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:
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  2. Either prose or poetry is terrific, but no more than about 800 words. 500 is better.
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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.