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. : )

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. Your link to the Dawn Patrol is to another blog of the same name. It should be http://www.dawnpatrol.com/blogger.html

    I enjoy Chesterton but can only read him in small doses because his chiastic sentence structure and love of paradox makes his sentences as predictable as U2 lyrics. It’s actually a fun game to read the first half of a sentence, look up at the semi-colon, and the guess second half. Of course it is very poetic; but after three such sentences in a row the rhythm is so established that you feel like you’re reading limericks without line breaks.

    Of course he is the most quoted, because his form (inseparable as it is from matter) encourages the reader to remember his lines as bon mots, as you acknowledged, and he should not merely be admired as an author of “sententiae”. Indeed he anticipated our current milieu by encapsulating his thoughts in sound-bites that are alternatively wistful and withering, but his endless cleverness becomes (dare I say) tedious.

    I find Dr. Johnson’s description of Hudibras — Samuel Butler’s mock-epic poem comprised of witty couplets, or “that great number of sententious distichs, which have passed into conversation, and are added as proverbial axioms to the general stock of practical knowledge” — equally applicable to reading Chesterton:

    “If inexhaustible wit could give perpetual pleasure, no eye would ever leave half-read the work of Butler; for what poet has ever brought so many remote images so happily together? It is scarcely possible to peruse a page without finding some association of images that was never found before. By the first paragraph the reader is amused, by the next he is delighted, and by a few more strained to astonishment; but astonishment is a toilsome pleasure; he is soon weary of wondering, and longs to be diverted.”

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  2. Thanks for posting this. Chesterton doesn’t seem to find many defenders these days. I love GK. And given the choice between him and Lewis, I must say that I pick Chesterton every time. When you get down to it, I think that the best way to think about them is to ask yourself “Which of these men would I rather have a beer with?” I can only imagine a madman picking Lewis.

    I think that people lump the two together in weird ways though. In my mind they served different purposes. Lewis seems to serve more to refine Christians, and make them think about their faith. Chesterton serves as an interface with the unbelievers. He challenges their world views and defends ours. What I am getting at, is that while Lewis undoubtedly made me a better Christian, GK kept me in the fold when I looked longingly at the other side.

    Thus I think that I owe GK more, and if I can come anywhere near emulating him in my life, then I will have succeeded.

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  3. Al writes that “Chesterton serves as an interface with the unbelievers.”

    I agree. Orthodoxy was the best gift I could think of for a friend who was moving to do full-time campus ministry for three years. With all the talk these days about evangelism requiring not just arguments but the communication of a compelling “narrative”, I can’t help thinking that’s exactly what GKC did in Orthodoxy.

    Matt said it best when he wrote “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.”

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  4. makelovehappen May 4, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    Style is definitely GK Chesterton’s greatest strength.

    Although sometimes I wonder to what extent he is “owning” the style and how much of it is him trying to “get somewhere”.

    If you find the desire for the task, I would be interested in reading a post about the extent to which Chesterton identified with his characters.

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  5. Gents,

    Thanks for the comments. I haven’t fixed the link yet–forthcoming.

    Jon,

    I hope the critique doesn’t fit Chesterton. There is a numbing effect to his writing–after a while, I fail to notice most of his witticisms, and start to think more about his subject.

    Al,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree about the beer, and about emulating Chesterton. To have that much wonder and fascination and joy is a great gift indeed.

    MakeLoveHappen,

    Thanks also. I’ll see what I can come up with for that post. : ) I am reading through ManAlive again, which would provide lots of fodder for it….

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  6. About GK’s characters: I’m about 3/4 of the way through his Autobiography now. It has some great stuff on the characters that he has written about, and where they came from.

    Most enlightening was his explanation of Sunday from The Man Who Was Thursday.

    I only wish that I had read Napoleon of Notting Hill before now, as I am sure that section would have been much more interesting if that had been the case.

    Al

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