank you for it. I think the points you just made are clear and fair. Much fairer than the picture painted in the post. Thanks again for the dialogue.

            Jeremy

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Jeremy,

            What can I say? Your first paragraph is precisely why I wrote my next book. I don’t disagree with a word you wrote…but I think the subject is a good deal more complex than that, as questions….well, they’re trickier than they seem.

            But: thanks again for pushing me on this. As I said, it’s been very helpful for me and I hope for you as well.

            Best,

            Matt

          • Chris Schumerth

            Let’s be honest here, some of Miller’s ambiguity is as much about being an author who’s trying not to isolate audience as it is about trying to avoid dogma because he thinks it’s bad.

      • Chris Schumerth

        I think I would go even further than you are in my complaint about Miller (and again, there are *some* things I like about him). I guess I don’t think he succeeds in being dogma-less because I don’t think such a thing is even possible, try as our generation does. What we do instead is create inconsistent, incoherent dogma. That said, I don’t suppose there’s any way of asking DM to respond to the concerns of this post is there?

  • David Hoffelmeyer

    I can agree that Mr. Miller’s statements about truth can rub me the wrong way as a reformed evangelical, but as a college student, his books were hugely important in my early walk with Christ.

    I think more time could be spent praising Don Miller for what he has set out to do– to communicate the gospel to a postmodern culture. Sure, he’s made mistakes, but he’s trying, and, at least in my case, his writing has been an immense blessing. An honest critique can be a good thing, but at least give the man some more credit for what a wonderful contribution he has made to the church.

    I guess to sum up the comment, I would say we should judge a person’s writing primarily based upon what they are trying to accomplish. Miller is obviously not trying to write theological treatises so much as he writes invitations for postmoderns to reconsider Jesus, and for churched Christians to reconsider their attitudes toward culture, their lost friends, and Jesus himself. I think Miller’s pretty good at that.

    • Dan

      What exactly is DM trying to accomplish? I’ve read his work and seen him speak. I’ve read GKC, CSL, and MLA ;) and I’m fairly certain I can articulate in most cases what each was trying to accomplish in their various works. Even when DM tells me “What Im trying to say is….” I personally still struggle with understanding.

      DJ|AMDG

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      As someone who writes things, I wish that was the standard that would be applied. However, that standard doesn’t work, as it leads to all sorts of strange psychologizations of authors (see C.S. Lewis’s *An Experiment in Criticism* for problems about this) and it doesn’t adequately account for the responsibilities those who write have to actually execute on their work.

      Which is to say, good intentions are simply not enough, in writing or in anything else.

      Matt

      • David Hoffelmeyer

        Good point. I still like Don Miller, though. :-)

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Fair enough! I’m sure I’d like him too, if I met him! : )

  • Guest

    Great post, if for no other reason than now I know a new person named Rachel with 3 names! RMS is fantastic!

    • RachelMarieStone

      Why, thank you! And “a new person named Rachel with 3 names” made me laugh out loud.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I think you have a point, but I think you are over playing your point. And over playing in a way that goes against your general thrust of writing.

    My guess (and it is only a guess) is that what Miller likes about Lewis and Chesterton and the sort is that they were winsome in their dogma. It is not that they don’t have any dogma at all. But increasingly we are moving toward a culture that values harsh rhetoric as a method ‘of love’.

    Certainly there are points where Chesterton is direct and to the point and defends truth. But Chesterton (at least what I have read) is not mean when he does it. In fact, several places I pulled quotes from Chesterton in a talk I did on how to disagree well precisely because he bent over backward to not be either mean or misconstrue the other’s point.

    Likewise Lewis seems to attempt to add humor into his argument particularly for the purpose of getting the opponent to listen.

    I have read enough of your blog posts and other writing to know that you value good engagement and truth, but not at the cost of vilifying the other. But it seems here, Miller is encouraging people to read old authors and authors that you approve of, but you disputting why he is encouraging people to read them. It feels like you are suggesting that Miller is not smart enough to actually understand what Chesterton is saying. And while that may be indirectly what you are suggesting, it seems a petty way to get the point across.

    I don’t think you are petty or condescending when I read you. But that is the tone that I feel when I read this piece.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Adam. The critique means a lot coming from you. I want to sort through it longer, but let me offer a couple of quick clarifications.

      First, I was aiming at the sort of lighthearted skewering that Chesterton practiced so well in Heretics and elsewhere, a form of prose that we are not much familiar with anymore. I may have missed on the execution, but that was the goal.

      Second, I don’t actually want to suggest at all that he is not smart enough to understand what Chesterton is saying. Only that he doesn’t seem to have understood it, given that he commends him for the opposite of what he stands for.

      Additionally, I really want to say something like, “If what Donald Miller loves about Chesterton is winsomeness in being dogmatic, great! That’s why I love Chesterton. But then why has Miller given us lots of winsomeness (or at least approachable authenticity) and no dogma at all)?

      But I really want to be careful: I’m not making a claim about anyone’s intelligence at all.

      Matt

      • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

        Honestly Matt, I think you are setting too high of a standard. You are a public intellectual (in all of the positive senses of that word). You are attempting to do follow in Chesterton’s footsteps and I think you are doing a good job. You think through your arguments and you are consistent, even when difficult. But I don’t think it is an insult to Miller to say that he is not attempting to be a public intellectual. I agree that he says things publicly that are not always useful or helpful. But to hold him to your own standards I think misreads his God given gifts as an author.

        Lewis moved fairly seamlessly from fiction to public intellectual to academic but that is a rare trait. (And he certainly had his own share of weaknesses.)

        I think we need people like Miller to raise questions. He is not great about answering them. But that is why we have people like you that emphasize the need for answers. I agree Miller is weak on the dogma parts of Christianity. But in most ways I think that is asking for him to have a set of writing gifts he just doesn’t have. That is not to minimize the gifts he does have, just to point out that it is a weakness in the context of other strengths.

        If all Christians were public intellectuals (as much fun as I would have reading them and engaging with them from my introvert’s computer desk in the corner), it would leave us with a weaker Church (big C).

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Adam,

          That may be. However, I think there’s a minimal standard of accuracy that we should have as writers, and the above excerpts pretty clearly fail.

          What’s more, I am saying *nothing* about Miller’s other many gifts and talents, which are obviously in considerably higher demand than my own. However, we shouldn’t excuse baseball players for saying wrong things in public because they’re good at hitting baseballs, and I don’t think it’s fair to point to Miller’s “strengths” and give him a pass for saying things that are manifestly wrong.

          If I start speaking about physics, a subject on which I know very little, and get it wrong and say contradictory things in the same paragraph, that’s not a reflection of my intelligence. But if everyone smiles and nods and lets me go on because I happen to…well, I’m not sure what I’m good at. But you get the point. : )

          • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

            I went back and read the original post that you first cite of Miller’s. In many ways I think I am even more disappointed in Miller than you are, not because of specifics that he gets wrong about Chesterton, but because of the nostalgia of the ‘there will never be thinkers like those again.’

            There are all kinds of public thinkers that are equal to Lewis and Chesterton. They are not exactly like them because the times have changed. But the Lord has not withdrawn wisdom and ‘winsomeness’ from the world. Nostalgia is my pet-peeve.

            But about your point, I mostly agree. I don’t think people should get a free pass when speaking outside of their areas. People should be extremely humble and modest in their statements about things that are not their specialty. Willingness to speak about things one does not know anything about it certainly the root of many problems in the world (one could call it pride and sin if one wanted to.)

            But I also don’t give much weight to people speaking outside of their strengths either. So a baseball player is not going to be as correct as a physicist when speaking about string theory (in general). So with less expertise we should give more grace to those that speak out of their areas. That does not excuse everything. But grace is not about what we earn; grace is about the giver.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Well, Mille and I agree completely about the absence of thinkers like Chesterton and Lewis. I have been reading Lewis’s diaries from when he was 22 lately and I am totally convinced we won’t see the likes of him in my lifetime, for a variety fo reasons.

            The reason why I gave “weight” to Miller is largely because of his audience. If he had been some guy on a blog, I would have ignored him. With big platforms come bigger responsibilities, I think.

          • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

            While I accept the Spiderman thesis, I don’t think we have to engage just because we can engage.

            I also think you are short changing the world to think that there are no equivalent thinkers today. We may not know of them right now. That does not mean they don’t exist.

          • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

            Well after thinking about it for a day and looking at my own online behavior today, it is a lot easier to engage than not engage when you see outrageous behavior.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Heh. Well, hopefully the “outrageous behavior” you’ve engaged with hasn’t been my own here at Mere-O! I may be wrong, but I hope I’m not outrageously wrong! : )

          • http://ryanmarkrichardson.wordpress.com/ Ryan Mark Richardson

            FWIW – I’m not sure how Marilynne Robinson’s name has not been dropped in the above conversation. While not exactly prolific, both her fiction and essays are superb. Though I wouldn’t put her in the category of Lewis, I think that is mainly due to her lack of material more than a lack in depth or quality.

          • Chris Schumerth

            What about Wendell Berry?

          • Chris Schumerth

            N.T. Wright?

          • Chris Schumerth

            Lauren Winner?

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            No, no, and really!? I mean, they’re all great in their own way. But none of them come close to the stature of Lewis and Chesterton.

            Read Lewis’s diaries from when he was 24. Really. It’s his diary as a young man and his descriptions are as good as anything I’ve ready by Berry, who is probably the best of the above.

          • Chris Schumerth

            You may be right, and I don’t know Wright’s story as well as the other two, but both Berry and Winner put forth some pretty good work in their twenties/thirties.

          • Chris Schumerth

            I suppose I also wonder — and this is an honest question, not an attempt to pin you — if you (we) are noticing the “stature” of Chesterton and Lewis from the benefit of hindsight. Did their contemporaries see them the way we did? I suspect that future generations will at least look back at Berry with that kind of awe.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Maybe. But count me skeptical. Berry is, as I said, good. But he simply doesn’t have the depth of Lewis. Lewis channels and refashions in a unique way the western Christian tradition in a way that Berry simply doesn’t. Check out Michael Ward’s *Planet Narnia,* for instance. There are depths to even Lewis’s children’s stories that today’s lights don’t come close to, regardless of how good they are. Chesterton is different in that respect, but as a wordsmith is unparalleled in his own right. And *The Everlasting Man* is, as an argument, more sophisticated and impressive than anything Berry has done.

            So I don’t think it’s history. I think if you put their work side-by-side, the differences become pretty obvious.

            Matt

          • Chris Schumerth

            I’m curious: how much Berry have you read?

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Several of his non-fiction books, Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow. Enough to recognize that he’s good, but also to recognize that (as I claimed to Adam below) he’s by no means at the literary stature of Lewis. (And FWIW, I think Lewis’s best book was the most heavily influenced by someone *else,* namely Till We Have Faces, which Joy assisted with a good deal.)

          • Chris Schumerth

            Again, I’ll say maybe you’re right, but you’re making a lot of generalizations here. I think we need to make distinctions for what we’re talking about here. For example, I’m more of an English person (at least by profession) than I am a theologian or philosopher (although of course, we’re all theologians and philosophers), and I would say that Berry is probably a better novelist and poet than Lewis (and I suspect Chesterton, too). So maybe Lewis is a better theologian/philosopher/thinker, although I’d say Berry’s pretty good in his own right in those areas, too. I have read (and very much liked Till We Have Faces), by the way.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            There’s probably something to that. Lewis may have let his great learning get in the way of becoming a proper novelist. (And Berry is *absolutely* a better novelist than Chesterton. Chesterton knew he was second-rate, and he didn’t mind.)

            But still, someone *just* sent along this about how Lewis describes the couch in the Horse and His Boy: bit.ly/10M5HVU

            This is why I say Lewis had a mind and learning that no one has today.

            Matt

          • RachelMarieStone

            Marilynne. Robinson.

  • Micah Harris

    Matthew,

    It’s funny that you picked up on that one. I’m a fan of both Donald Miller and G.K. Chesterton so, naturally, I read it. But, personally, I cringed at Miller’s post because he was graceless in bemoaning the loss of gracious intellectuals. (I can see you’re trying to walk this line a bit better in your response.)

    Still, I find it wearisome that people criticize Miller so heavily for the lack of a clear doctrine in his books. Isn’t Miller’s approach a valid choice for writers — even for Christians who write about the experience of being Christian?

    I would love to see more grace extended between the theologians and the experientialists (is that a word?). Mr. Miller lives on the experiential side of this divide and, this post notwithstanding, he seems to extend more grace than he receives from his theological peers.

    This is doubtless a weak posting from Miller — part of a culture that requires constant posts from its writers whether or not the writers have something worth posting.

    I think you’ve engaged Miller at his weakest. But please tag me in your post when you engage him at his strongest. That will be a worthy matching of the minds.

    Thanks for posting.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Micah,

      Thanks for the feedback. I think there is something to writing existentially, as you put it, but in Miller’s case the experiential seems to be used to undermine the role of dogma rather than go along with it.

      Matt

      • http://themchadley.wordpress.com/ Michael Hadley

        The thing with Miller and his little love for dogma is that he sees what the system does to the people on the fringes. Tradition for tradition’s sake is hurtful to the people coming in and to moving forward to interact with the current culture. Christian scholar Jaroslav Pelikan said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

        That being said, I don’t think it’s something we throw out. It’s important to remember where we come from and what we believe. You have to find a balance between the two I believe. When we want to answer everything, we’ll end up coming up with a lot of….I don’t know or because that’s what God said etc. A little bit of uncertainty isn’t a bad thing. The thing I think they have in common is that Lewis, Chesterton and Miller all allow for the wonder of God and the wonder of the Divine. Maybe Miller takes it a bit too far, but maybe not.

        In Prince Caspian Lucy remarks to Aslan that he is bigger than when she last saw him. He replies, That is because you are older, little one. She asks, but you are not? And he replies again, I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

        I think our understanding of God should be that He is much too big to understand. So in someway a little existentialism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And I agree with the comment above. This is Miller taking a weak point and that happens. He is a weak, fallible man who wasn’t perfect. Just as Lewis and Chesterton were as well.

        I hope this hasn’t seemed combative. I just wanted to bring some balance this. I enjoy all three authors myself as well. And if this made no sense or missed the point I apologize. :)

        • Hermonta Godwin

          “I think our understanding of God should be that He is much too big to
          understand. So in someway a little existentialism isn’t necessarily a
          bad thing.”

          The traditional way to talk about knowing God is that He is too big to be comprehended but we are still able to know Him truly. The Prince Caspian quote is consistent with this view. We know God from early on but as we grow in our faith, we see more that we don’t know. Yet, we still are able to say that we knew God truly from the beginning.

    • http://ryanmarkrichardson.wordpress.com/ Ryan Mark Richardson

      Micah,

      One thing I think that should be a caution in the experiential-theologian divide is that, according to the Fall our reason and ability to interpret our experiences has been marred. And so while it is a valid position for writers, the caution has to come in that, when writing about Christianity, the experience has to be seen in light of Scripture and well-grounded theology that leads us to worship and honor God. I think good examples of this can be found in Augustine’s Confessions and in many of Bonhoeffer’s teachings and writings.

      So, maybe Miller has been “engaged at his weakest (his doctrine?),” but I think it is an interesting point of consideration that your suggestion of his strongest (the experiential?), should be colored by something beyond just that – and that would hopefully be Scriptural, theological doctrine.

      • Micah Harris

        Ryan,

        I take your point about marred reason (although I think marred reason poisons theology even more than experiential writings). Just for clarity by “engaging Miller at his weakest” I meant that Matthew is pouncing on a rather crappy, ungracious internet posting by Miller rather than engaging some of Miller’s better writings. For all the portraits that disillusioned evangelicals paint of their former churches, BLJ is one of the most gracious. I find it surprisingly devoid of bitterness and gentle in it’s critique.

        I hope that makes sense.

        Micah

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          FWIW, I did mention his most famous piece of writing because I think it’s indicative of the sort of project that seems (to me) to run directly contrary to Chesterton’s outlook.

        • http://ryanmarkrichardson.wordpress.com/ Ryan Mark Richardson

          Perfect sense, Micah, and I definitely agree with you. I think most modern excuses for apologetics demonstrate your point in parens quite well actually.

          And to give Miller credit in the regard that you just did, I did appreciate his mostly positive critique on things in a world that has devolved into cynical apathy. The narrative of BLJ was actually very enjoyable, though I did take issue that it was experiential in nature. But such is our postmodern world.

  • Ryan Lunde

    Here’s hoping Miller takes you up on those “Augustinian-style set of retractions”

  • LaughingTulkas

    This was a very interesting post that I very much enjoyed reading. The main thrust of it was clear right off the bat, but I did appreciated the “Chesteronian” way you continued the point and tried to drive it home.

    I do think that the popularity of authors like Donald Miller and the dearth of thinkers and authors like Lewis and Chesterton are related phenomena. Donald Miller is not just trying to reach a post-modern culture, but is a product of it, whereas Chesterton and Lewis were no such thing. Miller lives “below the line of despair,” to borrow a Schaefferian phrase, and essentially preaches a Christian existentialism. The question though is: if you don’t truly believe in antithesis, can’t you support a person who thoughts are the antithesis of your own without it being ridiculous? Since DM is so against black/white thinking, can he not support people diametrically against his own thinking without being inconsistent? :D

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      You’ve nailed the question: my intuition is that it’s impossible to have a Chesterton or a Lewis without the underlying understanding of the world that produced them, an understanding of the world that Miller opposes in every example I cited above.

      • SJ theivorylighthouse.blogspot

        I’m not sure how different we would have seen G.K.C and Lewis from DM had we lived in their time. My experience with Chesterton is frightfully small (I’ve only read “A Man Called Thursday”), but from what I know of Lewis, he was considered a bit of a wild card. Remember, Lewis was writing cute little children’s novels in an age of stanch christian rationalism, in a church(his being the church of England) with no modern worship music, 3 hour sermons read from 18th century commentaries, and a vastly different view on prayer. On top of that, his strange (BRILLIANT) commentaries on hell and ‘joy,’ make me think we might also view Lewis as, relative to the time, a “fuzzy” theologian.

        We are moving out of a time of rationalism, but I don’t think we are the first generation its hit. Quite frankly this blog collects the odd demographic of people who still like to think in the patterns of dogma and argument. While I have quite a few qualms with Miller’s meta-dogma I have to question whether his lack of concrete presuppositions is necessarily wrong. He speaks a language of today’s people, and manages to make a compelling argument for the gospel….in his none argumentative way. Do we expect the tribal people of Brazil to learn English to hear the good news? Further, once converted, do we then expect them to learn English?

        My one real criticism to Miller would be his haphazard style of picking and choosing. Of liking one school of thought (out of context) and then moving on to whatever suits his fancy. There is something basic to learn about wrestling with an author even his Post-Modern sensibilities should grasp.

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Lewis had a training that none of us have. And so did Chesterton. They weren’t isolated geniuses–if you read their peers, it’s pretty clear that Lewis and Chesterton were in part products of their time, only the education they all received was considerably better than our own.

        • LaughingTulkas

          One can abandon “rationalism” without abandoning a God who is “rational.” Rationalistic humanism, which many in the church espoused, is in error, and should be opposed, but our God is not irrational. He is consistent, unchanging, and choses to communicate to us in propositional truth.

          Your criticism of Miller is that his choices are not consistent, that is, that they are irrational. This is in direct contrast to both Chesterton and Lewis, who were extremely rational and dedicated a large portion of their writing to explaining the rationality of the gospel.

          My original point was that although GKC and CSL would definitely see themselves opposed to Miller (since this would be irrational) Miller might not see any conflict because he already embraces inconsistency and irrationality. So from his point of view, endorsing thinkers in direct logical opposition to himself causes no problem. :)

  • wmrharris

    This strikes me far more as an argument with a shadow; Miller’s purpose seemed much lighter than the reaction it provoked. This was not advanced as an argument so much as an introduction to a video, where Miller explained why he found it interesting (and why a reader might, as well).

    That this should be read as a sort of casual introduction is further underscored by the commonplace nature of the observation as to evangelical polemicists. Simplistic, bombastic, lacking humor — maybe it’s the Reformed circles I walk in, but that critique sees to come with the territory. And what is more, such critics invariably do clothe themselves with the posture of a Chesterton or some other Valiant-for-Truth type.

    Your later comment about truth I think also suggests why Miller finds Chesterton and Lewis appealing. The point about pride spoke to the manner of polemics. When it is framed as a one-way conversation then the speech easily turns to externals of the message, a sort of nominalism that easily decays externals, hence one sells confidence. It’s partisanship. By contrast, what good apologists like Chesternton or Lewis do is to open up a space for the other by wit and graciousness. Our thoughts, our words, our lives must all finally coinhere.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      That’s officially the first time anyone has accused me of being “simplistic!”

      And for what it’s worth, I could have pulled a lot more examples of Miller saying things that just don’t hold up under scrutiny, as when he offered his advice to the pro-life movement that included not caricaturing people….while caricaturing the people he was offering advice to. I pointed to Blue Like Jazz because as a substantive work, it’s a pretty good example of deliberate obfuscation!

      And it’s funny because what you call “graciousness” on Chesterton’s part would get him flayed today for being mean-spirited, nasty, and so on. He called people *heretics*, after all.

      Best,

      Matt

  • Steve Lichty

    Matthew, you say, “It’s the lack of black-and-white thinking that breeds hubris and defensiveness and all the rottenness of the internet (save everywhere except these confines, I note cheerfully!), not the presence.” Can you flesh this out? It is counter intuitive to what I think, feel and have experienced, plus I know several authors that would argue the exact opposite. Thought I would get your insight first though.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Steve,

      Yeah..I do need to flesh that out. Can I do something terrible, though, and point you to my forthcoming book *first*? It’s only that this claim depends upon a lot of the work that I do there, and I’m not sure I’m yet ready to rewrite it all here….yet. : )

      Matt

  • Chris Schumerth

    Thanks for this. Like most Christians in my generation, I’ve regrettably read more Miller than Chesterton, and I don’t completely dislike Miller, but I’ll say that his Facebook posts and blog posts do often irk me for so many reasons. Thanks for taking him on with what I think was a generosity of spirit.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Chris! I appreciate that!

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  • Francis J. Beckwith

    “The same figures who demand “thought” are hardly thinking at all, and instead attack those who do because they won’t submit to their linear, black-and-white view of life.’

    I get it: the world is divided between those who have black-and-white thinking, and those who don’t.