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g-k-chestertonIf you’ve read C. S. Lewis, you’ve read G. K. Chesterton, indirectly at least. Lewis listed Chesterton among his influences, and those who are familiar with both apologists can hear the echoes of Chesterton in the work of Lewis.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a poet, a journalist, an essayist, a literary critic, a novelist, and apologist. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, he was the first writer to refer to “Western” culture and civilization.

Chesterton was a big man (in more ways than one) who made a big splash. How did he engage his culture and why does he still matter? I offer four reasons:

1. Chesterton saw the big picture and would not compartmentalize the world.

Chesterton was a thinker who believed the purpose of education was to make sense of the world and our role in it. Thinking and education are not ends in themselves; they are about “connecting things.” 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.

2. Chesterton unmasked false presuppositions as he promoted a Christian worldview.

Chesterton often turned things upside down so his readers could then see them right side up. He made a winsome case for Christianity by poking holes in the assumptions of his opponents. It’s not by force of will, but force of wit that he startles you and makes you think. A few examples:

  • 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.

Chesterton loved to point out that arguments against Christianity are often contradictory. For example, Christians are accused of being too joyful in the face of evil and suffering; they are also accused of being dour prudes who want to squelch the joy of everyone else. How can both be true?

The takeaway from Chesterton’s apologetic strategy was not just his defense of the faith, but the manner in which he went about his task. He debated his ideological opponents as friends, not enemies. He intended to convert enemies, not crush them. ”The aim of argument is differing in order to agree,” he wrote. “The failure of argument is when you agree to differ.”

3. Chesterton was not swayed by arguments that appeal to progress.

C. S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery,” a description of our temptation to look with disdain on previous eras as if they have little to nothing to offer our advanced society. You can trace the line from Lewis’ warning against chronological snobbery back to Chesterton’s consistent refutations of faddish ideas of “progress.”

Chesterton was always warning his readers about people who fancy themselves reformers who want to do away with social institutions without understanding their historical significance. A few quotes:

“While the truth… is outside time, the heresies are always tied up with the times.”

“The Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”

“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”

For Chesterton, Christianity must not be burdened by whatever is fashionable. It is an act of dignity to defy the fads of contemporary society. The dead fish floats downstream. It’s a sign of life to resist the flow of your culture and stand against the tide.

4. Chesterton exhibited a joyful exuberance at the wonder of existence.

Chesterton was never bored or boring. “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.

According to Chesterton, one way we pay tribute to our Creator is by our endless fascination with His creation. Take, for example, the classic essay “What I Found in My Pocket,” which gives insight into the clever and creative ways Chesterton’s curiosity led him on fantastic journeys of thought.

John Piper once explained why Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is one of the few books he has read twice:

“I will keep coming back to anyone who helps me see and be astonished at what is in front of my face – anyone who can help heal me from the disease of ‘seeing they do not see.'”

I echo the sentiment. Chesterton still matters for the model of cultural engagement he provides: a comprehensive vision of Christianity that touches all of life, challenges our modern sensibilities, and leads us back to childlike wonder at the world God has made.

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17 thoughts on “4 Ways G. K. Chesterton Engaged His Culture and Why He Still Matters Today”

  1. Matt E. says:

    Great article, Trevin. I just wrote something on gratitude based on a Chesterton quote.

  2. Curt Day says:

    With regard to Chesterton’s view of the family and how it is represented here, I think a distinction must be made between claiming that the family is a microcosm of the world and saying that the family has its own sovereign sphere. The former oversimplifies the world and all of the different parts and interdependencies that exist. But the complexity of the world does not imply that the family has no niche and set of contributions to make. Sometimes we Christians put the family on too high a pedestal such that we have oversimplified the world to make room for our view of the family. The family is very important but it isn’t a microcosm of the world.

    1. I'm just a bus driver. says:

      I respectfully disagree. To understand one’s place in the family, a role which changes with time and character development, is to understand one’s place in society.

      1. Curt Day says:

        But the family is still not a microcosm of the world, it simply helps us understand our role in the world. The world is much bigger and more complex than either ourselves or our families. BTW, I could never drive a bus.

        1. Jeff Manzer says:

          You are correct, that in one way the world is more complex than the family. However it is good to mediate on the idea the family is often more complex than the way we make the world. You are very complex. In the family, you can understand the complexities of relationships. If you think you can socially engineer society, try to start by trying to do so with any stubborn family member.

        2. clive says:

          i think that’s what microcosm means.

      2. Mike Madden says:

        Strongly agree!

  3. Brian Roden says:

    So I wonder if the folks at the BBC 51 years ago had read Chesterton when they decided to make the TARDIS “bigger on the inside.” Sounds like a potential paper: The Influence of G.K. Chesterton on British Science Fiction.

  4. Roger Patterson says:

    I am always curious as to why Chesterton has such an appeal among evangelicals when he was such a staunch Roman Catholic. This quote within the article is very telling: “The Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” I trust he really meant this based on his other writings.

    His Marian devotion is striking to me, but others suggest I look past that to find what is good in his writings.. As an ex-Mormon, I have little hunger for perusing Mormon authors looking for something that might satisfy the appetites of my mind.
    From Chesterton’s “Mary and the Convert”
    “But even in their bewilderment, they do bear witness to a need which is not so nonsensical as their attempts to fulfill it; the need of somehow summing up “all that sort of thing,” which does really describe Catholicism and nothing else except Catholicism. It should of course be described from within, by the definition and development of its theological first principles; but that is not the sort of need I am talking about. I mean that men need an image, single, coloured and clear in outline, an image to be called up instantly in the imagination, when what is Catholic is to be distinguished from what claims to be Christian or even what in one sense is Christian.

    Now I can scarcely remember a time when the image of Our Lady did not stand up in my mind quite definitely, at the mention or the thought of all these things. I was quite distant from these things, and then doubtful about these things; and then disputing with the world for them, and with myself against them; for that is the condition before conversion. But whether the figure was distant, or was dark and mysterious, or was a scandal to my contemporaries, or was a challenge to myself–I never doubted that this figure was the figure of the Faith; that she embodied, as a complete human being still only human, all that this Thing had to say to humanity.”

    As a Christian, I Iook to Christ, not “Our Lady,” when I want to contemplate my faith.

    1. David Rowe says:

      I don’t know whether you know this or not, but Chesterton often used ‘Catholic’ to describe himself before he converted – he was an Anglo-Catholic (ie. an Anglican who considered himself a Catholic) for most of his life, only baptized into Roman Catholicism in 1922, aged 48.

      In any case, evangelicals probably like Chesterton for the same reason they like CS Lewis – he was a great writer, with a tremendous grasp of the living core of the Faith and an amazing gift for bringing it to life for the reader. His use of the word ‘Orthodoxy’ mirrors Lewis’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’ and Stott’s ‘Basic Christianity’ – all three were discussing the Gospel truths, from three different theological starting points.

    2. Charles says:

      This is actually what i am wondering about as well, knowing that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. I don’t mean to sound to narrow but it’s just not appealing to me to know that Chesterton stands from a different platform from the faith once delivered to the saints. I have “Heretics” and “Orthodoxy” on my Kindle but after researching about Chesterton, it somehow turned me off from reading him. I’m willing to be corrected if my view is rather narrow minded.

    3. Trina says:

      Well, Catholics are still Christians. They do have some… weird… ideas, but ultimately, if they’re looking to Christ for salvation and not works or the Saints or whatever (and from what I’ve heard from my Catholic friends, they’re not) they will be saved. I’ve read a whole lot of Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mysteries, and it’s truly amazing. He was a superb writer and really understood the fundamentals of Christian faith–which are the same for Catholics and Protestants alike.

  5. Chris says:

    I couldn’t agree more! I’ve been thankful for Chesterton’s influence for a long time. If you’ll excuse the link, I’ve written more about this here:

  6. Striker says:

    I used to find Chesterton deeply appealing, but after a second read of Orthodoxy, I found him more like a windbag of fallacies than a font of wisdom. My favorite example of his misdemeanors is his attempted refutation of Hume on miracles. Chesterton accused Hume of denigrating the hypothetical old apple woman in saying that, categorically, she could not have been a reliable witness to a miracle. In characteristic fashion, Chesterton merely flipped Hume’s point: the old apple woman categorically must be considered a reliable witness. Of course, hogwash. She could be mistaken or . . . she could be lying. More than a few poor sops went to the gallows or had their reputations soiled because of lying or mistaken old apple women (and old farmers, too). Someone is not the salt of the earth just because of their station in life. In the case of testifying to alleged miracles, the incentive to lie is an especial form of temptation.

    And just for the record, Chesterton is wrong that non-believers cannot muse over whether the cosmos is ordered. We can, just as the pagan philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates did.

    Contrary to Chesterton’s blathering, it is possible for non-believers to contemplate whether or not the cosmos is ordered, thanks to pagans such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates.

    1. Randy says:

      Fwiw, I did an MA thesis on GKC and the family and arrived at the same conclusion, though of course I could be wrong.:) I believe the family is indeed a microcosm of life, and that for intrinsic reasons. It does require other interrelated assumptions to go there but I think the arguments are strong.

    2. Randy says:

      “Blathering” does not seem a fair description nor helpful to the easy reception of your argument. No?

    3. My opinion on this case is quite the contrary. In that section Chesterton wrote: “The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder.”

      The chapter’s whole point is that considering the existence of miracles and the mere possibility of the supernatural is more rational than their immediate dismissal, even before evidence for them. Chesterton clearly assumes that a miracle witness may be wrong, in the same way a murder witness also may be. What he points out is that disbelievers promptly assume that miracle witnesses are always wrong, either by exaggerated materialism or by prejudice (a court cannot dismiss a testimony on a murder just because it comes from an old apple-woman) — this is not only plainly illogical, but undemocratic and dogmatic in the worst sense.

      Anyway, Orthodoxy was not meant to be logically flawless. It meant to show that materialism is intrinsically flawed. The book’s first part about the world’s apparent logical symmetry — until you found out that the human heart is only on one side — is an image to illustrate that truth often suggests itself in paradox rather than in symmetrical, carthesian logic; and that common sense has more liberty to embrace such paradoxes than the so-called rational materialist.

      And the Aristotle, Socrates and Plato’s exemple reinforces Chesterton’s point, which does not refer only to Christianity. They were believers to a point they assume an orderly cosmos somewhat as a principle. The true unbelievers, skeptical rationalists who doubted the order in cosmos were the sophists they opposed.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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