Ten or twelve life-changing books: #3

3. 1976.  G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

I list this particular work because it was helpful at the time, when I was taking the required general courses in college. Chesterton turns the received deliverances upside down. The idea that the “cave men” might just have been some regular guys that went down to their man-caves every so often to get away from the women for a few hours to swap stories and draw pictures — that was a vivid example of inverting the paradigm that was indeed life-changing, and the medicine, delivered while taking an indoctrination course called Anthropology, was particularly timely. Chesterton restores humanity to the study of man.

Like Lewis, through whom reading I discovered him, Chesterton is an excellent companion for a young Christian man. He explodes the shibboleths, and turns the clichés upside down. He teaches a skepticism of nostrums that serves well if learned properly. He is adept at rejecting the regnant paradigm, remodeling with a different set of presuppositions. If you don’t learn this from Chesterton, you might learn it by studying modern Physics, or Wittgenstein. It must be part of one’s training in the hermeneutic of ordinary language and its buried assumptions.

He is something of a one-trick pony, however. A clever young man soon learns how to imitate the shtick left and right. A master of the English language, Chesterton is too clever in its use by half, punning and alliterating so thickly that it destroys the rhythm and renders reading wearisome after a while. There is also a glib tone that can be mistaken for haughtiness. I don’t think haughtiness is quite it though. It is not even finding excessive pleasure in hearing himself talk. I think it is more precisely the thorough enjoyment of hearing a conversation, especially one in which he happens to be taking part. This leads to some rhetorical excesses.

Chesterton was sucked into the British establishment’s mendacious propaganda machine during the Great War, and this points to a deep flaw that needs to be illuminated. He was as hostile to “Prussianism” as to Puritanism. Indeed, his dislike of the two P’s may be of one root, since Prussianism was itself stamped in its character by a Puritan/Pietist hybrid at the crucial time of Friedrich Wilhelm I and his grandfather the Great Elector. So Chesterton’s “Short History of England” became something like an extended argument against the idea that England’s greatness had anything to do with its German ancestry. Instead, its greatness apparently has more to do with imbibing the teaching of Italians — first pagan, then Christian. I would judge that he stands right at the point that the British Progressives were shifting from racial identity to propositionalism — a move already made in our country by Lincoln fifty years earlier in the Gettysburg Address. Still, there are enough references to the traits of Jews and Negroes that one realizes the ethnological was not completely gone. Indeed, being a real human, he is consequently in fact a tribalist innately; but he can’t face the implications, so bends over backwards to rework history according to the idea that accepting or rejecting certain propositions is the key to each twist and turn. Blood still has a place, but usually only in the sense that an occasional injection of new blood is good. He loves Europe, but dislikes the Northern way of thinking, so for him, Italians, assisted by a few French, must be the masters of England’s personality.  Indeed, who can say but that this motif was not the very thing impelling him to embrace popery in 1922. The conversion completely flummoxed his good friend Bernard Shaw, who “was apparently dreadfully upset by Chesterton’s decision because he had thought he and Chesterton shared basic religious assumptions.” (Alzina S. Dale, The Outline of Sanity: A Biography of G. K. Chesteron [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], p. 234).

There are too many conceptual confusions in both theology and politics, and too many prejudices. So he is needful medicine in an early stage of life, but one must get past Chesterton as a central influence sooner rather than later.

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