David Wayne of Jollyblogger has highlighted an article in Gilbert Magazine that gleans lessons for Christian journalists from Chesterton’s method of writing.  Wayne’s comments focuses on Chesterton’s joy, hope and what Fields terms his ‘detached playfulness.’  The phrase is unfortunately ambiguous and it allows Wayne to make these remarks:

I think Chesterton, or his interpreter, J. Fraser Field, is on to something here, but it also seems to me that there is a place for deadly serious writing from Christians.

Whether we are victimized by politicos, the news media or the bully next door, we respond with joy and confidence. Hence, Chesterton’s “detached playfulness.” Maybe if we take our opponents a little less seriously, they’ll take themselves a little less seriously.

Wayne opposes the “detached playfulness” of Chesterton with “deadly serious” writing.  It is a dichotomy that Chesterton is often accused of yet explicitly rejected.  In a response to criticism from Herbert McCabe, he writes,

And people joke about the police-magistrate more than they joke about the Pope, not because the police-magistrate is a more frivolous subject, but, on the contrary, because the police-magistrate is a more serious subject than the Pope.  The Bishop of Rome has no jurisdiction in this realm of England; whereas the police-magistrate may bring his solemnity to bear quite suddenly upon us.

Contra those who criticized him, Chesterton’s ability to write with humor and levity stems from his deadly seriousness.  As he says later in the same chapter,

Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious.  Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.  The question of whether a man expresses himself in a grotesque or laughable phraseology, or in a stately and restrained phraseology, is not a question of motive or of moral state, it is a question of instinctive language and self-expression.  Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German.  Whether a man preaches his gospel grotesquely or gravely is merely like the question of whether he preaches it in prose or verse…The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular.  Mr. Bernard Shaw is funny and not sincere.  Mr. McCabe is sincere and not funny.  The average Cabinet Minister is not sincere and not funny.

Chesterton took his critics with the utmost seriousness: in fact, he took some pleasure when his opponents recognized his respect for them.  After quoting the criticism from McCabe, Chesterton says, “I quote this passage with a particular pleasure, because Mr. McCabe certainly cannot put too strongly the degree to which I give him and his school credit for their complete sincerity and responsibility of philosophical attitude.  I am quite certain they mean every word they say.  I also mean every word I say.”

Chesterton is eminently playful, but he is rarely detached.  His loyalties and love allow him to lampoon–he is credible because he cares.  If there is a lesson for Christian bloggers, I would suggest that it is that we increase the seriousness with which we respond to opponents and recover the profound wonder and creative imagination that infused Chesterton’s person and works.  In this latter regard, I can think of no better example than the truly jolly Jollyblogger.

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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.

One Comment

  1. Heretics was written before Herbert McCabe was born. This appears to be the “Mr. McCabe” in question. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_McCabe


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