Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) is considered by many to be one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century. But you’d be hard-pressed to find him discussed in any public high school (or even most colleges or universities, for that matter.) A prolific writer (he penned everything from a popular mystery series to epic ballads), he thought himself mainly a journalist. While he never attended college, his knowledge had both depth and breadth:
Chesterton was equally at ease with literary and social criticism, history, politics, economics, philosophy, and theology. His style is unmistakable, always marked by humility, consistency, paradox, wit, and wonder. His writing remains as timely and as timeless today as when it first appeared, even though much of it was published in throw away papers.
But does Chesterton have anything to offer a contemporary audience? Trevin Wax, at The Gospel Coalition, believes he does, and outlines four reasons why.
First, Wax says, Chesterton was a “big picture”-thinker, seeing connections others overlooked.
Because he believed everything connects, Chesterton could speak knowledgeably on so many different subjects. He believed that Christianity, if truly all-encompassing, must speak to everything.
Economics: Chesterton promoted Distributism, an economic ideology rooted in Catholic social teaching.
Art: Chesterton criticized modern art and literature for “scorning the audience.” His biography of Charles Dickens led to a widespread reassessment of Dickens’ legacy and reestablished him as one of the great authors in English literature.
Family: Chesterton defended the family as a microcosm of the world (“the home is larger inside than out,” he wrote) that must withstand constant assaults from social engineers who believe the family unit is an obstacle to progress.
Government: Chesterton doesn’t fit the “right” or “left” paradigm of contemporary American politics, but he believed Christianity should influence government by reinforcing its responsibilities and warning of its imperialistic and overreaching tendencies.
Next, Chesterton was a brilliant apologist for Christianity, and knew that wit could be a weapon for good.
On human depravity: “The man who denies original sin believes in the Immaculate Conception of everybody.”
On miracles, he turns the tables to show that it’s believers, not unbelievers who are always appealing to evidence (“This is why I believe this miracle took place”). Meanwhile, it’s unbelievers, not believers who are always appealing to dogma (“Miracles can’t happen”).
On naturalism, he flips the common picture of Christians held captive by their ancient superstitions while the “freethinkers” challenge religious dogma. Instead, he demonstrates that Christians are free to believe in an ordered nature, while the materialist can’t admit the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle into his machine. The Christian is freer to think than the freethinker.
Wax says that Chesterton remains timeless because he didn’t fall for faddish arguments or progress for the sake of progress. He knew truth was timeless.
Finally, Wax states that Chesterton was the epitome of the joyful Christian, and didn’t understand “boredom.” He was too fascinated by the world around him.
There are no uninteresting things,” he wrote. “Only uninterested people.” The emotion that infuses all of Chesterton’s writing is gratitude – a sign of joy and life, a sense of wonder at even the most mundane gifts we take for granted. ”Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese,” he wrote, and then proceeded to rectify this egregious oversight.
Chesterton often gets relegated to a blustery curmudgeon or a raconteur from a bygone era. Clearly, we would do well to take him seriously.
The Acton Institute will be hosting “An Evening with G.K. Chesterton: Featuring Chuck Chalberg as G.K. Chesterton” on October 23, at the the Acton Building, 98 E. Fulton, Grand Rapids.