Reading Chesterton by Rebekah Valerius

“I’m beginning to suspect that nobody understands G.K. Chesterton,” a friend recently remarked. “They just like quoting him when convenient.” I had to laugh at this for I am guilty as charged. Chesterton both confounds and delights me, and I am confident that I have quoted him on numerous occasions without really understanding his meaning. He had a way with words that makes the temptation to repeat him too hard to resist! It is when he confounds me that I enjoy his writing the most. He challenges me to slow down and think. Most of all, he teaches me about the joy of existence; that existence itself is good, something so quickly forgotten in the toils of daily life. Continue reading “Reading Chesterton by Rebekah Valerius”

G.K. Chesterton: Modern (1874–1936)

ORTHODOXY

THE ETHICS OF ELFLAND

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.


Rick WilcoxThe term “bigger than life” is now cliché but it is in no way ironic when applied to G.K. Chesterton.  It begins with his stature (6’4” and over 300 pounds), but even that great frame is dwarfed by his intellect and imagination.  His writings seem endless, and every sentence is packed with wit and nuance with a saturation that makes skimming impossible.  His masterpiece was simply titled Orthodoxy.

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Chesterton was not a great philosopher like Aquinas or a sublime poet like Dante. His fiction lacks the polish of Austen or the passion of either of the Brontë sisters. He’s decidedly second-rate compared to Plato or Shakespeare, but that’s an amazing thing to be.

Chesterton is here as our ambassador to the Great Conversation. He’s bright enough to sit at the High Table with the Masters and witty enough to explain them to us who sit below.

In the meantime, his work is a delight.

Rare is the man or woman who reads Homer for fun, but once you start reading Chesterton it’s hard to stop. He could explain Shakespeare or Aquinas in new ways so interesting that scholars would pause to consider and amateurs would learn. Chesterton sometimes got details wrong, yet he often captured the essential nature of a writer or problem.

Chesterton does not argue so much as live on a page . . . and he is always jolly. Reading Chesterton is simply jollification, and nobody in this book does “jolly” better. As a result, G. K. Chesterton is a genius we can enjoy and an eccentric who can see what less wild men might miss.

Does study bring you joy?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


On Orthodoxy

Dale Ahlquist

When people read Orthodoxy for the first time, they generally discover that their pens run out of ink from underlining almost every sentence in the book. The relentless and irresistible quotable quotes also make for a rather disjointed reading experience. So they finish the book and, in spite of it being almost entirely underlined, they wonder, What was that about, anyway? Then they reread the book and are quite bewildered to discover it is an entirely different work, giving them the odd sensation of reading it for the first time, in spite of the obvious evidence of their very own underlinings from the previous read. The third time is generally the charm, as Chesterton’s thesis suddenly bursts through his dazzling rhetoric and imaginative arguments.

Fresh is a fitting word. Orthodoxy is a lively, creative, and unique approach to defending the Christian faith. Yet Chesterton insists that it is not a book of apologetics; he claims it’s simply his account of how he came to embrace Christianity for himself. His journey, however, is not typical, for he did not study the arguments in favor of but rather the arguments against Christianity. He did not study classic Christian philosophy but rather a variety of modern anti-Christian philosophies. He thought he was forming a new heresy, but when he put on the finishing touches, he found it was orthodoxy. He thought he’d come up with a new religion and was embarrassed to discover that someone else had come up with it almost two thousand years earlier.

The heart of the book is found, first, in the coherent morality of fairy tales, or the “Ethics of Elfland,” where logic is still logical and still capable of teaching science a few lessons. Then he hands us the surprising and seemingly contradictory truths of the faith, the “Paradoxes of Christianity,” where logic gets put to the test.

It is a theme throughout Chesterton’s writings that faith does not contradict reason, but reason often appears to contradict itself. Reason requires faith as a starting point. As he says elsewhere, “You cannot prove your first statement. Otherwise it would not be your first statement.”

And, a lush portrait of the faith, which always has attracted both the strongest of devotion and the fiercest of opposition wherever it appears, is known as the “Romance of Orthodoxy.”

———

In preceding chapters, Chesterton has examined the narrowness of modern philosophies, each “sharpened to a narrow point,” ending in madness, or what he calls “the clean well-lit prison of one idea.” In chapters following he will show how in art, literature, politics, and worship, Christianity not only provides satisfaction but sanity.

Chesterton is defending not only the Christian church but also the essence of Western society, a product of Hebrew monotheism, Greek philosophy, and Roman civilization, all brought together when Christ steps onto history’s stage. Chesterton draws a striking contrast between East and West, summed up in differences between the circle and the cross, the symbols representing Buddhism and Christianity.

The circle is centripetal, spinning inward toward madness and self-destruction, like a snake eating its own tail; the cross is centrifugal, spreading its arms to the four winds, “a signpost for free travelers.”
The other principle Chesterton defends in Orthodoxy is the value of solid tradition against the flakiness of fads and fashions. The modern world is obsessed with being modern. Therefore, old things that were carefully created for a purpose are suddenly discarded thoughtlessly with no sense of their importance. Then, of course, the new things that replace them are quickly discarded as well.

Thus, the modern world is a mess. Chesterton saw it coming. He also saw the solution. As with any prophet, his warnings are timely, but so are his exhortations. He is encouraging, not discouraging. We know he’s right when he tells us we must hate the world enough to change it, yet love it enough to think it worth changing.

Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society and one of the world’s leading experts on G. K. Chesterton. He created and hosts the EWTN television series G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, publishes Gilbert Magazine, and is a frequent guest lecturer at various universities.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

René Descartes: Early Modern (1596–1650)

Meditationes_de_prima_philosophia_1641

MEDITATIONS

Meditation One

Of the Things of Which We May Doubt

1. Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.

2. But, to this end, it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false—a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labor; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested.

3. All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.


A hundred years ago G.K. Chesterton wrote that man’s reliance on human reason alone had wrongly created an inverse juxtaposition of cognitive humility and individual dogmatism. In plain talk, this means truth must be held with loose hands because it can never fully be known, but people should boldly stand firm as their own moral authority. Nonsense.

As Chesterton rightly said

Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.

Rather than relaying on that which is reasonable to a limited human mind, Chesterton says “The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.”

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Modernity gone wrong has isolated humanity and made human reason autonomous of (and dismissive toward) revelation. Descartes may not have made these errors himself, but the tendencies are there in his writings. The world he helped create also developed disrespect for human experience: if an idea could not be “proven,” then it was disreputable. The more chaotic elements of postmodern thought have been a natural counter-reaction.

Read his work critically, but not overly critically. If one wishes to abandon the modern, one cannot take for granted that one will continue to enjoy all of the good it has produced. One thing is certain: René Descartes is admirably clear, persuasive, and faithful in suggesting the direction he believes we should take.

Is Christianity reasonable?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


The Beauty of This Immense Light

THE PLACE OF GOD IN THE MEDITATIONS

Thomas Ward

The Meditations of René Descartes is probably the most widely read philosophical text in the Western world. Not only is it rich and challenging, but it’s also a work of literary brilliance. Not since Augustine’s Confessions had there been a philosophical work so personal.

Written in the first-person singular, in a nontechnical idiom (for the most part), any reader can approach the work and begin immediately to grapple with weighty problems. But its brilliance as a piece of literature is most clearly evident in the way its ideas are reinforced through its literary form. In a first-person meditation, Descartes is articulating a philosophical position that places the individual thinker—the meditator—at the logical foundations of philosophical inquiry.

Descartes reserves a prominent role for God in his philosophy, but it might seem that the pride of place is actually reserved for the individual thinker attempting to reason his way out of his solitude, with God introduced merely to ensure that the reconstruction of knowledge can proceed. Indeed, the subsequent philosophical tradition has tended to characterize Descartes’s philosophy in just this way, with him as a reluctant theist. Many echo the sentiments of his contemporary Blaise Pascal, who said, “I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy he did his best to dispense with God.”

Like the Confessions, however, Meditations is a God-infused book. Most readers these days overlook this fact, tending to write off the more theological aspects and to focus on the meditator’s skeptical arguments and subjective outlook. This is unfair. A proper appreciation of Descartes demands we take his theological thought seriously.

———

So, how does God enter the philosophical picture? Descartes’s fundamental philosophical goal was to discover an absolutely certain foundation of knowledge, and he thought he’d made this discovery in one three-word Latin sentence:

Cogito, ergo sum; I think, therefore I am.

(Roughly the same thought is expressed in different terms in the Meditations; this version is found in Principles of Philosophy.) The idea is that you cannot doubt your own existence, because the act of doubting presupposes that there’s something doing the doubting—the doubter.

Dissatisfied with what he’d been taught at school, Descartes set out to question everything, rejecting each belief that wasn’t certain. In the First Meditation, he walks us through a gauntlet of skeptical arguments, offering reasons for doubting our beliefs in even the most ordinary and obvious things: that there’s a physical world, that you have a body, that other people exist, that God exists, and that 2 + 2 = 4. By the close, it seems skepticism has swept everything aside, that there is nothing but “inextricable darkness.”

However, in the Second Meditation, Descartes realizes there is one thing that simply cannot be doubted: that he exists.

From this single foundation of certainty, Descartes attempts a reconstruction of all our knowledge of the world and of God. Certain at least that he is, he wonders how, if he were the only existing thing, he should have an idea of a supremely perfect, infinite Being.

He first reasons that there is no way he himself could be the source of his idea of God, that God Himself must be and must have given Descartes the idea of Himself; in his beautiful portrayal, the idea of God is “the mark of the craftsman stamped on his work.”

So, Descartes’s world has gone from one to two; first him alone in the darkness, and now him together with God. From here he reflects on God’s nature, in particular His goodness. He reasons it would be inconsistent with God’s goodness that nearly all his beliefs should be utterly false; God, he says, is not a deceiver.

If we’re sufficiently careful in our pursuit of knowledge, then, we can be assured we will reach it. With this argument, Descartes reopens the door to the external world. If we restrict ourselves to believing only those things that we can “clearly and distinctly” perceive, we will not err in our judgment.

———

Perhaps now we can see, minimally, why Pascal’s critique may not be sufficiently charitable. There definitely is a sense in which the self comes before God in Descartes’s system, but there is equally, and arguably more importantly, a sense in which God is before everything else. Let me explain.

For Descartes, the knowledge of oneself comes before the knowledge of God. I don’t mean “before” in a temporal sense, the way we might think of a child gaining self-awareness before she becomes aware of God. I do mean that in an explanation of the justification of our beliefs, knowledge of God (and of the world God has created) follows knowledge of oneself.

In the course of writing Descartes not only uses the Cogito, ergo sum argument to support his other beliefs, he also discovers some of the external conditions that make possible the activity of meditating in the first place. Most significantly, he discovers that his existence and activity must be sustained from moment to moment by God’s continual conservation. Thus, for Descartes, the existence of oneself comes after the existence of God.

We might say that Descartes set out alone to discover God but learned that God was with him in the search.

Thomas Ward is currently a doctoral candidate in UCLA’s Department of Philosophy and holds an MPhil from the University of Oxford.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

When Jesus Wept

The Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, The Tears of St John, Maine-et-Loire: Château d’Angers, c.1373 © Centre des monuments nationaux

THE CONVERT
G.K. Chesterton

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright
And I came out where the old road shone white,
I walked the ways, and heard what all men said…
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live

John 11:32–44

32 Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. 34 And He said, “Where have you laid him?”
They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”
37 And some of them said, “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” 41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” 43 Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” 44 And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”

Revelation 21:1–6

21 Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
5 Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
6 And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts.


There are times in all of our lives when our burdens seem too heavy to bear. Common fears and insecurities, though individually small, can become overwhelming when they pile upon our heart. Some, like the death of a loved one, are large on their own and though none of us are spared, we feel individually assaulted. In those dark days when our clouds deny the sun, it’s easy to believe that God is far and inattentive.

We take some comfort to read Jesus saying “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted”, but it is His tears at the grave of Lazarus that reach us. Though the Lord knew He was moments away from raising his friend from the dead, His mighty heart was broken by the grief of Martha. Yes, the resurrection is coming and someday all pain will cease. There’s comfort in that knowledge, but beyond a promise of better days, our Savior comes to weep with us.

As Ken Kovacs wrote in his book Out of the Depths:

The point is this: the everlasting life that Jesus gives is basically the same on both sides of the grave! Jesus gives life on both sides of the grave! This means that we don’t have to die in order to know something of Christ’s resurrection life. With Jesus, “Life is changed, not taken away.”  This also means that until that day—when “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as the English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) loved to say—until that day we can be confident that the life of Jesus meets us in our places of pain and torment and suffering, that Jesus’ anger rages against all the things, all the forces of death that cause us to weep; he weeps for us, he weeps with us, and his life-giving presence fills all those places of grief and absence that we know about all too well in our lives. Our tears mixed with his tears. Our tears, when mixed with his tears, flowing together, can actually become the place we encounter the Lord of Life! This means we are people—saints!—that witness God’s new life in the midst of this dying world; God’s resurrection life bring us to life, even in this life marked by tears and pain and sorrow—this is the work of God making all things new!

The poet Emily Dickinson expressed this masterfully:

Savior! I’ve no one else to tell—
And so I trouble thee.
I am the one forgot thee so—
Dost thou remember me?
Nor, for myself, I came so far—
That were the little load—
I brought thee the imperial Heart
I had not strength to hold—
The Heart I carried in my own—
Till mine too heavy grew—
Yet—strangest—heavier since it went—
Is it too large for you?

How have your tears connected you to Jesus?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

Ken Kovacs
Ken Kovacs

Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.

Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/

 

D I G  D E E P E R


Julian of Norwich

She was, by her own description, a simple creature.  Shy and adverse to attention, she was a recluse of self-imposed sequestration. Her room was a cell from which she had limited contact with the outside world and though her writings were virtually unknown during her lifetime, she is a towering pioneer of English literature.

Emily Dickinson?  Yes, but 500 years ahead of her came Julian of Norwich.

Unlike Dickinson who apparently wrote continuously, Julian’s writing is limited to a single known book which has come to be called Revelations of Divine Love.  She just called it Showings.  The book is based on sixteen visions she experienced at thirty years of age: fifteen on May 8, 1373 and another on the following day. She saw visions of the sufferings of Christ and of the Trinity and then meditated on these visions for twenty years.  Her book contains the visions and her interpretations.

So why has this obscure little book from a reclusive woman so greatly impacted literature and liturgy?  For one, it is the earliest known writing of prose by a woman in the English language.  More significance lies in the power of her words.

In his work Seeds of Destruction, Thomas Merton wrote

“Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. I think that Julian of Norwich is with Newman the greatest English theologian.”

Beyond her theological impact, her life has influenced literature as well, including T.S. Eliot.  Eliot found Julian’s hopeful, simple view of the power of God’s goodness to be a microcosm of the church at large.  In Julian the rituals of the devotional life were extensible to the redeeming power of God’s love.  His masterwork Four Quartets cannot be fully understood absent an understanding of his references to Julian and others (including John of the Cross and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.)

Rick Wilcox

The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-55)

“War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  I love only that which they defend.”


G.K. Chesterton said “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”  This is true on many levels.  A soldier will tell you that he is loyal to his country, but in the heat of battle, he’s fighting for his buddies.  When war is raging around you, peace is not an abstract concept.  Our county is not free because wise men wrote brilliant words on perishable paper.  We are free today because thousands of men and women have been willing to lay down their own lives for us.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

The Lord of the Rings series is, in one sense, the ultimate road trip; the story of a journey through perilous lands in search of a ring of unimaginable power that must be destroyed in order to defeat the dark powers of evil and finally restore peace to Middle Earth (Tolkien’s name for his alternative world). Its pages are crammed with adventure, humor, moments of heart-stopping terror, and all the little fascinating details that bring the stories to life. As a tale of wonder and heroism, it stands without equal in its genre, and much of its charm comes from the nature of its protagonists. Frodo, and Bilbo before him, are not heroic by nature, but the root of their courage is their love of their friends, their loyalty to their home (the Shire), and their defense of a simple, ordinary life. Theirs is a heroism of mercy, for it is only due to Frodo’s compassion toward Gollum at so many junctures along the way that their quest is successful in the end.

The Lord of the Rings series is also a parable about the danger of the misuse of power, with its central object of desire being a ring that can be used to dominate others. Because Tolkien published the books in the postwar era, many readers have tried to connect the ring with the looming threat of atomic warfare. Though this creates an interesting reading, Tolkien himself dismissed such musings by saying that he just wanted to tell a good story. And he did.

 

Have you ever had to fight for something precious to you?


John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

(1892–1973). His heroes are rather short, rather stout, and have very furry feet. English author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastic tales of battles between good and evil, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, made hobbit a household word.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on Jan. 3, 1892, and moved at age 4 with his family to England, where he was educated at Exeter College, Oxford. He was a professor at Oxford from 1925 to 1959 and first gained recognition as a philologist, a person who studies the way language is used in literature. This work led him to help edit a version of the English fable Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that was published in 1925.

Tolkien not only studied fables; he created new ones of his own. He invented an imaginary land, Middle Earth, in meticulous detail: its language, its geography, and its exciting history. The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again, published in 1937, introduces readers to this special world as its inhabitants—elves, dwarfs, wizards, and the furry-footed hobbit Bilbo Baggins—fight and win against an evil dragon.

This story is continued in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–55), consisting of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. These tales became immensely popular in the 1960s, especially among young adults. Another Tolkien book on Middle Earth, The Silmarillion, was published four years after his death in Bournemouth, England, on Sept. 2, 1973.

Sources & Resources

“Tolkien, J.R.R.,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

———. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Duriez, Colin. The J. R. R. Tolkien Handbook. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.

Purtill, Richard. J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

 

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!

Terry

Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.

Literature’s Illumination Of Theology by Josh Herring

Josh Herring

Theology offers the Christian believer not just a faith which demands belief, but one which makes sense intellectually. As such, theology is a necessarily intricate discipline; probing the revealed thoughts of God is no light, simple task. Christian theology done right, whether it is biblical, systematic, or historical, brings the minds of the current generation into conversation with those of past believers about the eternal things of God; it equips us to live lives pleasing to God in this world. And yet, it is boring to read.

Few disciplines approach theology for combining significance with wooden prose; in part because of the weightiness of the theologian’s claims, he must take care to write precisely. Eternal souls, after all, hang in the balance when one discusses topics of ultimate significance. But what if theology could do everything it must do (strengthen the believer, intellectually support the faith,draw principles and doctrines from the text of Scripture, rearticulate the faith for the living generation) and not be dry as dust? If this goal could be met, two things would happen. First, more people would read theological texts. Secondly, more people would enjoy reading theological texts.

Writing well belongs properly to literature. What the 18th century called belles lettres, the craft of beautiful writing, takes timeless ideas (from whatever source the author chooses to draw them) and crafts them together into a narrative; some of the most persuasive theologians of the Christian tradition have combined the rigor of theology with literary skill to produce timeless classics which proclaim the glory of God’s salvation through the ages; because the writing is so well done, the spiritual message is conveyed from generation to generation.

Two examples will serve to illustrate this claim, one medieval and one modern. Thomas Aquinas was an earth shatteringly important theologian; his Summa Theologica serves to this day as the high mark of medieval theology. In Aquinas’ quest to marry Aristotelian philosophy with medieval Catholicism, he produced a system of thought which continues to inspire philosophical and theological work. Reading the Summa, however, is an easy way to combat insomnia. Aquinas combines the highest intellectual capacity with logical form, producing a significant yet unbearably dull piece of theological philosophy. The form of his writing reads like the notes from a debate judge:

“There are three objections to my point (lists them). Here is a quote. Here is my point. Here are my replies to the three objections. Next.”

Aquinas is rich, yet we would deceive ourselves if we thought the masses could read him and find spiritual benefit from him. G. K. Chesterton tells this story about a parishioner who tried to read Aquinas:

“A lady I know picked up a book of selections from St. Thomas with a commentary; and began hopefully to read a section with the innocent heading, “The Simplicity of God.” She then laid down the book with a sigh and said, “Well, if that’s His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like.”

Aquinas’ significance is difficult to overstate, but in terms of practical spiritual benefit for most people, Dante would provide more spiritual nourishment. Dante took Aquinas’ theology (a hierarchy of goods and sins, a system of punishment, a vision of divine love which moves the cosmos, and a synthesis of knowledge between the Greco-Roman world and the Christian) and turned it into the first Christian epic poem. As the reader travels with Dante and Virgil through the winding road to Dis and the Adversary frozen at the Inferno’s core, we accidentally learn an enormous amount of medieval theology. By studying the balance of sins and justice Dante used, we cannot help but begin to ask questions of practical application: if Francesca and Paolo spent eternity like that for their lust, is there any of the restless wandering of lust within me? Rather than beginning with the intellect, Dante seizes our hearts and imagination and fuses them together with his poetic vision; in so doing, he also instructs our minds. Pastorally, I would not give Aquinas to just any church member; Dante I would hand out freely. Because of his literary skill, Dante guides us into the deep waters of Thomistic theology and sustains us through it.

In the modern era, I know of no greater literary theologian than C.S. Lewis. A literature professor by inclination and training, Lewis combined all the craft of a medievalist with his deep, theological studies. Consider the theological principles Lewis brings up in The Chronicles of Narnia. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe addresses multiple understandings of substitutionary atonement (as Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund); it illustrates the curse being undone (as Aslan breathes life into stone creatures); it shows the balance of justice and mercy necessary in the divine economy (in Aslan’s explanation of the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time). Prince Caspian shows God concerned with joy and the flourishing of his creatures; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader contains a profound image of redemption (Eustace Scrubb’s change from dragon to human and his inability to change himself). The Horse and His Boy waxes missional, reminding us that God loves all men (even Calormen). The Silver Chair contains a version of the Anselm’s Ontological Argument, as well as showing the human predilection for ignoring God’s commands. The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle reinforce each other, framing the fictional world of Narnia as one of divine beginning and ending; both are riddled with the implications of creation and redemption, displaying the hope offered by Revelation; The Last Battle concludes with a vision of heaven where all that is good in creation is brought into Aslan’s Country and made perfect, dwelling with him forever. Children who read these books, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, are being instructed in essential theological categories preparing the ground for God’s work in the gospel.

Theology is a vital, ongoing need for the Christian church. Christians are served by men who study the deep things of God and maintain the tradition of theological engagement; theology as it currently exists, however, is oriented predominantly to the academy. As such, theology only reaches those who are intellectually inclined to it. God has not reserved theology only for the intellectually elite; when paired with the craft of literature, theology becomes both accessible and enjoyable. John Bunyan and John Milton both discovered this truth. As Puritans, both were deeply read theologically and intellectually inclined. Both used their giftings to serve the church at large. For Milton, this culminated in Paradise Lost, an epic poem through which the call of God’s grace resounds to this day. For Bunyan, his pastoral work caused him to formulate his theology in the form of allegory. Pilgrim’s Progress remains one of the hallmark pieces of Protestant theology; its accessibility makes it one of the beloved texts of Christians for the past four centuries.

Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “Pray to the Lord of the Harvest that He might send workers.” Perhaps we might paraphrase that prayer, and ask God to continue raising up literary theologians who use their giftings to “sing the song again in our time” in a beautiful, accessible way.

 


Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.

The Innocence Of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

web-gk-chesterton-holding-book-pen-hector-murchison-public-domain-via-wikipedia

“Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest? He grows a forest to hide it in.”


RickThe term “bigger than life” is now cliché but it is in no way ironic when applied to G.K. Chesterton.  It begins with his stature (6’4” and over 300 pounds), but even that great frame is dwarfed by his intellect and imagination.  His writings seem endless, and every sentence is packed with wit and nuance with a saturation that makes skimming impossible.  He was a master of nonfiction, but some of his most artful work was in the character of Father Brown.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe created a new literary genre with a handful of stories that each pose a seemingly insoluble mystery that is finally solved by the intellectual brilliance of his detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Some fifty years later, Arthur Conan Doyle brought the mystery genre to an even higher level with his novels and short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, an eccentric detective who used the science of deduction and his powers of observation to solve the crimes set before him. Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a great fan of the Holmes stories, and wrote highly entertaining essays about the mystery genre. He set down his thoughts about what made for a good “whodunit,” and put his theories to the test by writing some stories of his own.

Chesterton modeled his detective, the genial Father Brown, on his friend Father John O’Connor, a priest whose intellectual capacities and wit he much enjoyed. The first twelve short stories were first published in The Saturday Evening Post, and then collected in a book as The Innocence of Father Brown. By the time of his death, Chesterton had produced fifty-one stories about the mystery-solving clergyman. The stories were an immediate hit and became the most popular and successful of his many books. Their format is predictable, but the solutions to the crimes are not. As in any good mystery, a puzzle is set forth in each story that defies logic and seems impossible to untangle. But the quiet little priest, Father Brown, succeeds where everyone else fails because of the insight he has attained about the darker shades of human motivation from hearing confessions. Father Brown is an easy man to overlook—a short, stubby, unimposing figure, shabbily dressed and with a round, expressionless face that renders him almost invisible. The police investigating the crimes generally fail to pay him much attention until Father Brown gently and relentlessly unravels the hidden truth.

Have you read Chesterton? Which work is your favorite?


John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

(1874–1936), poet and essayist. After beginning a course of training in art in 1891, he abandoned it for journalism. His defence of orthodoxy and conventionality in an individual and unconventional style soon established his literary reputation. Among those of his early works which were directly or indirectly concerned with religious topics, the best known are Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1908). His poems include the hymn ‘O God of earth and altar’. In his novels there is less of religious interest, though his appreciation of the RC clergy appears in the ‘Father Brown’ stories. In 1922 he left the C of E for the RC Church; but the change of allegiance had little effect on his style or outlook. His Autobiography (1936) gives an illuminating picture of literary-religious circles from c. 1895 to his death.

 

The Mystery Deepens

With Father Brown, a sleuth who plumbed hearts, Chesterton redefined the “whodunit.”

Nearly everyone agrees that Chesterton achieved something extraordinary with his Father Brown stories. Yet after literally hundreds of commentators have had their say, there is still no consensus about what his achievement was or in what ways Father Brown is significant. Truly, these critics are so at odds with one another that often they do not seem to be discussing the same stories.
Part of the problem is that Chesterton’s stories resist analysis from the specialist’s point of view. For example, not many who are experts in the field of detective fiction understand Chesterton as a philosopher. These critics react to Chesterton’s moral and political ideas as if they were an intrusion of irrelevant propaganda.

Similarly, few students of Chesterton are mystery story enthusiasts, and fewer still are conversant with scholarship on the detective genre. They often fail to appreciate Chesterton’s work within the framework of this literary form.

The Father Brown stories follow a format developed in the nineteenth century for readers of the new mass-circulation magazines. The formula, invented by Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s, boils down to this:
A mystifying crime is discovered, and a plausible explanation proves elusive. The mystery deepens until the eccentric but brainy sleuth (not a member of the official police) deduces the truth and reveals the surprising solution at the story’s conclusion. The sleuth then reappears in subsequent magazine stories to solve other puzzling crimes.

Arthur Conan Doyle perfected this approach with his tales of the peerless Sherlock Holmes, written for The Strand magazine in the 1890s. Conan Doyle aimed to compete against the serialized novel with a character whose fascinating personal appeal—rather than a continuing cliff-hanger plot—would keep readers coming back for more. It was the greatest success in magazine publishing history.

Conan Doyle’s triumph was not lost on The Strand’s competitors. A host of Holmes-like sleuths soon appeared, each with his own series of linked short stories. Unfortunately none of these had the Sherlock Holmes magic, and today the stories seem hopelessly artificial and contrived.

Chesterton said as much at the time. He was the first respected literary critic to write extensively on the genre and the first to formulate the rules that would come to govern the classic “whodunit.”
Chesterton’s ideas dominated the so-called Golden Age of the mystery story and remained unchallenged until American pulp-fiction writers introduced the street-wise and tough-as-nails private eye, of which Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade remains the archetype.

Rules of the game

Chesterton insisted that detective stories must focus on domestic crimes enacted in familiar settings, with the action restricted to a short span of time, a confined place, and a small cast of characters. He conceived of the stories as a kind of literary game and demanded that writers play fair by showing their readers all the clues known to the sleuth.

He also insisted that, however complex the mystery might be made to appear, its eventual solution had to be simple enough to explain in a single shout from the rooftops. His illustrative example was, “The Archdeacon is Bloody Bill!”

Chesterton deplored the focus on mere mechanics of crime and detection—the easy way out for writers trying to imitate Conan Doyle. Chesterton faulted a story if it turned on a trick of detail rather than the drama of human interaction.

He disliked learning at the end that a high wall had not been a barrier to the suspect because the man had once been a pole-vaulter, or discovering on the last page that the main confusion in a story had been caused by the presence of someone’s identical twin brother. Chesterton demanded an emphasis on the human aspects of the case—motives, emotions, and choices freely made.
In 1910 Chesterton’s critical theories were put to the test when his Father Brown stories began appearing in The Saturday Evening Post. The stories followed the Poe and Conan Doyle formula, but they also fulfilled Chesterton’s own rules and ideals. When the first 12 tales were collected and published as The Innocence of Father Brown, mystery specialist Ellery Queen called it “The Miracle Book of 1911.”

The Father Brown series eventually reached a total of 51 short stories, collected in five volumes. They are universally admired for their ingenious crimes and brilliant detection. No mystery writer has devised more inventive plots or so effectively paraded his clues before a perplexed readership.

The heretic hunter

Of equal significance for the future of the genre, Chesterton turned away from artificially tricky puzzles to an emphasis on character, following the example of the great Victorian novelists who had dabbled in the detective story form—Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Wilkie Collins.

The Father Brown stories achieve remarkable depth and richness in their intellectual themes. Chesterton, of course, was a man of ideas, and he was convinced that ideas influence behavior—bad ideas cause bad behavior. He therefore peopled his stories with villains and fools whose ignoble actions flow from their mistaken ideologies.

Thus Father Brown is actually more of a heretic hunter than he is an amateur policeman. As the priest explains to one of his detective friends, he has never had anything to do with “running down criminals.” Instead, he makes it his business to confront the same errors that Chesterton warred against in his journalism.

Each of the stories may be read as an analogue of one of Chesterton’s argumentative essays. Perhaps the most familiar example is “The Queer Feet,” in which Father Brown laments the sort of moral blindness that makes servants invisible to their masters. The priest’s view precisely echoes Chesterton, who commented at length on the subject in his Illustrated London News essay of September 9, 1911.
Father Brown captured the attention of the leading mystery writers of the day and set the tone and direction of detective fiction for a generation. E.C. Bentley dedicated his groundbreaking 1912 novel Trent’s Last Case to Chesterton and insisted that he had written the book with Chesterton’s principles in mind.

In 1929, when Anthony Berkeley founded London’s Detection Club, one of its avowed purposes was to promote the very ideals that Chesterton had articulated as a critic and had realized so successfully in his stories. The small and select group included such luminaries as Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Freeman Wills Crofts.

Chesterton, of course, was duly installed as the club’s first president, a position he held until his death in 1936.

Sources & Resources

John Peterson, “The Mystery Deepens,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 75: G.K. Chesterton: Prolific Writer & Apologist (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2002).

Collected Works, ed. D. Dooley (San Francisco, 1986 ff.). Lives by M. Ward (London, 1944; with a further study, Return to Chesterton, 1952), D. Barker (London, 1973), A. S. Dale (Grand Rapids [1982]), and J. Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence (1996). C. Hollis, The Mind of Chesterton (1970). D. J. Conlon (ed.), G. K. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views (Oxford and New York, 1987). J. Sullivan, G. K. Chesterton: A Bibliography (1958; with suppl., 1968). M. Ward in DNB, 1931–1940, pp. 171–5.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 330.

Chesterton, G. K. The Penguin Complete Father Brown. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Coren, Michael. Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton. New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Dale, Alzina Stone. The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G. K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Peters, Thomas C. Battling for the Modern Mind: A Beginner’s Chesterton. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1994.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

 

Terry Glaspey

 

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!

Terry

Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.

G.K. Chesterton on Art and the Imago Dei by Melissa Cain Travis

Melissa Cain Travis

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton argues that man, as a species, is different in kind, not just degree, from all other living creatures. Man’s origin, he says, is one of the three grand mysteries of the cosmos, along with the birth of the universe itself and the emergence of the first life. Endowed with rationality and free will, mankind exploded onto the scene and “a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable…not merely an evolution, but rather a revolution.”[1]

Chesterton rejects the “gray gradations of twilight” suggested by materialist accounts of evolutionary gradualism in favor of a human nature that was mature at first appearance. He describes the character of ancient cave art in order to support his assertion; instead of the crude, simplistic scratchings of the so-called caveman, these are “drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist.”[2] “So far as any human character can be hinted at by such traces of the past,” says Chesterton, “that human character is quite human and even humane.”[3] Man alone seeks meaning in the world, and evidence suggests that this has been the case all along. Roger Scruton has similarly observed: “From the earliest drawings in the Lascaux caves to the landscapes of Cezanne…art has searched for meaning in the natural world.”[4]

Chesterton’s point goes beyond the fact that artistic activity can only be carried out by creatures with rationally-informed will; the inherent desire to create art for its own sake—the “impulse of art” as he calls it—further highlights the singularity of man. Unlike any other creature of the animal kingdom, man is a rational creator who creates not only for utilitarian purposes, but for the simple joy of celebrating the wider world through his artistry. Chesterton is convinced that, as part of the wide gulf of separation between man and brute, “art is the signature of man.”[5] With his trademark wit-laced wisdom he argues that:

The very fact that a bird can get as far as building a nest, and cannot get any farther, proves that he has not a mind as man has a mind…But when he builds as he does build and is satisfied and sings aloud with satisfaction, then we know there is really an invisible veil like a pane of glass between him and us, like the window on which a bird will beat in vain. But suppose our abstract onlooker saw one of the birds begin to build as men build. Suppose in an incredibly short space of time there were seven styles of architecture for one style of nest….Suppose the bird made little clay statues of birds celebrated in letters or politics and stuck them up in front of the nest…we can be quite certain that the onlooker would not regard such a bird as a mere evolutionary variety of the other birds…[6]

As with the appearance of human nature, such a bird would be a true revolution, not just a slightly more advanced bird. Thus, the same should be said for man, whose unique characteristics appeared from seemingly out of nowhere and sharply distinguish him from all other living things.

Several years prior to the publication of The Everlasting Man, Chesterton had suggested that artistic creativity is among the hallmark differences between man and beast. In Orthodoxy, he argues that similarities between man and some lower animals is not what should surprise us; rather, the astonishment should come from the fundamental differences: “That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton…the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm.”[7] In this passage, as in Everlasting Man, Chesterton emphasizes the fact that, even if mankind’s history includes biological gradualism, it is the existence of the wide chasm, which includes artistic inclination, that needs philosophical explanation—the “why” rather than the “how.”

Chesterton highlights the fact that, unlike naturalism, the Christian worldview can adequately account for the remarkable revolution that is mankind by way of the doctrine of the imago Dei. Man alone, as the crown of creation, bears the image of the good Creator and thus has within himself the capacity and desire to create beautiful and meaningful things for their own sake. When it comes to art, says Chesterton, “a monkey cannot do it; and when a man does it, he is exercising a divine attribute.”[8]


John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

 

 

Melissa Cain Travis serves as Assistant Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker (forthcoming, Harvest House 2018) and the Young Defenders series (Apologia Press). She is a writer for Christian Research Journal and blogs at melissatravis.com.

Endnotes

[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Seaside, Oregon: Watchmaker Publishing, 2013), 15.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ibid., 17-18.

[4] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford University press, 2009), 65.

[5] Ibid., 20.

[6] Ibid., 22.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in The Everyman Chesterton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 389-390.

[8] G.K. Chesterton, “Are the Artists Going Mad?” The Century Magazine, Vol. 105 No. 2 (December 1922), 277.


Literary Life spotlights feature writers every Sunday. We welcome your submission:
  1. The theme must be consistent with our mission.
  2. Either prose or poetry is terrific, but no more than about 800 words. 500 is better.
  3. The work of others should be properly noted.
Submissions may be sent to us at Rick@LiteraryLife.org for review.

 


 

 

Telling the Truth Through Whimsy by Melissa Cain Travis

The Surprise
G.K. Chesterton

“The most monstrous of all monsters are marching across your stage, shaking the earth like dragons and chimeras; the most towering, the most terrible creatures that life ever let loose upon chaos. Stand back—stand out of their way. They are living men.”


Melissa Cain Travis

G.K. Chesterton wrote extensively on the subjects of creativity, imagination, and art, and did so as an accomplished artist in his own right. During his distinguished career, he produced an impressive body of poetry, sketches, novels, short stories, essays, and even a few works of drama. Chesterton’s keen insight is that man, unlike the brute, beholds the world he inhabits with wonder and celebrates that wonder through artistic creation. The goal of good art is to awaken the beholder to the “white light of wonder”—a light that reveals the truth of things.

Chesterton wrote nine complete plays and left behind fragments of two more. The Surprise, which was published posthumously, is quintessential of his aesthetic philosophy—that art should be both thoroughly enjoyable and expressive of truth. This charming romp of a play is laced with rich humor, praise of good wine, and subtle theological statements, yet it is cleverly choreographed to convey much deeper truths about creation, God, man, and free will. It has been said that Chesterton “tended to be least solemn when he was most serious.”[1] The Surprise is an excellent demonstration of this fact.

The first act of The Surprise introduces a Franciscan friar who, walking through the countryside, happens upon a playwright travelling by caravan with a collection of automaton puppets. The playwright, who refers to himself as the “Master Puppet-Maker of the World,” entreats the friar to watch a play he has written, one that involves a happy world in which the creatures all “behave with majesty and magnanimity” and where virtue always prevails. It turns out that the playwright considers his play a confession of sorts, and wishes the friar to hear it. “We poets never tell the truth,” he explains, “except when we tell it in fables…these clockwork dolls will tell you the truth about me.” The short play-within-a-play turns out to be a melodramatic romance devoid of conflict or villainy.

At the conclusion of his play, the playwright explains to the friar that what he really wants is for the people of his plays to really exist—by which he means possess free will and thus be truly alive. “I want them to be and not to do. I want them to exist,” pleads the playwright. The implication of his statement is that without free will, humans would not exist as such; they would be mere clockwork dolls on a stage. By some miracle, the playwright’s wish comes true and the puppets come to life, but the friar warns that “the most monstrous of all monsters are marching across your stage, shaking the earth like dragons and chimeras; the most towering, the most terrible creatures that life ever let loose upon chaos. Stand back—stand out of their way. They are living men.”

After this turning point, the play-within-a-play begins anew, with the plot proceeding in similar fashion right up to the climax. Chesterton cleverly interweaves one of the key themes of the work: the element of surprise making a good thing even better. The characters begin degenerating, speaking hatefully to one another, and two of them wind up in a violent duel of swords. Free will, it seems, has caused utter disaster.

Suddenly, the playwright’s head bursts through the top of the set and he shouts down to the stage, “And in the devil’s name, what do you think you are doing with my play? Drop it! Stop! I am coming down.” Thus, with whimsical levity, Chesterton conveys fundamental truths about man’s orientation to the Creator, human fallen-ness, and the grand, wonderful surprise of the Creator’s incarnation—a saving intervention on a cosmic scale. The Surprise harmonizes well with Chesterton’s words in Orthodoxy: “According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free. God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.”

[1] Chesterton, Collected Works Vol. XI, 297.


Melissa Cain Travis serves as Assistant Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker (forthcoming, Harvest House 2018) and the Young Defenders series (Apologia Press). She is a writer for Christian Research Journal and blogs at melissatravis.com.

 

Sex, Symbol, and Satire: Day 5

Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swift

Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”


Satire is at once funny and uncomfortable.  G.K. Chesterton said “A man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.”

As Karen Swallow Prior writes in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me:

While I saw fit to devise an individual moral code suited to me, Swift recognized that real wisdom comes not from the voice within, but from the collective wisdom of the community of humankind over the ages. Yes, from God ultimately, but in our imperfect human understanding and application, strength of heart and mind—wisdom—is built in community, not individually.

In judging the vice and folly of individuals, Swift used the scales of collective wisdom. And since the purpose of satire is to correct human folly and wickedness, it seems that Swift both sought and expected improvements, the very definition of optimism, not the pessimism with which some of his critics charge him because of his biting satire. Swift’s frankness, his realism, his high view of God and humanity, and his belief in the essential nature of community all shed light on one of the funniest and most poignant spins he puts on sex in Gulliver’s Travels, a point he slips in so subtly it’s easy to miss. But once recognized, it is powerful.

Satire is the ridicule of folly for the purpose of correction.  Name some examples of satire in film, art, TV, and literature.

Psalm 119:105

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.


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Literature, Liturgy & The Arts


Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

When Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, the author’s name did not appear on the book. The title page read “Travels into several remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver …” Many people accepted this as fact. Travel books of the time told many tales that were no more strange than the imaginary adventures of Gulliver. One sea captain even claimed that he knew Captain Gulliver well.

Other readers condemned the book as full of exaggerations.Although it became one of the most famous books for children, it was not written for children. It was savage satire aimed at the human race. The tiny Lilliputians are vain, malicious, and bloodthirsty. The king and the court of Lilliput are a parody of the English king and court. The giants of Brobdingnag are amiable, but commonplace and insensitive. Laputa is full of the foolish philosophers and scientists whom Swift despised. The Houyhnhnms are horses who use degraded men, Yahoos, as men use horses elsewhere. Looking at mankind through the eyes of horses, Swift sees people as vicious, greedy, and ignorant.

From its first appearance Gulliver’s Travels delighted its readers instead of shocking them. In spite of his bitterness, Swift took a dry delight in making his narrative sound real even when it was fantastic. Children could enjoy the marvelous adventures of a traveler among pygmies and giants, on a flying island, and in a country where horses talk. Gulliver’s Travels soon became a children’s classic.

A large part of what Swift wrote is made up of pamphlets on political or ecclesiastical affairs and must be read in the light of history. But A Tale of a Tub, a satire on false religion, and The Battle of the Books, a burlesque of literary controversy (both published in 1704), are still read for their comic ridicule of human folly. Drapier’s Letters (1724), written to expose a minor scandal in the government of Ireland by the English, lifts the issue to something universal—the human rights of men against tyrants. The Journal to Stella is a brilliant picture of a brilliant age.

“Swift, Jonathan,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.