G.K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936) was an English writer, philosopher, Christian apologist, a literary and art critic. His more famous books are Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man and the Father Brown detective series. He is one of my literary heroes. Earlier this weekend I was reading a short essay by Joel Miller about G.K. Chesterton. It’s a great read. Here is one of my favorite quotes from it:
He suddenly, by God’s grace, had the thought that his very being was a gift and each day an unexpected opportunity. Profoundly, deeply, thoroughly, pitifully thankful, he began looking for who he should thank, and that pursuit of thanksgiving marked the rest of his days—and also put him at odds with many of his contemporaries.
I love that.
The author James Parker (according to Wikipedia) once wrote this about Chesterton in the Atlantic:
In his vastness and mobility, Chesterton continues to elude definition: He was a Catholic convert and an oracular man of letters, a pneumatic cultural presence, an aphorist with the production rate of a pulp novelist. Poetry, criticism, fiction, biography, columns, public debate... Chesterton was a journalist; he was a metaphysician. He was a reactionary; he was a radical.
A “pneumatic cultural presence”! What an interesting thing to say!
Looking at Chesterton’s particular cultural influence on Britain in his time, I was inspired to look at what Chesterton did in particular—not just his unique writing style, imagination and wit (which Miller covers quite well) but his productivity or method of cultural engagement. I came out thinking, “Here’s my guy.” There’s a ton of things I have an affinity for with Chesterton; interests that intersect. I present them below as a way of thinking about how writers can engage with their culture.
1. Chesterton understood the power of the imagination
Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there, something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.
He seemed to understand that a way to the heart is not through cold reason but imagery and imagination and presenting a vision of something better. If you read Orthodoxy, his take on Christian theology, it strikes you at once as not only clever but always hinting at something deeper. The book itself is a kind-of ‘pursuit of beauty’. That pursuit speaks to most ordinary people even if they aren’t artistically inclined. A lack of that pursuit I believe tends to create narcissistic societies (perhaps with nothing beautiful to pursue, all we look at are ourselves?). That pursuit, or presenting a beautiful vision, seems to be more effective at engaging culture than political engagement.
But it’s not that he was not politically engaged. That’s the next interesting thing about him.
2. He was a newspaper man
Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.
One of my favorite quotes is the one on my profile from Karl Barth, telling theology students to have a “newspaper in one hand, and a Bible in the other.” Chesterton was this sort of man.
But the way he engaged—how he shared his many varied opinions on current affairs—was imaginative. This is a key for newspaper men but very often not fostered. One sphere of society that desperately needs a new vision right now is journalism. Our newspaper men and women are largely devoid of imagination, simply parroting the same points and getting themselves (and the rest of us) embroiled in the same pointless tribalism of our insipid politics. Where they are trying to be imaginative (such as in solutions journalism) they just get preachy.
Perhaps this week you watched the BBC interview with Elon Musk and James Clayton. I did and noted:
The point here is: Elon Musk, whether you like him or not, is not short of imagination. He wants to take humanity to Mars and wants to put microchips in our brain (no thanks!). James Clayton, for his part, showed a severe lack of imagination and just couldn’t engage and ask interesting or effective questions as a result. It was fascinating and even entertaining to see Clayton looking for sound bytes and just not finding any (or none that seemed to suit his cause).
It gets worse. The Walter-Cronkite School of Journalism thinks journalists should abandon objectivity to produce more trustworthy news, because the standard of “objectivity” in the past was “dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world.” I’ll leave you to think that over.
Chesterton was an editor for his own newspaper, had a regular columns for The Illustrated London News and Daily News (4,000 newspaper essays, apparently) and (apparently) a hundred books. He was both a book man and a prolific newspaper man!
3. He criticized both capitalism and socialism
Here we go—a both sides argument. I’ve been criticized many times for “bothsidesism”. Presenting both sides may (sometimes) lead to false balance, but the alternative also sometimes (or often, these days) leads to false choice. I make no apologies for trying to understand all sides and make up my own mind on matters. I would rather be an independent thinker than a conformist. I’m not a Party man.
Chesterton advocated an alternative economic theory, distributism, along with his friend Hilaire Belloc. I don’t really know where I completely stand on economic theories, although I do know I’m probably more a capitalist these days than I used to be.
4. Ultimately, he was a man of faith
Chesterton understood that faith is often a paradox, and there is great beauty in that. For after all, relationships are often a paradox, yet love is the most beautiful thing of all in life. His book, Orthodoxy is an absolute gem in displaying this. When reading it for the first time, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the beauty of faith in all its simplicity, and yet complexity. Skepticism is initially alluring because it may seem simple, but I have found it often veers towards being simplistic. Faith is another thing altogether.
Chesterton thought deeply of his faith and wasn't afraid to speak of it and work it out in public. He really didn't shrink back from being open about the struggles of faith, and people didn't despise him for that. Some might say it was a different time, but people in those days were just as skeptical or questioning as these days; and the educated establishment encouraged skepticism. Yet, because of the power of his imagination, his wit, and his courage, Chesterton got tremendous respect. Not to mention the tremendous power of his ability to string words together!
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Based on your essay, I think Chesterton might be my kind of guy too. Thanks for introducing him to me. A poem by Hilare Belloc is one piece of the puzzle that I am putting together for a future posting. Maybe some missing pieces can be found in Chesterton.