Heretics and First Things

We could use another Chesterton today, I think. In a time when culture and faith have drifted even further apart, we could use his brilliance, his entertaining style, and above all, his generous and joyful spirit. When society becomes polarized, as ours has, it is as if the two sides stand across a great divide and shout at each other. Chesterton had another approach: He walked to the center of a swinging bridge, roared a challenge to any single combat warriors, and then made both sides laugh aloud.

Why did Chesterton write Heretics and Orthodoxy? At the start, he did not conceive of two books that would explore opposite sides of the same metaphysical coin. He had only the book that would become Heretics in view. One overarching thought impelled him. “In our time,” he wrote, “philosophy or religion, our theory, that is, about ultimate things, has been driven out, more or less simultaneously, from two fields which it used to occupy”—literature and politics. This was deeply troubling. And so, with no little sense of urgency, Chesterton took it upon himself to mount a defense of philosophy.

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 9

In Chapter 9 of Defiant Joy, we learn that G.K. Chesterton wrote Heretics and Orthodoxy to address the watering-down of rich conversation in the public square.  In Chesterton’s assessment, words were ceasing to mean what they had formerly meant, and worse, there was an alarming inversion of ascribed fundamental values.

In her book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, Holly Ordway writes of  “verbicide” saying

The wider, richer, and more precise our vocabulary is, the more we will be able to use it to express ideas clearly and reflect on them deeply. Unfortunately, our language is subject to verbicide—the ‘murder’ of words through exaggeration or misuse, so that the original meaning is lost. Verbicide can kill words by distortion as well as by watering down their meaning, as in the use of ‘sinful’ to mean ‘enjoyable.’ If a delicious slice of chocolate cake can be ‘sinfully good,’ then the word ‘sin’ has no real meaning at all.

In Defiant Joy, Belmonte writes:

Bearing all this in mind, Chesterton distilled his reasons for writing Heretics to one sentence: “But there are some people, nevertheless—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.” And so he would undertake a detailed survey of the cultural landscape—seeking to unriddle and refute prevalent heresies. It was not too late, he believed, to regain ground that had been lost. He would do what he could to foster that good end.

Which words have changed meaning in your lifetime?

D I G  D E E P E R

Kevin Belmonte

Kevin Belmonte holds a BA in English from Gordon College, an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second master’s degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He has twice been a finalist for the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and in 2003, his biography, “William Wilberforce,” won that award. On several occasions, he has served as a script consultant for the BBC, and also for the PBS documentary, “The Better Hour.” For six years, he was the lead script and historical consultant for the critically-acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace.” He has spoken in a wide array of noteworthy settings, from the Houses of Parliament in London, and gatherings of legislators in Washington, D.C., to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. For several years, his biography of Wilberforce has been required reading for a course taught by David Gergen on leadership and character formation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Holly Ordway

Dr Holly Ordway is Professor of English and faculty in the M.A. in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University; she holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

She is the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith(Emmaus Road, 2017) and Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius, 2014), and she has contributed chapters to C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner (edited by Michael Ward and Peter S. Williams), C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books that Influenced Him Most (edited by David Werther) among other volumes; she is also a published poet, with poems in Word in the Wilderness and Love, Remember (edited by Malcolm Guite).

Her academic work focuses on the writings of the Inklings, especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Her current book project is Tolkien’s Modern Sources: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages (forthcoming from Kent State University Press, 2019).

She lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and travels regularly to speak on Tolkien, Lewis, and imaginative apologetics.

Sources & Resources

Philip Yancey, introduction to G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 2001), xx.

G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, 4th ed. (London: John Lane, 1907)

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life