Books That Rocked My World: G.K. Chesterton's “Orthodoxy”
The world of books is as deep as it is wonderous. It's amazing how books written centuries ago can still start a spark in our modern minds. C.S. Lewis once said, "It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between." We recently asked our writing team to consider what book, not published in the last century, has most impacted their life? Today, Tod Worner discusses one of the writers featured in Bishop Barron's Pivotal Players, G.K. Chesterton and his incredible work, Orthodoxy.
We sat around last night and laughed.
Boy, G.K. Chesterton can be difficult to read.
It was our second gathering. Five friends had committed to reading Chesterton’s brilliant 1908 classic of apologetics, Orthodoxy. Our plan has been to read three chapters each month, meet and discuss over drinks and hors doeuvres and finish in three months before moving on to another Catholic classic.
But Chesterton can be hard.
My first exposure to this winsome, three hundred-pound genius was (believe it or not) when weight lifting in high school. To lessen the pain of each exercise, I would page through a dense book of quotes between sets. I hazily recall that, without fail, the two most insightful and entertaining figures repeatedly cited were Winston Churchill and G.K. Chesterton. Sadly, I didn’t truly know who either man was at the time.
I do now.
My next encounter came during my internal medicine residency when a dear friend (and, at the time, attending physician) invited me to Dale Ahlquist’s American Chesterton Society conference at the University of St. Thomas. I have never encountered such a bright, witty, eclectic mix of people devoting time and consideration to the apologetics and plays, detective fiction and essays of G.K. Chesterton. Suddenly, I began to realize there was truly something to this British Catholic from a bygone age.
But it was in the basement pub known locally as William’s where, amidst a peanut-littered floor and tall beers, a medical student handed me a beaten-up Image paperback, looked me in the eye and said, “I think you’ll like this.”
It was Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
Now, I’ll admit, I was reading John Cornwell’s shoddy hit job on Pope Pius XII, Hitler’s Pope, at the time and quietly nursing certain resentments against the Catholic Church. So when a Catholic book boldly titled Orthodoxy was handed to me, it could just as well have been called Rigidity or Dogmatism. I was intrigued, but skeptical.
So, I read it.
But I have to be honest. My first reading was under a palapa in Mexico edified by Coronas, chips and guacamole. And I didn’t get it. At all. Chesterton’s writing seemed to be tangential and abstract, witty and stone-serious. As soon as I was hitting my stride, I would fall on my face over some clever word-play or sharp change of subject. After closing the book and considering it, my impression was that Orthodoxy was overrated. It had its bright shining treasures, but they were seemingly buried in a morass of dense impenetrable jungle.
But, for some reason, I couldn’t let it go.
As I found myself on an inexorable journey to Catholicism, I kept encountering snatches of Chesterton. Brilliant insights like,
“The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the exhilaration of a vice.”
“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
And I also found thoughtful Catholics – contemporary legends like Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Fr. James Schall, Pope Benedict XVI and deceased giants like Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Archbishop Fulton Sheen – returning again and again to the wisdom and insight of G.K. Chesterton. What was it about this guy? And was I wrong to dismiss him?
In a word, yes.
Orthodoxy is a book about everything. It is a perfect desert island book (after the Bible, the Catechism and the complete works of William Shakespeare). But it is, first and foremost, a reaction. When Chesterton wrote Heretics, a 1905 winsome demolition of the fashionable intellectual offerings of his day, he was accused of being a contrarian with no philosophy to propose. In response, Orthodoxy was born. It has been called Chesterton’s true intellectual biography as well as his story of conversion to Catholicism (fourteen years prior to officially entering the Church).
Orthodoxy challenges our assumptions – not with some new-fangled, modish theory – but by thoughtfully, puckishly helping us revive what we have neglected: our child-like wonder and common sense. Chesterton speaks to the romantic within who, he reminds us, has a truer sense of reality than the dismissive cynic. He takes us on elephantine adventures in pursuit of the gloriously obvious: the dignity of freewill, the poetry of mystery, and the beauty of imagination. He revels in the paradoxes, glories in the intellectual swordplay, and laughs loudest at his own foibles (for he is everyman). Chesterton is reminded (and reminds us) of what we have forgotten: who we are. We are fallen, yet dignified children of God. In fact, Chesterton’s whole journey is not one of discovery, but of rediscovery. There is an angst, an alienation and a dissatisfaction with the degrading narrative that the modern world tells us about ourselves. But when Chesterton rediscovered what he once knew, that our earthly existence is a temporary state and we were made for someplace else, he squealed, “My soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring.”
Perhaps, one of Chesterton’s most enduring insights defining his own intellectual and spiritual journey in Orthodoxy (and giving the book its iconic title) was when he saw where his instincts and common sense led him (not unaided by the Holy Spirit, I might add). His arrogance led to a foolish joy; his pride to a gleeful humility.
“I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it…When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion… 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.”
In discovering the fallacies of modern philosophies, Chesterton rediscovered the Truth of Christianity.
It has been sixteen years since that medical student handed me Orthodoxy in William’s pub. And I have read or listened to it over a dozen times. Now, my friends and I are studying it together. It is brilliant. Every time.
So take it from me…when you are tempted to set down a Catholic classic because it is too hard or too dry or not relevant, be still, take a deep breath and try again (now or in the future). The book is not on trial, you are.
Perhaps Chesterton said it best,
“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”
I couldn’t agree more.