Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), a book first published in 1908, is considered one of the top 25 Christian books of all time. Author Philip Yancey, in a chapter on Chesterton in his book Soul Survivor, calls him a Prophet of Mirth. Writes Yancey, “Chesterton himself said that the modern age is characterized by a sadness which calls for a new kind of prophet, not like the prophets of old who reminded people that they were going to die, but someone who would remind them that they are not dead yet. The prophet of ample girth and ample mirth [Chesterton] filled that role splendidly.”
Born in a suburb of London in 1874, and baptized into the Church of England at an early age, later in life, Chesterton became Roman Catholic. He married Frances Blogg in 1901, at age 27, a few years before he published Orthodoxy. His career was in journalism, mostly as a weekly columnist for the London News. Chesterton is widely known for his fiction short stories, featuring an amateur but brilliant detective, Roman Catholic priest, Father Brown, a series of tales that have been turned into theater, film, and numerous television series.
Chesterton was a large man, at 6’4″ in height, and nearly 300 pounds. A woman asked him in downtown London, during the World War I why Chesterton was not “out at the Front;” to which he replied, “If you go round to the side, you will see that I am.”
He was a prolific writer, with nearly 80 published books, hundreds of short stories, and thousands of essays on a wide variety of subjects.
His classic work, Orthodoxy, published in 1908, opens with a parable of a sea-faring man who sails away on his yacht, leaving the shores of England seeking to discover new worlds. He comes to shore “under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas,” only to discover he has “slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England.” Chesterton muses about this simple mistake: “His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”
This parable describes the spiritual seeker at the turn of the 20th century, with many English citizens, who were born and raised in the Christian Church, going off to seek some other newer and better spirituality. When they “come ashore,” all too often, they realized they only just rediscovered their own childhood faith, and have truly come home.
“How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? . . . . We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.” Both are found in his opening parable. Chesterton admits, “I am that man in a yacht. . . . 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.”
Early in Orthodoxy, Chesterton outlines a variety of modern forms of madness, including materialism and materialist philosophy of fatalism, Eastern mystical egoism, detached intellectualism, evolution, and determinism. All this, Chesterton summarizes as “a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility.”
Similar to Robert Fulghum’s 1989 book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Chesterton states in Orthodoxy, “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. . . . The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things.”
Included in fairy tales are “elementary wonder,” “the ancient instinct of astonishment,” “a positive element of praise,” “life [is] as precious as it [is] puzzling,” “conditional joy,” “incomprehensible happiness,” “this world is a wild and startling place.”
In his chapter, The Ethics of Elfland, Chesterton lays out his “ultimate attitudes towards life”: 1) The world does not explain itself (God alone explains us); 2) There is something personal and purposeful in the world (God’s presence and purpose); 3) This purpose is beautiful in its old design (God is beautiful in purpose and creative power); 4) We owe an obedience to whatever made us (we own obedience to God).
One of most attractive, yet perplexing aspects of Chesterton’s writing is his love of paradox. In fact, chapter 6 is titled, The Paradoxes of Christianity. In this chapter, he highlights numerous paradoxes that make up orthodox Christian faith: “pardoning unpardonable acts,” “loving unlovable people,” “room for rule and order, yet the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild,” “the lion lies down with the lamb,” “irregular equilibrium,” “birth through a Holy Spirit,” “death of a divine being,” “the forgiveness of sins.”
Chesterton declares, “This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. 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.” He describes the Christian faith as “one whirling adventure . . . the wild truth reeling but erect.”