- THEOLOGY IN AISLE SEVEN
G.K. Chesterton -- Orthodoxy
I invited Justine Olawsky to review this book for us.
Orthodoxy Review by guest critic Justine Olawsky
There are books you keep and books you give away. And then, there are the books you buy over and over, because they manage to be both.
Orthodoxy is one of those.
Some books draw a line in the sand that, once crossed, leaves you changed forever. I can count on one hand the books that measure my life in terms of “before and after.” Orthodoxy is one of those. And, lastly, there are those rarest of books that can be picked up, opened to any page, and are so immediately engrossing that you wander off, nose to paper, and lose track of – well, of just about everything.
Orthodoxy is one of those.
Who wants to read a book by an early 20th century Englishman with such an intimidating title as Orthodoxy? Well, you do. Believe me, you do.
Never has so much been packed into such a slender volume – my edition weighs in at a scant 230 pages, with rather large type, to boot.
G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1903 for the Sunday Times that, “[I]f Christianity should happen to be true – then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything.
Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.” Orthodoxy is faithful to this vision – a sometimes wild, sometimes meandering journey that skewers the idols of the age (his and, remarkably, ours) with wit, sense, and charitable good humor.
This book is many things – a spiritual memoir, a philosophical manifesto, a reply to all forms of “modernism,” a theological meditation – but, it is never pedantic, preachy, or picayune.
In fact, it is the largeness of Orthodoxy that most astounds. This is a book of the big ideas so often disguised in trivialities.
When a friend asked me to explain what I loved most about Orthodoxy, I could not answer at the time. I loved it too immediately and viscerally to ponder the whys. After a period of reflection, I wrote to her that it was his sense of wonder and use of paradox that most stuck with me. He uses these two tools repeatedly to extrapolate the large from the small.
For instance, in response to the ideas of Calvinism and scientific fatalism – that Nature runs in a fixed, pre-determined course – Chesterton uses the illustration of a child happily kicking his legs rhythmically, interminably for no reason other than his pure, energetic enjoyment of it. And what has this to do with refuting material and spiritual fatalism?
Chesterton goes on to say, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again;’ and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.
For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But, perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. . .
It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” Wonder-filled, with a twist of paradox at the end. Signature Chesterton.
There is, perhaps, no other writer so completely comfortable with paradox – both as an expository device and a doctrinal reality. Orthodoxy so abounds in these gloriously reconciled irreconcilables that Chesterton titled an entire chapter, “The Paradoxes of Christianity.” And this is why Orthodoxy was a revelation. Never before had I been made so aware of the profound mystery of Christianity’s tenets.
No writer had ever set before me so many things I thought I knew, and then made them new. The greatest gift was a new level of peace in my faith – that sense that, while I had been turned upside-down and shaken a little, I was finally closer to right-side-up. While many Christian writers toil to produce reams that attempt to explain or tame the Creator of Heaven and Earth, G.K. Chesterton happily concluded that He was unexplainable and wild and invited me to share his wonderment and joy. “Joy,” he avers in the last chapter, “which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” It gets even more beautiful and scalp-prickling-goose-bumpy from there, but you’ll have to read Orthodoxy to find out why.