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by John Warwick Montgomery
When we think of Chesterton today, we think of Father Brown, the quintessential priest-detective. But, like Conan Doyle, who believed his more serious writings were more important than his Sherlock Holmes stories, Chesterton’s central thrust (even in the persona of Father Brown) was elsewhere. At heart, Chesterton was a controversalist, or, better, an apologist. What he really wanted to achieve was to bring his contemporaries (and us!) back to sanity by showing the truth of classic Christian orthodoxy.
True, he seems to discount his apologetic role. In one of his most important books, Orthodoxy, he claims that he is doing spiritual autobiography, not apologetics. He goes so far as to declare: “I never read a line of Christian apologetics.” But in effect this put him in the same category of originality as Wittgenstein, who refused to read traditional philosophy and thereby created something truly original himself.
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.
- G.K. Chesterton (1922)
Chesterton’s Apologetic Impact
The proof of the pudding in Chesterton’s case is the influence he has had on contemporary and subsequent defenders of the faith. Etienne Gilson, the great medievalist, said that Orthodoxy was the best apologetic the 20th century had yet produced. When Chesterton died, Charles Williams of the Oxford Inklings lamented, “The last of my Lords is dead.” In his obituary for Chesterton, T.S. Eliot stated flatly that Chesterton “did more than any man of his time” to “maintain the existence of the [Christian] minority in the modern world.”
Chesterton’s impact on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien was immense. When Lewis asserts concerning the gospel story that “here and here only in all time the myth must become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man,” and Tolkien declares, “this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. Legend and history have met and fused,” they are echoing Chesterton:
In answer to the historical query of why it was accepted, and is accepted, I answer for millions of others in my reply: because it fits the lock; because it is like life. It is one among many stories; only it happens to be a true story. It is one among many philosophies; only it happens to be the truth.
And when C.S. Lewis, in the final volume of the Narnian Chronicles, has the children find in Narnia companions they thought they would never see again and learn that in God’s kingdom “no good thing is ever lost,” he picks up from where Chesterton left off…
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