Let’s Look at a Book: Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton
Today, I want to talk to you about books.
As far as book titles go, Orthodoxy is pretty intimidating. It sounds like a fat and dusty textbook kept on the shelf of a seminary somewhere, waiting to devour it’s next victim with the power of pure tedium.
Fortunately, it isn’t.
Orthodoxy is actually one of the many books created by G. K. Chesterton, a prolific writer and journalist from the late 19th early 20th century. He was well known and well loved during his lifetime, but it seems that his works have been largely forgotten by the popular culture of our day. Still those who do find his work often become fans. Individuals from as wide a range as C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, Philip Yancey, Fulton J. Sheen, Jorge Luis Borges, Marshall McLuhan (and for all you fellow Communication graduates out there, yes, it’s that Marshall McLuhan), and even Gandhi himself have all claimed that Chesterton’s writings had a deep impact on their life. In fact, it was only because of the joint recommendation of C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey (through their own writings, naturally) that I decided to give Orthodoxy a try. I’m very glad that I did.
It’s an excellent book; not only because Chesterton is an accomplished and talented writer, but because it contains a perspective on reality that I never encountered before. Chesterton does not play his instrument to the tune that I am accustomed to hearing. Even though we are both orthodox Christians I find Chesterton saying the wildest and most outrageous things. The best example of this is a section of chapter four where he boldly states that
“When asked why egg turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’ clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a “law,” for we do nut understand it’s general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen…All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “Necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The shun shines because it is bewitched (pgs 57-58).”
When I first encountered that passage it made my head spin. It was so completely opposed to what I had been taught to value. I’m a romantic, and a lover of fantasy, but this seemed to much! Trees aren’t magic. The law of gravity isn’t magic! I felt offended. It was a good offense, because it made me realize concepts I hold that I’ve always taken for granted. Chesterton is doing this constantly. I’ve read many writers of apologetics but Chesterton is some other breed entirely. I can usually follow, and sometimes predict, what a writer is getting at. Chesterton surprises me almost continuously. His ideas seem fresh and unique because they are actually old and common: in other words, orthodoxy.
The book can be intimidating for many readers. It is an old book, and old books take care to read and understand. Still, Shakespeare does not lose its luster simply because its language is hard to penetrate. Age coats old works like layers of tarnish, obscuring their meaning: but if you’re willing to break through that tarnish you’ll find it shines as brightly as it ever did. The same is true of Orthodoxy, though you’ll certainly find it easier to read than Shakespeare. What the age of the book takes away from easy readability it adds in new perspective. There are things that we all take for granted because they are held in common at this point in time. In the past (and certainly in the future) people had different perspectives. Chesterton arguably had a unique perspective even compared with his own contemporaries. The funny thing is that Chesterton would insist that his perspective was not unique at all; that it was the common view held by the church for over a thousand years; orthodoxy. If it seems strange to us perhaps it is because we are more of a child of our own age than of all ages.
Long story short: it’s a great book, and you should read it if you get a chance.