The quote that leads this little “adventure” as noted is from one of my favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton. The following review is of what I consider to be the single best biography of Chesterton that has ever been written and delves into his mind and thought perhaps as well as any biographer could.
“Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere mention of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.”
– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: Bogley Head, 1908), 218–19.
One of the single most fascinating Christian apologists in the modern era, like C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), was not a trained theologian, but rather a man of letters, or as Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton (1874–1936), often referred to himself, “a journalist.” His chief secular antagonist (and good friend) George Bernard Shaw called him an individual of “colossal genius.” Known as a Roman Catholic apologist (although he did not convert to Catholicism until 1922), his works have been reprinted by several evangelical publishers and perhaps his most influence works, The Everlasting Man (1925), was identified by C. S. Lewis as a significant contribution to his own conversion, and one of the books that shaped his “vocational attitude and philosophy of life” (Christian Century, 79, No. 23 [6 June 1962], 719).
Interest in Chesterton and his works has never really waned since his death in 1936; however, in recent years interest in “GK” has steadily risen. In the last ten years there have been over 50 books produced with Chesterton as the central subject. Of all of these new volumes, the subject of this review stands out as a singular contribution.
Ian Ker is Senior Research Fellow in Theology at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford University. He states in the preface that his goal is to “help establish his [Chesterton’s] rightful position as the successor of the great Victorian ‘sages’, and particularly [John Henry] Newman” (xi). For Ker to seek to place Chesterton alongside Cardinal Newman is no flight of fancy, as he is one of the most noted living authorities on Newman and author of the formidable biography, John Henry Newman (Oxford University Press, 2009).
This volume is “the first full-length intellectual and literary life of Chesterton” (viii, xi) incorporating many heretofore little known or unpublished letters and other materials. The final product is a singular accomplishment, integrating insights into his multiple genres as well as his theological, socio-economic, and philosophic thoughts into a biographic tour de force.
Ker follows chronological style with allowances for the thematic approach he mentions in the preface. Straying from pure chronology was also somewhat forced upon Ker by his subject since Chesterton, “never dated” (viii) letters which he personally wrote. Ker devotes entire chapters to Orthodoxy (195–232) and The Everlasting Man (487–538). There is a listing of plates (xxi) and an abbreviation key to Chesterton’s works (xvii–xx). The index (731–47) is largely a name index, with subjects only being listed in relation to Chesterton himself and his wife Frances (née Blogg) Chesterton (1871–1938). The index is adequate, but only barely so, and although the book runs to nearly 800 pages, one could have wished that the publisher had expended a little more effort towards the exhaustive index which this volume deserves.
In creating this “literary life of Chesterton” (xi), Ker examines the creation of Chesterton’s major polemic and apologetic works, detailing the background and piecing together Chesterton’s personal life at the time of writing. Ker also spends a good deal of time on his major novels, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (127ff) and his most enduring novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (187ff). The Man Who Was Thursday, is the Chesterton novel Ker states, “will continue to be read” (125, 127). Thursday was Chesterton’s reaction against the pessimism of the 1890’s that he viewed, in contrast with the societal pessimism that enveloped England after World War I, as “the sad souls of the nineties lost hope because they had taken to much absinthe; our young men lost hope because a friend died with a bullet in his head” (192). It was a typical contrastive of Chesterton, pessimism caused by dwelling in self-induced unreality as opposed to the pessimism caused by the tragedies of real life. This reviewer would take some issue with the assertion by Ker that only these two novels will continue to be read. Both The Flying Inn (345–47) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (487) are novels we continue to enjoy.
Chesterton’s most “remembered” books are, of course, the Father Brown mysteries. The stories were highly profitable, when his bank account would run low, he was reported to have said, “Oh well, we must write another Father Brown story” (283). Ker’s discussion of the origination and development of Father Brown (282–90) is excellent. The examination and solving of crimes by an otherwise non-descript Roman Catholic priest combines Chesterton’s twin passions of the common man and the singular importance of Christian theology in everyday life.
Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are Chesterton’s two main theological works and they, perhaps as clearly as anything written, detail his view of Christianity and Catholicism, although, Orthodoxy was actually published 14 years before he entered the Catholic Church. Ker’s analysis of these volumes is worth the price of the entire book. For Chesterton Christianity, and the visible church, was a living and vital reality. He stated, “Plato has told you a truth, but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you any more” (228). “The Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me tomorrow” (ibid). In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton was dealing with a “post-Christian” society. Ker helpfully notes:
By pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians ‘still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.’ They are in a state of ‘reaction’: ‘They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being Anti-Christians.’ They are not ‘far enough away not to hate’ Christianity, nor are they near enough to love it’ (516).
Ker develops the theme of Chesterton’s humour in greater depth than any other biographical work and makes significant use of Chesterton’s Autobiography (published shortly after his death in 1836). Ker states:
The unfailing humour that was so significant an aspect of Chesterton’s personal life has its parallel in the enormous importance he attached in his writings to humour as a medium for comprehending and interpreting life, regarding comedy as he did as an art form at least as serious as tragedy (xi).
In this approach Ker demonstrates the singular skein that runs through his life and works, the difference from being serious about life, yet approaching it with humour and being solemnly humourless whereby one loses the joy of living life (506–07). Humour was so thoroughly entwined in his writings Chesterton remarked that he feared, “his humorous books were taken seriously and his serious books humorously” (550).
The literary device Chesterton is best known for is the use of paradox. Chesterton himself came to believe when he saw that “the paradoxes of Christianity are true to life” (150). Ker’s discussion of Chesterton and paradox is woven throughout the work, as it was in Chesterton’s life itself. Ker notes that Chesterton explained every aspect of Christianity and the Christian life by means of paradox. He summarizes Chesterton’s view of the pagan and Christian view of self by stating:
The pagans had set out to enjoy themselves but in the end made ‘the great psychological discovery’ that ‘a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else’, and that, ‘whereas it had been supposed that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by extending our ego to the infinity, the truth is that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by reducing our ego to zero’ (151).
Chesterton remains one of the most fascinating Christian apologists/philosophers of the modern era. He straddled the eras between Queen Victorian and the opening curtain of World War II. He wrote significant critiques of poets like Robert Browning and Robert Lewis Stevenson and also warned the world about the horrors that, left unchecked, Hitler and Nazism would certainly unleash on the world. He was a giant in the English literary world when Fleet Street was in its golden age. He saw the introduction of the telephone (which he personally was adverse to using) and in 1932 became a successful radio personality for the BBC. His radio success foreshadows the broadcasts of C. S. Lewis during World War II, from whence Mere Christianity (1945) would derive.
For evangelicals, of whom Chesterton often critical, he is a writer, apologist, and thinker of the first rank who remains vital to interact with today. While one may be disappointed that the final destination in his spiritual journal was the Catholic Church, if one reads Chesterton without profit it is not the fault of the writer. Ker has produced one of those rare biographies that is full of detailed information and personal anecdotes about the subject and never loses the author’s original goal. We cannot recommend this volume too highly..