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.
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 Heretics, where 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 Jazz, a 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 Orthodoxy, but 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.