Big in body and mind

September 22, 2011

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was big in many ways–in body, mind, and soul. As an essayist his writings range in subject matter from religion to economics, from popular culture to politics. He was also an exceptional writer of the murder mystery, biography, and even poetry.

It is welcome news to learn that there is something of Chesterton revival happening in the academy. Mike Hickerson of the ESN Blog put me on to the this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review.

As the piece mentions, Chesterton has long be sequestered in the realm of Christian apologetics and conservative politics, a favorite of Catholic reader of The National Review. There are some good reasons for this. Chesterton did, in later life, become a Roman Catholic leaving the Anglo-Catholicism of his earlier life.

His writings are deeply conservative in that they find their inspiration outside of the present moment. When asked to write an essay about my theological identity when applying to divinity school, I cited a favorite section of Orthodoxy where Chesterton describes the thrill of adventure to be found in landing on what appears to be a new shore in a new land and simultaneously discovering that it is one’s homeland. There are new vistas and new angles on familiar and traditional truth that make it every bit as exciting (and rather less cruel) than heresy.

Ironically, Chesterton is often cited by political conservatives. Perhaps this derives from his profound respect and admiration for the common man. Interestingly, Chesterton would be no favorite of today’s “conservatives,” many of whom tend to be Ayn Rand-style libertarians. Chesterton was quite critical of the capitalism that existed in his day, and worked deliberately to find ways to give expression to the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding labor. As a distributist, he critiqued both socialism and capitalism is concentrating wealth in too small a group–either the government or the owners of big business.

This critique is germaine today. As much as many of us fear the intrusion of government into many areas of our common and private life, we should do well to consider the ways in which big business too has a controlling interest in shaping, forming, and even controlling us.

Chesterton has long deserved a wider audience than he has enjoyed so it’s wonderful to hear that, at least in literary circles, the big man is making a comeback.

My favorite G K Chesterton books:

  1. Orthodoxy
  2. The Man Who was Thursday
  3. Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox