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Chesterton’s Infuriating Style, or, Defending Chesterton against the Lewisians

May 2nd, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The increasingly prominent and popular (as well as uncannily accurate!) Dawn Eden pointed out a discussion about Chesterton at the Relevant Magazine message boards.

A number of writers vented frustration at Chesterton’s style, so I penned the following response in his defense:

I’m a new poster here myself, but I’ve read a lot of Chesterton so thought I would jump to his defense.

A lot of people read him, don’t like his style, and then put him away. The challenge of reading Chesterton (especially his non-fiction) is that he turns a phrase so well, it’s hard to follow his argument. He’s making lots of intuitive logical leaps, but cloaking them in parallel constructions and images. In many ways, he’s saying the same things Lewis would say a generation later. As a lone Chesterton fan among lots of Lewisians, I would often tease my friends by pointing out that Lewis is simply translating Chesterton for the rest of us. As it is, I had to read Orthodoxy four times before I quit getting hung up on his phrases (as they’re so profound!), and instead was able to see the masterful argument he’s weaving through the whole book.

I think it’s important to point out, though, that Chesterton’s style is as much of his argument as his argument. To put it stupdily, you can’t separate his form and content. He’s responding to a lot of German ideas and British thinkers who have ingested a lot of Nietsche (Shaw), and whose arguments are just as aesthetically sensitive as Chesterton’s. I read Orthodoxy as offering a Christian response to Nietsche in particular.

What makes Chesterton so valuable for our age, then, is this particularly aesthetic quality. When I want people to hear the arguments for Christianity, I hand them Mere Christianity. But when I want them to gain a vision for how beautiful Christianity makes the world, how romantic Christianity makes the world, how stirring it makes the world (which is far more often), I hand them Orthodoxy. Chesterton really wanted to fuse poetry and prose, and he succeeded more than any other author in English. I’ve heard from a Chesterton scholar that he is the second most-quoted English-speaking author, after Shakespeare.

Blah, blah. I’m obviously on a soapbox, and for that I apologize. Having to defend the greatness of Chesterton against the Lewisians makes me far too defensive. Apologies. : )