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Tuesdays with Gilbert

August 14, 2012

Gilbert Keith Chesterton has been on the brain. Chesterton was a writer and journalist at a time when writing and journalism were especially vibrant. I have a book called Selected Modern English Essays, which is made up of essays “from writers working in the twentieth century, most of them happily still alive,” and these essays have in them a vibrancy and wit that is absent in journalism of our time. Chesterton’s sense of paradox and topsy-turveydom is much more fulfilling to the reader than USA Today’s fast-food journalism or the self-righteous pity parties in the editorial section of Time magazine or The New York Times, or just about anything that has the word time” in it. I digress. Chesterton was known for his sense of paradox and his ability to look past the commonplace cliches and pieties that we so often bandy about without thinking upon them. For example, at the beginning of Orthodoxy, he dismembers the cliche of “believing in yourself,” noting that the people who truly believe in themselves are the insane. Chesterton viewed the world in a way that most people do not, and to see the view from Chesterton is an exciting thing.

     Chesterton was a master of the English Language. He had a gift for parallelisms and turns of phrase unmatched by anyone else. Open up almost any page of a Chesterton work and you’ll find a clever aphorism. “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason. He is someone who has lost everything but his reason.”  “Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.” “It is obvious that there is a great deal of difference between being international nad being cosmopolitan. All good men are international. Nearly all bad men are cosmopolitan. If we are to be international we must be national.” “If Americans can be divorced for ‘incompatibility of temper’ I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many a happy marriage but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.” “If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing badly.” Chesterton cuts through the cant, cliches, and unclear thinking of our time, opening our eyes to the fact that the truth is stranger than conventional wisdom.

                                                    

This book is one of the most profound defenses of the Christian faith ever written. Not an apologetic handbook; rather, a spiritual autobiography where Chesteron tells us how he went from the dullness of agnosticism to the romance of Orthodoxy. Like all of Chesterton’s books, it is full of humor and wit. Chesterton shreds Nietzcheism in a way that will make pretentious Nietzchians everywhere howl with anguish. Every Christian should read this book.

Possibly Chesterton’s greatest work. The book is split up into two parts. The first deals with humanity; the second, with the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. Chesterton dispells a lot of truisms and secular pieties in this book.  Showcases Chesterton’s ability to look at an issue or question from a different angle than everyone else.

Chesterton turns the detective story on its head in this collection. The hero of the stories, Basil Grant, uses common sense rather than impersonal investigation to ferret out the criminals in these stories, much to the dismay of his younger brother, the Sherlock Holmes-wannabe Rupert. Spinsters plot horrible crimes, death threats are written on flower-beds, an old lady is trapped in a house–but what seems criminal turns out to be harmless. It is a pity that these are the only Basil Grant stories Chesterton wrote.

 A miscellany of Chesterton’s mystery stories. I have but dipped into this book, but it contains the fabulous and mind bending stories “The White Pillars Mystery” and “The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

What’s wrong with the world? Probably the fact that we don’t read enough Chesterton. In this book, Chesterton takes on social evils, promoting democracy, and wittily attacking the twin evils of “Progressivism” and “Conservatism,” characterized by Chesterton as Gudge and Hudge. It would be delightful if all books about social problems were as witty and fun as this one, instead of being pious tomes written by dreary do-gooders. Chesterton gets Feminism slightly wrong and Calvinism all wrong, but even when Chesterton gets it wrong, we would do well to listen to what he says.

 

Not a Chesterton book, but an introduction to Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist, President of the Chesterton society. Consists largely of quotes from the man himself strung together with commentary by Ahlquist. Ahquist is too hagiographical in his portrayal of Chesterton, but I would rather have him extol Chesterton too greatly rather than too little.

One last point: Chesterton was a very frumpy man, but he was full of jollity and good humour. He weighed around 300 pounds, and once made the point that the reason he enjoyed himself so much was because there was so much more of him to enjoy.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 14, 2012 6:06 pm

    A man who needs to be on my reading list more often.

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