An introduction to Chesterton is old hat for Mere O readers. But I’m posting this because this is the draft of a talk I plan to give as an intro to GKC when I lead a reading group at my church through Orthodoxy later this year. The typical group member likely has not read Chesterton themselves and may not even have heard of him prior to the group. So this is meant to be a way of getting people ready to read Chesterton so that they’re prepared for some of the difficulty (his style as well as cultural references) while also being made aware of the delights of reading him. If you have thoughts on how this can be improved, please share them in the comments.
Imagine you’re a kid from small-town Iowa visiting a family member in the city. In your small town you had three restaurants—a Pizza Ranch, a locally owned diner, and a McDonalds. Now your aunt and uncle are telling your family about where they want to go eat dinner: It’s an Indian restaurant. You’ve never had Indian food. You’ve eaten meat and potatoes your whole life at home with pizza and midwestern staples like pancakes, chicken fried steaks, and cheeseburgers when you’ve gone out to eat. The most exotic sauce you’ve ever tried is the alfredo your mom sometimes service with pasta and roasted chicken. You’ve never had anything like Indian food.
You get there and the first thing you try is the Mulligatawny, a soup made with lentil beans and plenty of spices you’ve probably never had before. But it’s actually not that strange–it’s just a bean soup. You’ve had that before, even if it was never quite like this. Then someone brings out a plate of garlic naan and you realize it’s just garlic bread. The dipping sauce with it is something new, but it’s a sweet white sauce so it’s still somewhat familiar.
And then they bring out the entrees. You ordered the “safest” thing on the menu but it’s still different from anything you’ve had before—chicken tikka korma. It has a creamy, tomato taste that is familiar, but the spices are wholly new. Your dad meanwhile has the chicken vindaloo and polished off his glass of water after two bites to try and help with the heat. The food is good, but it’s different from anything you’ve ever tasted and it takes some getting used to before you’re entirely sure that you like it.
That’s roughly what reading Chesterton is going to be like for a lot of 21st century evangelicals in the US. There isn’t really anyone quite like him as an orthodox Christian writer. He doesn’t really make arguments so much as he overwhelms you with wonderful turns of phrase and arresting images, all of which are very much couched in the culture and debates of his day. For evangelical millennials in particular Chesterton will seem at times quite foreign. If you grew up in youth groups or in churches that obsessed over world-view Chesterton may seem both distant and confusing.
But what the man does well he does with a style and delight that I’ve never seen equaled. And this is what he does well: He draws you into the Christian faith and then asks you to look out at the world from within it. This might not seem that remarkable at first, but for many younger evangelicals we grew up within a culture that was only Christian in mostly superficial ways. We argued about evolution or abortion, but our daily routines were often indistinguishable from those of our peers. Our family’s daily routine, spending habits, and shared life together often seemed strangely removed from our practice of Christian faith and was virtually indistinguishable from that of any other respectable conservative suburban family.
To make things worse (or at least more complicated), the most common form of Christian teaching many of us did get came down to us as apologetics and world-view based arguments for the faith. While there are benefits to that background, one of the downsides is that the Christianity of the apologists can often take on a rather arid quality.
The faith becomes reducible to propositional arguments and defined positions on specific issues. Indeed, human beings themselves become reducible to which set of propositional arguments they affirm—so your neighbor becomes Joe the Hindu, the obnoxious columnist from your college newspaper is Mike the Secular Humanist, and so on. This, too, then seems to put up a barrier between how the Christian faith is thought of in the life of an individual Christian and how it is lived out in normal, daily life where no one quite fits into those ideological boxes quite so well as they do in the books. The only people who identify their peers and neighbors primarily in terms of their world-view are kids who spent too much time reading Nancy Pearcey and Chuck Colson.
And so we come to this odd place where it is possible to have spent most of your life in the church in some way and yet have little-to-no ability to look out and see all of life as a Christian. You look at that tree or that car or that job or that relationship in largely the same ways that a non-Christian would with the main difference being this small bit of life that is sliced off and labeled “Christianity.” So when abortion comes up, you see some difference. When your boyfriend wants to sleep together, the difference pops up.
But over the course of your normal day it’s impact on your life is actually quite negligible. And when matters of faith, ultimate meaning, or any of the big questions come up, it’s difficult for you to relate to them unless they’re explicitly stated in the comfortable language of your apologetics class or the church youth group.
If this in any way describes your experience, then this is both why Chesterton will at times be so difficult and why he is so essential. He will be difficult in that he is not easily labeled nor can his ideas be easily packaged and locked up in a box for future regurgitation. He’s oblique in his argumentation, preferring to draw you in with a series of images rather than trying to come at a question or problem directly.
But what he’ll do as he hits you with image after image, quip after quip, is begin to draw you into the faith, helping you on a more foundational level to learn how to see the world as a Christian. And as he does this you’ll find yourself discovering new depths to the faith, turning over ideas or scriptural texts in your mind that he has helped you to see in a new way.
In Orthodoxy he begins by attempting to answer the question of why the world can seem both alien and familiar to us. He then also takes up questions such as “what ought a man believe in?” “what is the virtue of humility?” and “should we love the world and, if so, how?” But he doesn’t address any of these in the head-on way that you might expect from an apologist or a Christian engaged in the task of thinking in public.
There is, however, a method to the great British journalist’s madness. First, if you can present something in a way that resonates with the reader on a level deeper than their mind alone, then you’ve reached them in a far more powerful way than if you had just bludgeoned them over the head with arguments like so many late 20th century apologists. As Jamie Smith and John Piper have both reminded us (in very different ways), we cannot be reduced down to what we know or what we believe. Chesterton reaches that deeper part of who we are with his writing. He pulls you in and helps you to see the faith in the way you see your hometown or a family member, not simply as a mere fact, but as something to love. And that brings us to the second point. Chesterton was writing at a time when the British upper-class was generally opposed to Christian faith.
To understand the world he was addressing one need only read this notorious letter by the famed novelist Virginia Woolf to her sister after she had met with the recently converted TS Eliot: “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”
The tone of that letter tells you what you need to know about the broader cultural reality in Britain at that time. Woolf was writing in 1928, 20 years after the publication of Orthodoxy and eight years before Chesterton’s death. But Woolf’s feelings are not unique. Playwright George Bernard Shaw held much the same view, though perhaps not stated quite as savagely as in Woolf’s letter—and Shaw’s first works were published in the 1880s.
Britain as a whole was still Christian at this time, but the last generation of Christian Britain died off in World War I. And from there the trajectory of Britain in the 20th century and now into the 21st was clear. Self-confessed dinosaurs like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien as well as the aforementioned Eliot did yeoman’s work propping up the old order throughout the early to mid 20th century but the work that began with the social elites in Chesterton’s day had been completed basically by the mid-to-late 20th century.
Chesterton himself understood this better than many British Christians. He had been an art student prior to becoming a journalist and so he knew many of these elites set so implacably against the Christian faith. He had a famously warm friendship with Shaw, in fact, as well as other non-Christian luminaries like Jules Verne, author of 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea. So the reason Chesterton needed to draw people into Christianity without them necessarily realizing it was that that was the only way they could be drawn in. Much like our own culture, Chesterton’s peers had seen enough of Christianity to be inoculated against some of its propositional claims but not enough to actually understand the thing itself.
Chesterton, more than most other authors, was able to sketch out a picture of the world that was thoroughly Christian without being explicitly theological or confessional in nature. He could begin by discussing a billboard on a bus and turn that into a discussion of original sin (without necessarily telling his readers that that’s what he was going to do). Chesterton, in other words, had a talent for translation—taking the meat-and-potatoes facts of Christian faith and presenting them to his readers in a way that seemed foreign and, well, interesting. And here we might return to our opening metaphor. After all, many Indian dishes are made with ingredients familiar to any midwesterner: chicken, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes. But a skilled cook can take these ingredients and turn them into something that a person raised on salisbury steaks and rotisserie chickens cannot even imagine existing. That’s what Chesterton does—and that’s why you must read him.
(image credit: http://www.theindiagaterestaurant.co.uk/image/data/Chicken-Vindaloo1.jpg)