(This article originally appeared in the May 24, 1974, issue of Christianity Today.)
Somehow it would seem an affront to Gilbert Keith Chesterton, born one hundred years ago this month, to attempt anything but a cheerful salute to his memory.
Son of a Kensington estate agent, Gilbert contrived for himself a deprived background: "I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage … and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am."
On the second page of his Autobiography he tells of the maternal influence upon him. His father mentioned that he had been asked to go on The Vestry (parish council). "At this my mother uttered something like a cry of pain; she said, 'Oh, Edward, don't! … We never have been respectable yet; don't let's begin now.'"
In 1887 Gilbert went to St. Paul's School, where, apart from a certain talent in handling the English language, he did not distinguish himself. He left in 1892 and for three years studied art at the famous Slade School and English literature at London University. The writer in him won (he remained a competent artist), and a toehold was established in the world of words—reviewing, publisher's dogsbody, freelance reporting. In 1900 he was on his way with publication of The Wild Knight and Other Poems. In 1901, to family misgiving, he married on a small income and boundless optimism.
Chesterton early discovered the value of paradox as "truth standing on its head to gain attention," and exploited it to such good purpose that Fleet Street and Edwardian England took notice of the young man who had strong views on literary and social criticism and a whimsical way with words. He called himself a Socialist because the only alternative was not being a Socialist, but in fact he was stubbornly unclassifiable as much in politics as in other areas.
Chesterton disliked injustice and shiftiness, his onslaught on them being the more telling because he came at them from unlikely angles. Always, however, his animus was directed against policies and ideas, not against people. He produced works on Browning, Dickens, Shaw, Blake, Cobbett, and Stevenson, and formed lasting friendships with literary giants such as Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Hilaire Belloc. With the latter he championed "Distributism," a system that combined magnificent principle and total impracticability.
A reputation for mild eccentricity is a tremendous asset, and Chesterton made the most of it. His sartorial quirks were pressed into the same service. If he made fun of others he laughed most of all at himself. This rare virtue may have saved him from summary lynching when he said about the emancipation of women, "Twenty million women rise to their feet with the cry, We will not be dictated to-and proceeded to become stenographers."
Endowed naturally with absentmindedness, he capitalized on that, too, and on the helplessness not uncommon in the truly gifted. He could not fix his necktie; his wife told friends that he did not even know how to take it out of the drawer. He never came to terms with the telephone. He detested vegetarianism and teetotalism (though spirits were almost as evil as wine and beer were good). He habitually got lost or mislaid; hence the immortal telegram to his wife: "Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be." Came the answer, "Home," Frances having reasoned that once she got him back it would be easier to point him in the right direction.
It is staggering to find that this disorganized man produced more than one hundred books on a vast range of subjects and with evocative titles such as The Man Who Was Thursday, The Barbarism of Berlin, and Sidelights on New London and Newer York. He gave us Father Brown, the mild-mannered priest-detective who knew much more about human depravity than the two callow Cambridge students who pitied his simplicity (or rather that of the Yorkshire priest on whom the character was based), and whose investigations were interspersed with comments like, "One can sometimes do good by being the right person in the wrong place," and "One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak."
Chesterton's immoderation was known to all men. He worked, ate, and drank too much. He grew fatter and fatter. His nostalgic hankering after the robust Catholicism of the Middle Ages included the feasts and the hogsheads of wine but stopped at the fasting. Notre Dame's famous chauffeur, Johnnie Mangan, tells of his visit for lectures and an LL.D.:
He was close to 400 lbs. but he'd never give it away … I brought him under the main building, he got stuck in the door of the car. Father O'Donnell tried to help. Mr. Chesterton said it reminded him of an old Irishwoman: "Why don't you get out sideways?" "I have no sideways."
Not surprisingly, Americans loved him. Journalists were delighted by his bons mots. Thus his remark on Broadway's dazzling lights: "What a glorious garden of wonders this would be to anyone lucky enough not to be able to read." In a remark quoted in the New York Times in 1931 he observed: "There is nothing the matter with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong." To an American interviewer on another occasion he said: "Slang is too sacred and precious to be used promiscuously. It should be led up to reverently for it expresses what the King's English could not."
Like his friend Ronald Knox he was both entertainer and Christian apologist. The world never fails to appreciate the combination when it is well done; even evangelicals sometimes give the impression of bestowing a waiver on deviations if a man is enough of a genius. For one who could be careless about wider implications in other fields, Chesterton held to a notably reasoned Christianity, perhaps because he never considered the answers until he formulated the questions.
And he made others think, through pronouncements zany enough to pass their defenses and explode devastatingly within their minds. He was a master of the metaphorical Mickey Finn which (because paradox is involved?) has the opposite effect, galvanizing people into action or into self-examination, making them vulnerable.
He locked horns with the modernistic teaching of R. J. Campbell and the so-called New Theology, which even seventy years ago was identified as old heresy. Early Christians not only saw our modern problems, but saw through them. Claiming to be a development, modernism was actually an abandonment of the Christian idea.
Chesterton marveled that religious liberty now meant that hardly anyone was allowed to mention the subject. He complained that "the act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice." Orthodoxy (the title he gave his most telling book) was widely regarded as the one unpardonable heresy. "Critics were almost entirely complimentary to what they were pleased to call my brilliant paradoxes; until they discovered that I really meant what I said."
Though orthodoxy had received a bad press, he held that nothing in reality was so dangerous or so exciting. Along the historic path of Christendom there have been open traps of error and exaggeration, to fall into which would have been simple. "There are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands." To lapse into "any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure." The ages have seen "dull heresies sprawling and prostrate wild truth reeling but erect."
That work was published some thirteen years before he created a sensation in 1922 by becoming a Roman Catholic—the only church, he concluded, that "dared to go down with me into the depths of myself." For long he had held back, partly in the hope that his wife would join him (she eventually did), partly because he was "much too frightened of that tremendous Reality on the altar." That latter view is an improbable echo of something held by Kierkegaard, a Christian of very different temperament, who said there were "no longer the men living who could bear the pressure and weight of having a personal God."
It is odd to imagine Chesterton, in many ways antinomian and individualistic, "submitting" to Rome. True, he had always had a high respect for tradition, "the democracy of the dead [that] refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about." Whatever the inner conflict and the resultant changes, it made him no less irrepressible. He still evinced an old characteristic and justified it: "What can one be but frivolous about serious things?" he would ask. "Without frivolity they are simply too tremendous."
His prophetic voice was never more clearly seen than during his last years when the British Broadcasting Corporation discovered his aptitude on that medium. In one memorable talk he uttered a warning:
Unless we can bring men back to enjoying the daily life which moderns call a dull life, our whole civilisation will be in ruins in about fifteen years. … Unless we can make daybreak and daily bread and the creative secrets of labour interesting in themselves, there will fall on all our civilisation a fatigue which is the one disease from which civilisations do not recover.
Chesterton was continually thankful for the "birthday present of birth," and eagerly embraced the news that ditchwater, far from being dull, "teems with quiet fun." Perhaps he would wish most of all to be remembered for commending to the human race a sense of gratitude. In that at least there was neither profundity nor paradox, but simply:
Give me a little time,
I shall not be able to appreciate them all;
if you open so many doors
And give me so many presents, O Lord God.
This article originally appeared in the May 24, 1974, issue of Christianity Today. At the time, J.D. Douglas was an Editor-at-Large for the magazine.
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Also appearing on our site today: The 'Ample' Man Who Saved My Faith, an excerpt from Philip Yancey's new book, Soul Survivor.
The Chesterton Photograph and Portrait Page includes good images and descriptions of Chesterton's appearance.
Gilbert! is a magazine devoted to the ideas and orthodoxy of Chesterton. Read sample articles or read its mission statement. (The magazine's site also has an extensive page of links to writings by and about Chsterston)
Last year, Christianity Today's sister publication Books & Culturerevisited Chesterton's masterpiece, The Man Who Was Thursday.
Christianity Today looked at Christianity's master of irony last September with a series of quotes showing Chesterton's Paradoxical Orthodoxy.