I have always thought that every academic–or wannabe, like me–ought have one or two hypotheses that are held very loosely, are somewhat defensible but impossible to prove, and just fringe enough to make academic parties interesting.

One such hypothesis that I have occasionally advanced is that G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is the most important work of the twenty-first century, even though it was written in the twentieth.

Cover of

Cover of Orthodoxy

Though Chesterton attained more fame during his life than C.S. Lewis—he was greeted by massive crowds on his trips around the world—by the beginning of World War II his position as chief apologist and defender of the faith had been taken over by Lewis. In particular, Chesterton’s influence on American evangelicalism has been relatively non-existent compared to Lewis’s.

And no wonder: Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which has influenced numerous evangelical leaders over the past few decades, is a masterfully written apologetic. The discovery of Lewis helped many evangelicals in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s realize the importance of having a faith that was as intellectual as it was spiritual.

Yet the situation within evangelicalism (and without) has now changed, and Mere Christianity is an apologetic suited to its time. While evangelicals have made strides in recovering the life of the mind, it is now en vogue to criticize evangelical Christianity as too propositional. The new generation of post-modern evangelicals is moved more by the story of Christianity than its ideas, and more prone to appeal to the imagination than the intellect.

Such critics would do well to consider Orthodoxy.

Though it was written just over 100 years ago, Chesterton’s finest work is still relevant. In a First Things‘ article, Ralph Wood writes:

 

Indeed, we might say that the last century belongs to Chesterton–for in that now one-hundred-year-old book, Orthodoxy, he remarkably prophesied the ailments of both modernism and postmodernism, while adeptly commending Christianity as their double cure.

Wood’s article highlights Chesterton’s criticism of the “twin insanities of hyper-rationalism and hyper-emotivism,” and Chesterton’s response to those insanities (imagination and the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy”). But while his analysis of Chesterton’s argument is exactly right, his treatment neglects Chesterton’s method. Chesterton’s poetic-prose articulates a vision of Christianity that is as artistic as it is analytic, and as such is a more effective antidote to the prevailing post-modern sensibilities than any other book I have found.

Before he considers the tenets of Christian theology, Chesterton defends four propositions: “I felt in my bones, first, that the world does not explain itself . . . The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it . . . Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”

It is somewhat misleading to call these ideas propositions for Chesterton, or evenideas. Rather, he describes them as the “ultimate attitudes toward life, the soils for the seeds of doctrine.” Earlier, he speaks of the “sentiments of elf-land.”

Chesterton’s case for this ethic is surprisingly poetic—one might even call it artistic. He rejects sociology or even the principles of natural law and instead appeals to child’s experience of fairy stories as his justification. Yet beneath the apparent triviality is a surprisingly sophisticated aim (this dynamic frequently occurs in Chesterton): Chesterton understands that persuasion is as much sentimental as it is rational. By articulating the “Ethics of Elfland,” he lays the poetic foundation for his defense of Christianity, which will come in the following chapters. Chesterton wants to convince your mind—but he wants to woo your heart as well.

Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, then, differs from Lewis’ Mere Christianity precisely in its attempt to ground Christianity not in the propositions of natural law, but in the elemental human and artistic experiences that we begin to neglect as we grow old. It is an attempt, dare I say, to defend and engender a faith that exudes wonder and astonishment at the mystery of reality. But Chesterton had told us as much at the beginning. Orthodoxy is not a “series of deductions,” as he says at the outset, but an attempt “in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures, to state the philosophy in which [he has] come to believe.”

It is this approach that I would argue is perfectly suited for our post-modern age. Chesterton is the anti-Nietsche—a poet-philosopher who understands that unless truth exists, the enterprises of art and beauty are rendered meaningless. What’s more, his method is consistent with his argument: he artistically defends the existence of the truth and grounds Christianity in the pre-rational experience of story without jeopardizing truth’s existence or fallaciously opposing reason and emotion.

In sum, though Orthodoxy has only recently turned 100 years old, it remains the single most effective articulation of a Christianity that is intellectually robust, artistically engaged, spiritually sensitive, and historically grounded that I have yet read.

[Note:  This is a slightly revised version of what I posted previously at Evangelical Outpost.]

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.

  • “I felt in my bones, first, that the world does not explain itself…The thing is magic, true or false.” GK Chesterton http://bit.ly/buMjGQ

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  • J-M Arden

    Hello.
    It is wonderful to see Evangelicals discovering with such genuine enthusiasm G K Chesterton: like setting out heroically to conquer new worlds, and, on landing discovering that you’ve come home. (Another one of Chesterton’s vibrantly just images.)

    The foreign land that proved to be home that Chesterton himself discovered, of course, was the Catholic Church.
    And, however which way he or she finds a half way house towards the Catholic Church, any Evangelical worth their salt and who takes seriously the history of the Faith, and sees the need for an authoritative interpretation of Scripture (in a world of multiple, fractured, perspectives)will be far closer to the Catholic Church than they’d like to admit (perhaps especially to themselves).
    You can’t read Chesterton seriously (and joyfully!), understanding what he means and not take a huge step towards the Catholic Church. Afterwards, whether we join or not comes down to our freewill, God’s grace, and whatever our particular prejudices hindering us might be….
    Seek out the distant shore – and you might just find yourself coming home…
    Maranatha.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, JM, for the kind words and for reading. I try to avoid the Rome debates here, per our interest in articulating a “mere orthodoxy” that centers on the creeds. But I am grateful for you taking the time to interact with the above!

      Best,

      Matt

  • J-M Arden

    Thanks for your reply. Your website is excellent.
    I can understand why you avoid the “Rome debates” as you call them.
    Chesterton tried to, too.
    As did Blessed John Henry Newman.
    And St Augustine….
    But whilst I fully respect your editorial policy I’ll be interested to see how your commitment to authentic evangelical biblical theology could lead you anywhere but to the Catholic Church. I guess you could end up in the lyrical mysticism of certain non-sclerotic forms of Orthodoxy but I don’t think you’ll get taken in by Anglicanism’s pretentions – largely because you’re not from the UK with 450 years of “that’s the way we do it here” weighing down on you.
    I guess I’d just say: keep reading Chesterton.
    His Aquinas is the best introduction to St Thomas you’ll find.
    If you dare : )
    Matthew Leavering amongst others is engaging really profoundly with Aquinas and the Bible. I hope you’ve taken a look at his work. The first two on this list are truly excellent.
    “Onwards and Upwards”
    It’s the feast of Our Lady’s Birthday today.
    “Do whatever He tells you.”
    Mind how you go.
    Biblical Natural law: A Theocentric and Teleological Approach. Oxford University Press, 2008.
    Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.
    Ezra and Nehemiah. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Brazos Press, 2007.
    Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.
    Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
    Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple: Salvation According to Thomas Aquinas. University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, J-M. Per the editorial policy, I have no interest in discussing the reasons for/against Catholicism any further in this forum. Feel free to send me an email if you would like to dialogue further about it.

      Also, the biography of Aquinas is indeed excellent, and while I haven’t made it forward to Leavering yet, he has also been on my to-read list for a while.

      Best,

      Matt

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