Classics for the Contemporary Christian: The Straits of Orthodoxy

Book Reviews, Culture, Media, Religion, Worldviews — By on March 3, 2010 at 12:05 am

I have a bone to pick with G.K. Chesterton about his book Orthodoxy. It took me a ridiculously long time to read. He just had to go and make every sentence so delicious and profound that I was forced to sit back after every line in order to laugh at his wit or furiously scribble notes.

Think I’m making things up? I’ll open the book to three random sections and write down a sentence from each:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms: it means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”

“In that sense [that action desires limitation] every act is an act of self-sacrifice.”

“The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy.”

Case in point.

Here’s another problem: I read Orthodoxy for the first time less than a year ago, and re-read it this past week, but I could swear Chesterton took it off my shelf and re-wrote it during the interim. I was floored by it then, but I was stunned by the second read with greater potency than the first.

And also, of all of writers, Chesterton would be the one to devise such a prank.

Philip Yancey is spot-on when, in the introduction, he writes that Chesterton “preferred the role of jester.” Chesterton dresses his words in the bright, vivid colors of rollicking wit. This makes it all the more unexpected when, mid chuckle, one realizes that Chesterton just explained a wretchedly abstruse enigma in two sentences…and in a joke, no less!

Chesterton does not tackle the difficult subjects—he blows them over with a hardy “HA!

Orthodoxy is a comedic romance: it recounts the intellectual journey of Chesterton, the self-proclaimed “fool of this story,” through “elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.” The ‘obvious’ is Orthodox Christianity, made “perilous” and “exciting,”, says Chesterton, by a delicate, yet perfect equilibrium between egoism and altruism, materialism and mysticism, determinism and freewill, hate and love, saint and sinner, and so on–all while in pursuit of Christ, the fully Man and fully God.

Orthodoxy is also a book of comparison and contrast. Scientists, Nihilists, Buddhists, Unitarians…none escape Chesterton’s sharp eye and sharper wit.

He brings Orthodoxy against essentially every other possible worldview, faith, and philosophy, only to, with deep respect and good humor, hold them naked to the light of penetrating analysis. He strips pretense from all, demonstrating rationalists to be fantastical and revealing Buddhists as apathetic ‘quietists’. By the close, Chesterton brings his reader to a rich understanding of where he began—Orthodoxy. The perilous, exciting tradition of rational mysticism.

In the second chapter, Chesterton writes:

The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland…If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them…sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.

Orthodoxy has been accused of every excess and every corresponding deficiency. The reason, Chesterton points out, is that Orthodoxy, or “straight doctrine,” has always maintained a constant course between extremes—taking truth from each and holding them in tension. The ironic result is that Orthodoxy is called extreme by both sides.

No matter who the reader is, Orthodoxy can challenge her to look at the world with new wonder. For me, as one prone to rationalism, reading Chesterton caused me to look at a tree and think, “What a bizarre creation! Wood growing out of the ground—how fantastically absurd!”

For one who leans towards skepticism, Chesterton affirms that “reason is itself a matter of faith,” and free thought “exhaust[s] its own freedom” into weary despair.

I particularly enjoyed his response to libertarians who scorn tradition for the sake of free love and pleasure:

Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once…It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.

Orthodoxy is a fiercely joyful trek through cold mountaintops and scorching deserts to the Christian faith. It is, at the core, the fairy tale of Chesterton’s journey to Christ. Simultaneously, as he says, it is also a “riddle and its answer…solitary and sincere speculations and then…the startling style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology.”

Chesterton writes about recognizing Christian truth as if it were akin to waking on the first morning after a long trip and suddenly realizing, “Where am I? Oh, I’m Home!”

In Orthodoxy, he then opens the front door and invites us in for good conversation and a cup of tea, each taken with a good dose of vivacious mirth.


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  • JillD

    Bravo!! He deserves to be rediscovered, and just might be if enough folks read this spot-on review.

  • RIchard Jones

    Excellent review. I’ve always thought that if one were to poster Gilbert’s quotable ideas on the wall, the whole book would appear in once place or other.

  • http://nettieheidmann.xanga.com/ Annette Heidmann

    What an excellent review of a book I have been trying to get through! The going is slow, due, as you pointed out, to frequent epiphanies (and of course, a lot of blessed interruptions from the children). You inspire me to persevere, the rewards are sure to be great!

  • Suzan

    But what kind of tea? That’s really important.

  • http://dillieodigital.net/blog Sean Patterson

    Well said! I picked up Orthodoxy for the first time about a month ago and had to return it, only about a chapter in since I ran out of time with it. There is an amazing amount of stuff to process through it. I can’t wait until it becomes available again.

  • Robin Dembroff

    Ah, Suzan, the things is…Chesterton’s tea would actually be port, methinks.

    In one of his poems (http://chesterton.org/gkc/poet/feast.htm), he wrote:

    Feast on wine or fast on water
    And your honour shall stand sure,
    God Almighty’s son and daughter
    He the valiant, she the pure;
    If an angel out of heaven
    Brings you other things to drink,
    Thank him for his kind attentions,
    Go and pour them down the sink.

    I hear he liked a good Scotch too, but as an Englishman, surely that wasn’t something he advertised much. Hah.

  • Tim

    Chesterton is indeed brilliant, but I have a very hard time reading him because he sounds just like The Sphinx from Mystery Men.

  • http://rachelmotte.com Rachel Motte

    I have to agree with Tim on this one. I’ll admit that the guy is incredible, but I’ve never been able to even finish any of his books, let alone enjoy them. (Don’t hate me!) ;)

  • Robin Dembroff

    I’m not familiar with The Sphinx… what does he sound like?

  • http://rachelmotte.com Rachel Motte

    Robin,

    Meet the Sphinx:

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