While in seminary, I often distinguished between those who read John Calvin and those who read Calvin on the john. For some, theological reading is a matter of business; for others, pleasure. It certainly hasn’t helped that many of our greatest thinkers lost their charm as soon as they applied pen to paper. The uninspired writer will express vast thoughts with tedious words conjoined by hyphens; the inspired writer will bend the language itself to accomplish his purposes.
G. K. Chesterton was such a writer. Orthodoxy might be the most famous of his works as he wields his wit in defense of the Christian faith. When the reader picks up this book, he must quickly make up his mind: “Am I here for business or pleasure?” By the end of the introduction, his mind is made up: “Both.” Chesterton was not only a profound thinker, but a writer par excellence.
Now, why review Orthodoxy? This an older work with an established following—but I was not one of the followers. Reading theology didn’t seem like much fun in my younger years, but…well…when a man is barely on the sunny side of 40 years of age, he must start eating his vegetables. But not straight. They need to be dressed up. Thankfully, B&H Academic published a new edition of this work, with notes throughout by Dr. Trevin Wax, known to many of us through The Gospel Coalition.
I thought I was in for a lecture, but after a few visits to the brewery with Chesterton and Wax alongside, I found I had made a friend. Amongst Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead,” I saw a hand raised, a pen wielded, and found a wise counselor.
I challenge you, reader, to try to put this book down after reading the introduction. I would show you my copy, but it is obscured by all my markings. What I love above all from the opening is Chesterton’s self-deprecation. Just a brief sampling from pages 7–8:
“For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me.”
“It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.”
“I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne.”
“And I was punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths: but I have discovered not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine.”
“I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”
“I have written the book, and nothing on earth would induce me to read it.”
Regardless of the overarching points that Chesterton is making in this book, there has to be something axiomatic that we could take away from his form. Perhaps it is this: If you mock your opponents, you will be sure to gain enemies. If you mock yourself, you will be sure to gain friends. It is easy to see why Chesterton’s writing disarmed C. S. Lewis in his atheist days. It is hard to attack those who attack themselves. In fact, you might be a little more receptive to their cries.
While the form of writing is just as important as its function, prose is only profound if there is quite simply—beneath all the rhetorical devices—something to say. And here, Chesterton does not disappoint us either. If I could sum up one of the central thrusts of this book in my own words: Christianity makes sense of the world. Our critiques of Christianity show that we are out of touch with the world.
In chapter four, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Chesterton shows how Christianity pulls back the veil on reality. He also does this in a way that should connect with our postmodernists of today—by using stories to reason his way to God. “I always felt life first as a story,” he writes, “and if there is a story there is a storyteller” (82).
The first thing we all believe are fairy tales—and “they are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic” (67). They paint for us pictures of the world as it actually is, not as we wish it to be. They are the “sunny country of common sense” (67). They “touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment” (73). These stories draw our hearts outward to a world—and God—of unlimited possibilities. It is the rationalistic stories we tell ourselves in our adult years that reduce the world to the horizon of our limited imagination.
Again, considering Lewis in relation to Chesterton, it is hard not to see this notion of fairy tales bound up in Prince Caspian’s childhood nursemaid. She fueled his imagination and hope with her tales of Aslan. Though she was subsequently exiled, Caspian’s heart and mind were still set aflame by her tales. They inspired his heroic quest to restore all that had been lost in Narnia. When Aslan discovers the old nursemaid in the end—sickly and dying as Narnia had been—he breathes new life into her and vindicates her tales with his truth. Chesterton likely would’ve added a hearty “Amen.”
Chesterton uses later chapters to vindicate the Christian worldview in other ways. He argues in “The Paradoxes of Christianity” that it is only Christianity that refuses to smooth out the rough edges of this world. Instead of reducing the paradoxes in an artificial and grotesque way, it embraces the paradoxes. It holds seemingly opposite ideas and extremes together and makes them friends. In “The Eternal Revolution,” he shows how other worldviews seek to bludgeon reality into submission and make it conform to their belief systems. Do not Christian notions of both a created and fallen order—of both a dignified and depraved human race—make better sense of this world we can barely comprehend?
These arguments can occasionally be quite complex and the worldviews that Chesterton engages can feel quite foreign for a twenty-first century audience. Many of the utopians of his day died in the trenches of the first world war. Those who escaped the seeping gasses crawled out of those trenches and brought a century’s worth of cynicism with them. You will rarely find people who believe in man’s inevitable progress. More likely, you’ll find them in despair over his inevitable regress. Thankfully, Trevin Wax’s comments along the way guide us through the unfamiliar passages of thought and time.
The book fittingly closes with “Joy: The Gigantic Secret of Christianity” (229–232). Joy is not a proof for the Christian faith, but when that faith is proven, joy is most certainly the result. This strong finish might also contend in my mind for this book’s greatest weakness. The end doesn’t keep up with the beginning. It lacks the personal grace and self-deprecating charm that beckoned the reader further.
Yet we should not hold Orthodoxy’s errancy against it. We alone as Christians are blessed with the Book of books and must not condemn truth’s facsimiles because they are not the original autograph. Orthodoxy always belonged on the shelf of the theologically minded. With Trevin Wax’s notes in the new edition, the rest of us should harbor a place for this work as well. Is theological reading a matter of business or pleasure? This work offers a satisfactory rejoinder: “Why choose?”