on April 21, 2004
Before his series of Father Brown mysteries, G.K. Chesterton wrote "Orthodoxy," an autobiographical 'detective' story of how he came to believe the Christian faith. Drawing from "the truth of some stray legend or from the falsehood of some dominant philosophy...an anarchist club or a Babylonian temple what I might have found in the nearest parish church," Mr. Chesterton playfully and inductively reasons his way toward the one worldview that best explains and preserves the phenomena in the world he found around himself.
The world around Mr. Chesterton was rife with Modernism in the early twentieth century. Based on philosophies of the late nineteenth century, religious and political traditions were being questioned. Anarchism, communism, and socialism were the parlor topics of the day; the merely symbolic importance of religion was being settled upon. These are the roots of our post-modern society today in which the meaning of nearly everything (even words, according to literary deconstructionists) is now in doubt. At one point in the chapter entitled "The Suicide of Thought," Mr. Chesterton quips, "We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table." An exaggeration even today, undoubtedly. Still, we have traveled quite a distance philosophically since the era before the World Wars, and "Orthodoxy" is an excellent snapshot of where we've come from.
But be warned: This snapshot captures a lot of active thought. It took me a couple of reads over as many years to get a handle on the structure of the book, and now the rest of it has been becoming clearer to me. Part of the problem is Mr. Chesterton's writing style. There is much playfulness in his language, and a reader could mistakenly conclude that the author's reasoning relies heavily upon wordplay, the turn of a phrase to turn the tables on his opponents. It can become frustrating if one isn't careful. Mr. Chesterton himself acknowledges this impression, "Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise the most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused." But don't miss the meat for the gravy (or the salad for the dressing, as your case may be). The potency of his arguments doesn't rely on his clever semantics but on his connections between observed facts and the ancient, corresponding orthodoxy of Christianity. Mr. Chesterton has fun with words because he can, not because he needs to.
This mixture of cleverness and careful thinking ultimately leads Mr. Chesterton to this conclusion: Christian faith is well-reasoned trust in Christ. And the desire for well-reasoned trust is a "practical romance," as Mr. Chesterton calls it--a need in the ordinary person for "the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure...an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome." A way to accept the knowable while looking beyond it toward what is yet to be known.
Mr. Chesterton wrote "Orthodoxy" for people looking for that kind of romance. "If anyone is entertained by learning how the flowers of the field or the phrases in an omnibus, the accidents of politics or the pains of youth came together in a certain order to produce a certain conviction of Christian orthodoxy, he may possibly read this book." However, this book isn't for everyone. "If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing." The inconvincible cannot be convinced. Yet the skeptical (such as Mr. Chesterton once was) can be because they are the doubters who're still looking around. I myself come from a skeptic's background and regard "Orthodoxy" as a plausible, if sometimes difficult to comprehend, and wonderful way someone can come to trust the claims of Christianity.
on February 12, 2004
Some books are timeless classics. In the world of Christian classics Orthodoxy is one of them. It is G. K. Chesterton's account of his search for authentic Christianity in the midst of the conflicting voices of the modern world. So it is both deeply theological and also personal, even quirky, in its critical review of the various other, opposing approaches to life.
Chesterton was a contemporary of Leo Tolstoy, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Much of what he writes is "in answer" to them and their divergent views of the meaning of life.
Chesterton came to a deeply held Christian faith that took its outward expression in his 1922 conversion to Roman Catholicism. Today, Chesterton is best remembered as the creator of the "Father Brown" detective stories, but he was a prolific writer, penning studies of Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906), novels including The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), poems, collected in 1927 and essays, collected in Tremendous Trifles (1909) and Come to Think of It (1930).
In the opening chapter of Orthodoxy, Chesterton "eliminates the competition" by skewering competing world-view theories, showing their warts and all. He then describes flawed approaches to life that will lead to despair, in the second chapter, "The Suicide of Thought." Having put erroneous views to rest, for the remainder of the book he describes the central truths of Christianity as the only correct way of understanding creation and human life.
Chesterton portrays himself as one who has traveled all around the world, only to have arrived at home again as if it were some new and strange land. "Home" being the traditions of Christian faith. Such a journey may seem unnecessary, but you will agree that same paradox appears in everything from Dorothy's journey in the "Wizard of Oz" to T. S. Eliot in "Little Gidding." It is the way of human kind, according to Chesterton, to seek and to find-even if what is found was "there all along." (A fact echoed in Chesterton's dedication of the book "To My Mother").
Those who read Orthodoxy will travel with Chesterton as guide-which may be the best way to go, because he is an amusing intellectual companion who has trod that way before.
Philip Yancey wrote the foreword to this edition and claims this book transformed his Christian understanding. If that is not enough to tempt you to read it, perhaps this quotation will: "The orthodox church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox church was never respectable... It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own." (page 149).
Chesterton has been called been called "the prince of paradox" because his theology is often robed in a light, energetic, rapid-paced and whimsical style. This was brought about to no small degree by his custom of dictating all of his writings. (A custom, we might note, shared by none other than the Apostle Paul).
on May 28, 2003
Like most others who have read Chesterton, I find him enjoyable, hilarious, and utterly commonsensical. Orthodoxy is the perfect introduction to the man and his writings.
(...)The orthodoxy Chesterton speaks of is not the Eastern Christianity but traditional Christian doctrine from even before there was a division in the Church. It is akin to Lewis's Mere Christianity in that it is not in any particular denomination but mainly to be found in the early creeds of the Church which the vast majority of Christians acknowledge as authoritative (e.g., Apostles', Nicene).
In response to those who dismiss Chesterton's views as "unscientific" or "outdated," I answer, as Chesterton might, that a strictly empirical method of acknowledging reality is not defensible on strictly empirical grounds, and to assert such is thoroughly narrow-minded and dogmatic, or something to that effect. Chesterton's treatement of foreign peoples may often be characterized by ill-informed or distorted views, but I cannot recall any malice towards them. In our society so eager to be offended, many often overlook the truths within satire, or satirical writing. As for his views just being an excuse to be contrary, if anything he was seeking to be the same, similar to two thousand years of Christianity. As he famously writes "Tradition is the democracy of the dead."
Finally, I believe that any unprejudiced person, while perhaps not agreeing completely, would find it difficult to deny out-of-hand Chesteron's characterizations of man, man's sinful nature, and his wonder at the universe. And at the very least, his style is engaging and Orthodoxy is certainly great reading.
on November 13, 2001
"Orthodoxy" is described by Chesterton as "a slovenly autobiography", a description that's really not too far off the mark. Instead of depending upon rigorous logic, the contents of this work are rather "mental pictures" of a sort, which is what the author states at the outset. This sort of approach is easy to attack by any contrarian skeptic, but I can't criticize Chesterton, as he and I are really cut from the same cloth. Loath to state the obvious, we both prefer to *illustrate* the truth via induction. This is a perfectly valid method of presenting ideas, it's just that it's easy to misunderstand and misrepresent. It's for this reason that this book probably wouldn't change someone's mind-kind of a litmus test for the open-minded, which, it turns out, self-proclaimed 'skeptics' or 'freethinkers' are anything but.
Chesterton makes two really good points throughout the book: 1) sanity lies in maintaining seemingly opposed extremes in a kind of dramatic tension. It's not balance, it's both at once. It's not a contradiction, it's a paradox. Christianity fits this like nothing else: singularity/plurality, freedom/servanthood, individuality/assimilation, etc., all are fused together in seeming contradiction of common sense. But don't we always find truth to be stranger than fiction? In contrast, monomania is a kind of insanity, like total belief in oneself, or the belief that one unfalsifiable human construct, like evolution, completely illuminates everything. 2) The importance of maintaining a kind of humble childlike wonder about the world, the universe, about existence itself. What if you saw a four-inch-long fully-functional helicopter hovering about? Wouldn't that be delightfully incredible? Not too long ago, after reading this book, it dawned on me, upon observing a dragonfly, that that was precisely what I was looking at. I'm not even talking about creationism, irreducible complexity, any of that. It is in fact, neither here nor there. Just the fact that such a marvelous thing should exist, by any means, is truly stupendous. It should inspire deeper thought about fundamental issues. The modern-day 'scientific' priesthood is perpetually at pains to systematically dismantle the ability to see things this way even as they proclaim it superficially.
The funny thing about Chesterton's writing is that he gets so wrapped up in his ideas that rather strange-sounding, apparent non-sequiturs come up every so often. A sample Chestertonism: "As a fact, anthropophagy [cannibalism] is certainly a decadent thing, not a primitive one. It is much more likely that modern men will eat human flesh out of affectation, than that primitive man ate it out of ignorance." Well, duh!? As in his Father Brown mysteries, Chesterton loves to toss off sweeping statements, and is a bit too shy of explicating his ideas with the utmost clarity sometimes; chalk it up to slovenliness, I guess.But for the most part his ideas are sound and his writing thought-provoking.
on November 10, 2001
I think this book is one of the greatest apologies for the Christian faith ever penned; possibly even better than C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity". Rather than attempting to build an airtight logical argument from the ground up in which the reader is forced to accept the premises of Christianity or be logically inconsistent, Chesterton builds his apologetic on the idea of wonder and imagination. He attempts to show that anyone who enjoys an imaginative, romantic, adventure filled life owes it to themself to look into the Christian faith, because this is exactly what it offers. He offers a frank disclaimer at the beginning of the book in which he says that anyone who does not want this kind of life need not read this book because it has nothing to offer them. He constantly attempts to make the reader see the mystery and the glory of normal, everyday things and then argues that Christianity offers the best possible scenario for holding together the mysterious with the mundane. The fact that the book is focused on mystery, romance, and imagination, however, is not to say that Chesterton rejects logic or good critical thinking altogether. To the contrary, he delightfully skewers, slices, and dices the inconsistency and ridiculousness of a great deal of worldly wisdom and the popular thinking of his age, which, as it turns out, does not look all that different from a great deal of the accepted wisdom of our own. Chesterton, however, recognizes that logic has it's limits, and that it cannot fully appeal to or account for all that makes us human. The book is filled with many wonderful passages, and there are parts of the book where it seems like every line you read is a quotable quote. So, with Chesterton's disclaimer in mind, if you are looking for an eminently readable, and unique defense of the Christian faith you owe it to yourself to get this book.
On a final note, I feel the need to respond to the reader who accuses Chesterton of being racist and elitist in this book. I'm wondering if the reader read the same book I did, as I found nothing that I can recall that was racist or elitist at all, and anyone who knows anything about Chesterton at all will know that he was neither of these things. Chesterton was one of the greatest spokesmen of all time for the importance of ordinary people and common values and morality, and, especially in his later life, was an outspoken opponent of racist practices and groups like eugenics and the Nazi party.
on October 23, 2000
Orthodoxy is written for the poet and the child in each of us (The latter being that part of us Jesus said can inherit the Kingdom). Orthodoxy is, at the same time, one of the wisest, and funniest, books I have ever read; almost up to the level of Everlasting Man. It seems to me he does give a logically challenging, if rather whimsical, argument for the Christian faith here. And having read many of the most famous skeptics of our time, his argument remains no less timely, powerful, and suggestive.
How do I explain the reaction of the reader below, then, who appears intelligent, but finds "Little that is intellectually bearable" in this book, and could not even read it through once without throwing it down in disgust? For one thing, Chesterton's approach is not scientific, but psychological. For those to whom science is the only god, a little prior reading might be worthwhile -- John Polkinghome or Hugh Ross on evidences for the Creator in modern cosmology, for example. Let Scott Peck's People of The Lie search your heart. Or even try my book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, which offers empirical evidence of a more historical nature for the truth of the Christian claims. Let the facts presented in these books take the edge of your arrogance.
Then, maybe, go for a walk through Mt. Rainier National Park when the huckleberries are reddening in the fall, or skin dive in Hawaii. Or walk through a dark forest on a clear night when the stars are out. Observe and wonder. Become a child again. Laugh at your certainties and prejudices a little. Then try reading this book again.
"(Skepticism) discredits supernatural stories that have some foundation, simply by telling natural stories that have no foundation." "The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer Light, fair as the sun. . .""To be allowed to make love to the moon and then to complain that Jupiter kept his own moons in a harem seemed to me a vulgar anti-climax." You still don't see the relevence or wisdom of such teachings? Oh, well. Chesterton did warn, "If a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. . . It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything -- even pride." This book, I guess, is no exception.
on November 13, 1998
This book is Chesterton's defence of orthodox Christianity. It is partly autobiographical, in the sense that Chesterton describes various insights into the nature of reality, and various puzzles about reality, and then shows how (to his astonishment) the Christian faith accounts for the insights and answers the puzzles.
The following quote expresses this idea:
"This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden."
But don't just take my word for it! You can read it online from the G.K.Chesterton web page and then buy the book!
on July 8, 1998
Portly, fun loving, witty G.K. Chesterton decided to write this book as a companion volume to his book HERETICS. Since HERETICS had criticised contemporary philosophies, ORTHODOXY was written to present an alternative viewpoint, and is therefore both affirmative in tone and autobiographical in many places. A sampling of his chapter titles gives some idea of Chesterton's sense of fun as well as his unusual approach to the matter of Christianity. Chapter one is "In Defense of Everything Else" (one pictures Chesterton with a whimsical, impish smile on his face as he wrote this). There are also chapters on "The Suicide of Thought", "The Ethics of Elfland" (a really superb chapter), "The Maniac", and "The Paradoxes of Christianity". In this easily readable book (only 160 pages in the small paperback edition), Chesterton shows that theological reflections and philosophical ruminations need be neither boring nor incomprehensible. This was jolly good fun to read, being both funny and intellectually stimulating. Highly recommended.
on November 10, 1997
Those who have read Chesterton realize that he is the sort of man with whom the world is blessed every 100 years or so. A master writer and wry philosopher, Chesterton provides in his book Orthodoxy one of the best summaries available concerning the life in Christ. Even though he found God calling him to the Church of Rome, readers from a wide range of backgrounds - evangelical Protestants of all "flavors", fundamentalists, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentacostalists, Lutherans, and yes, Roman Catholics - will discover new insights into their walk with the Christ.
Chesterton has the ability to make us see things anew. In Orthodoxy, he helps us to see the Church in a new way, and he helps us to see afresh the One who founded His Church - Jesus Christ. The book is not an apologetic for Roman Catholicism, but rather one for orthodox Christianity itself.
Chesterton is simultaneously a master of the written word and one who knows his Master. To borrow a phrase (applied to something else, but applicable here) of Richard John Neuhaus, Chesterton is a "singular grace note in God's creative purpose". For those who have not read Chesterton, Orthodoxy is probably the best place to start, followed by The Everlasting Man, followed by the delighful (and insightful) Father Brown stories, followed by ...
on January 24, 2001
CS Lewis is hailed as perhaps the most widely-known Christian apologist. This may be true, but Chesterton is by far the most satisfying apologist from a literary standpoint. In Orthodoxy, he writes in response to a newspaper journalist's attacks on Christianity, and does so in such compelling prose that this is considered not just a Christian classic, but a literary treasure. He delves into parallels and metaphors so perfect that they lend credibility to his arguments and serve to maintain a reader's interest throughout.
Do not be deceived, however, into thinking this is an easy read. It most certainly is not. Chesterton's prose is written in the English of his time, which may seem antiquated to some readers, and his style is very dense and requires concentration. Not the concentration required for, say, Ulysses, but neither is it fluff to be read in an afternoon. To the reader willing to devote the time and energy, this is a treasure.