Preface of God the Father
[Common of an Artist, Writer, or Composer]
[For Artists and Writers]
PRAYER (traditional language)
O God of earth and altar, who didst give G. K. Chesterton a ready tongue
and pen, and inspired him to use them in thy service: Mercifully grant
that we may be inspired to witness cheerfully to the hope that is in us;
through Jesus Christ our Savior, who livest and reignest with thee and
the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
PRAYER (contemporary language)
O God of earth and altar, you gave G. K. Chesterton a ready tongue and
pen, and inspired him to use them in your service: Mercifully grant that
we may be inspired to witness cheerfully to the hope that is in us; through
Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This commemoration appears in A Great Cloud of Witnesses.
Return to Lectionary
Last updated: 14 April 2019
GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON
APOLOGIST and WRITER, 1936
Keith Chesterton was born in London in 1874. He became a well-known writer
and lecturer. He was officially received into the Roman Catholic Church
in 1922, but had been writing from a Romanist point of view for a long
time before that. Some of his writing is specifically Roman Catholic,
and (in my judgement) he sometimes attacks Protestant positions without
troubling to understand them. However, much of his writing is "generic
Christian," and is read with profit and delight by many theologically
well-informed Protestant readers. If you are a Protestant, you will have
to read him with your mind in gear, but then you have no business to read
anything whatsoever with your mind out of gear.
Chesterton died 14 June 1936, but is here commemorated two days earlier
because the later days are taken.
One of his concerns was literary criticism. He wrote books on Robert
Browning and Charles Dickens, with prefaces to the individual Dickens
novels. He also wrote books and monographs on George Bernard Shaw, William
Blake, William Cobbett, Robert Louis Stevenson, and The Victorian Age
He also wrote fiction, his best known work being a series of detective
short stories featuring a priest, Father
Brown, who (somewhat after the matter of the TV sleuth Columbo) tends
to give the appearance of being a harmless, bumbling, absent-minded fellow,
but who always notices the detail that enables him to solve the case.
Often, he connects the reasoning that solves the case with the sort of
reasoning that is involved in Christian life. (I suspect that Harry Kemelman,
author of Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Saturday The Rabbi Went Hungry,
and other works, may have gotten the idea for his detective, Rabbi Small,
from Father Brown.) There is a film, The Detective, starring Alec Guinness,
based on the Father Brown stories.
Less known, but a particular favorite of mine, is his novel, The
Man Who Was Thursday. It is an adventure story, an action yarn,
about a man who finds himself involved with, and accepted as a member
of, a gang of anarchists. (For the purposes of the story, one accepts
the notion of anarchists as simply motiveless terrorists, engaged in destruction
for its own sake, not to be confused with men like Albert Jay Nock or
Henry David Thoreau, who were anarchists in a very different sense.)
The tone of the story (as of every Chesterton story) is strongly affected
by the exuberant style of the author. There is a scene in a restaurant,
where the protagonist has the task of delaying another man for a few hours,
and decides to pick a quarrel with him in order to do so. A musician is
playing something by Wagner in the background. He approaches the other
man's table and is about to attack him. The man's companions hold him
back, but he cries out,
"This man has insulted my mother!"
"Insulted your mother? What are you talking about?"
"Well, any way, my aunt."
"How could he have insulted your aunt. We have just
been sitting here talking."
"Ah, it was what he said just now."
"All I said was that I liked Wagner played well."
"Aha! My aunt played Wagner badly. It is a very tender
point with our family. We are always being insulted over it."
And so the story continues, a thriller with comic pauses, But as one
reads, one begins to realize that the writer actually has something deeper
in mind, a commentary on the Book of Job.
Chesterton had strong political interests. During the war between Britain
and the Boer Republic of South Africa, he was strongly and openly pro-Boer,
regarding the war as a straightforward attack by a large country on a
small one. During World War I, he regarded England as the underdog, and
rallied to her cause with enthusiasm. His long-term political and economic
position was something called Distributivism, of which some of his admirers
complained that it was not a political program, but simply at attractive
picture. As far as I understand it, it involved the redistribution of
land, so that everyone would have his own cottage and his own plot of
land, and would grow his own food and be self-sufficient. As the prophet
says (Micah 4:4),
Every man shall sit under his own vine and under his
own fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.
He is, as far as I have read, quite vague on how he proposes to bring
this about, or how a society of peasant proprietors will manufacture industrial
machinery, or how a country that has forsworn industrial development will
resist invasion from a country that has not.
Still, it is an appealing idea. When I was teaching courses for the Washington
Area Free University back in 1969-70, courses in Natural Theology, Free-Market
Economics, Fortran Programming, and Bread-Baking, it was the bread course
that had the waiting list. And the late Karl Hess, who encouraged inner-city
dwellers to do such things as grow food fish in ponds on the roofs of
their apartment buildings, and vegetables in window boxes, found that
nothing he talked about aroused greater interest. He tried the experiment
of throwing one sentence on producing goods for one's own family into
the middle of a lecture on something else. During the question period,
the audience would always zero in on that topic. Very possibly that is
where a Distributivist would begin--by saying, for example, to a married
couple both of whom had outside jobs:
You say that you need both incomes to keep afloat. But,
because Kathy is working eight hours a day as a sales clerk, she hasn't
time to prepare meals from scratch, so all the waffles are pop-tarts,
all the cakes come from the bakery, all the chicken comes from the store
already fried, and it all costs so much that you need two incomes to pay
for it. Actually, Kathy, if you stayed home and baked cakes and fixed
meals from scratch, and cared for a garden, you and your family would
eat better and save more money than you are currently bringing in, and
you might find that gardening and cooking and home-schooling the youngsters
(who would help in the kitchen and learn fractions while following recipes)
was more satisfying and less boring than eight hours a day selling cosmetics.
Of course, if your job is something more exciting, like being an astronaut,
you might object to giving it up to grow strawberries and to bake cookies
and to teach your children to swim and to fry an egg, and to explain to
them how yeast makes bread rise and baking powder makes muffins rise,
and so on. But most jobs, for men or women, are not very exciting, and
you might want to consider your options.
Come to think of it, I can easily imagine Chesterton saying just that.
In the early days of this century, he said, "A liberated woman is
one who rises up and says to her menfolk, 'I will not be dictated to,'
and proceeds to become a stenographer."
One thing that will jar on the ear of most readers of Chesterton in the
closing years of the 20th century is his casual mention of racial and
ethnic stereotypes. Before the rise of Naziism, this was a common habit
among many persons of good will. Some critics have called Chesterton anti-Jewish.
It would be more accurate to call him anti-banking, or anti-capitalist.
David Friedman (son of Milton Friedman), who is Jewish, pro-capitalist,
and an enthusiastic admirer of Chesterton, devotes a chapter to his defense
in his book, The Machinery of Freedom.
Chesterton (widely known as GKC) was an essayist who wrote a regular
newspaper column for much of his life. Many of his books are collections
of his essays and columns, covering a wide range of subjects, so that
the collection titles are like: All
Things Considered, All Is Grist, Generally Speaking, and so on.
One famous series for which he did not get paid was an exchange with Robert
Blatchford, editor of The Clarion, in 1903-4. Blatchford was
an atheist, a Socialist, and a determinist, convinced that Science had
shown that every physical event is part of a causal chain going back indefinitely,
so that there can be no such thing as free choice. If Adam ate of the
forbidden fruit, it must be that his psychological makeup rendered this
inevitable. He wrote:
Now, then, did God make Adam? He did. Did God make the
faculties of his brain? He did. Did God make his curiosity strong and
his obedience weak? He did. Then, if this man Adam was so made that his
desire would overcome his obedience, was it not a foregone conclusion
that he would eat that apple? It was. In that case, what becomes of the
freedom of the will?
To this, GKC replied that, according to Blatchford, men act as prior
causes determine that they must act, and therefore Christians are mistaken
in blaming them for their actions. But Christians, as GKC hastens to point
out, are not the only ones who blame men for their actions.
The Christian fantasy crops up in the most unlikely places.
Even In the Clarion, for instance, I have seen writers distributing a
grave and tender blame... to those who adulterate milk and butter and
rack-rent slums. But you, on your principle, hold all these men guiltless....
You have discovered something infinitely more sensational and modern than
any dusty Bible criticism: you have discovered this lucid and interesting
fact --that whether Lord Penrhyn starves himself to save his men or saves
himself by putting poison in their beer, he is equally spotless as the
flowers of spring.
Blatchford replied that, though we do not blame a man who burns a house
down, any more that we blame a shark who devours a baby, we can still
take steps to resist him. Just so, the editor of the Clarion can give
a careless clerk a scolding, as part of the educational process. GKC seized
on this example with delight, and replied:
On your principles, you would say: "My blameless
Ruggles, the Anger of God against you has once more driven you, a helpless
victim, to put your boots on my desk and upset the ink on the ledger.
Let us weep together." If that is the way clerks are scolded in the
Clarion office, gaily will I now apply for the next vacancy in that philosophical
His poems vary widely. Some are pure nonsense rhymes, written strictly
for the fun of it. Others are fun, but with a point behind it. For example,
a Spiritualist paper, remarking on the conversion of a former Roman Catholic
to Spiritualism (meaning what we now call "channeling," or communicating
with the spirits of the dead through a "medium" or "channel,"
a psychical sensitive go-between), said, "When men like Mr Dennis
Bradley can no longer be content with the old faith, a spirit of jealousy
is naturally aroused." (Who is Dennis Bradley, and what are his claims
to eminence? I have no idea.) GKC replied to this with a six-stanza poem,
Jealousy, of which I reproduce the first two.
She sat upon her Seven Hills;
She wrapped her scarlet robes about her,
Nor yet in her two thousand years
Had ever grieved that men should doubt her.
But what new horror shakes the mind,
Making her moan and mutter madly?
Lo, Rome's high heart is broke at last:
Her foes have borrowed Dennis Bradley.
If she must lean on lesser props
Of earthly fame or ancient art,
Make shift with Raphael or Racine,
Put up with Dante or Descartes,
Not wholly can she mask her grief,
But touch the wound and murmur sadly,
"These lesser things are theirs to love
Who lose the love of Mr. Bradley."
Not all his poems are intended to make the reader laugh. His longest
poem (about 2800 lines) is called The
Ballad of the White Horse, and deals with King
Alfred the Great (26 Oct), who in 878, having been backed into a corner
by the heathen Danish invaders, won a decisive battle and saved England
from total destruction. The poem deals with the military situation, but
also with contending philosophies. Alfred, unrecognized, is brought into
the Danish camp as a wandering harpist, and he and four Danes, including
the king, play songs expressing their views of life. My view is that the
poem is well worth reading, but could be improved by a little abridgement
(for example, I would cut everything in the Preface after the line, "and
laid peace on the sea").
A shorter poem, Lepanto
(about 150 lines) deals with the sea-battle of Lepanto, fought in 1571
near the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth (separating Northern from Southern
Greece) between the Turks and a Christian alliance (mostly Spain, Venice,
Malta, the Papal States, and other Italian states), led by the King of
Spain's half-brother, Don John of Austria. The Turks lost nearly all their
ships, and nearly 10,000 of their galley slaves, mostly Christians, were
freed. Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, fought with great distinction,
being wounded three times and losing the use of his left hand. A snippet:
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes slowly up a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war.
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold,
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torch-light crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain--hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.
In both poems, Chesterton points out near the end that the victory does
not mean that the struggle is over. The Danes did not quietly disappear,
nor did the Turks. Neither do successfully resisted temptations and sins
in the life of the Christian. We must not expect, this side of Heaven,
to reach a point where all our problems are solved and all struggles are
over. (John 16:29-33)
Two biographies by GKC are St.
Francis of Assisi and St.
Thomas Aquinas. Neither of them is crammed with dates and factual
details, but both have been highly praised for their insights into the
character of the men described. Etienne Gilson, the foremost Aquinas scholar
of the twentieth century, calls GKC's book "the best book ever written
on St. Thomas." If his book on Francis is not as good, it is perhaps
because Francis is far harder to write about. What one needs to express
is the spirit of Francis, his personality, the spiritual air he breathed.
And this is a tall order.
Chesterton also wrote a book called Heretics,
in which he offers a critique of some of the prominent philosophies and
philosophers of his time (1905)--men like Frederick Nietzsche, H G Wells,
G Bernard Shaw (these last two both good friends of his). He says of Shaw
He tells us that our lives must be based on Will. He
says to Us, "Will something," which is to say, "I do not
care what you will," which is to say, "I have no will in this
matter." In this, he is the mirror image of the Buddhist, who tells
us to cultivate Holy Indifference. The Buddhist and the Shavian stand
at the cross-roads, and one of them hates all the roads, and one of them
loves all the roads. The result--well, some things are not difficult to
predict. They stand at the cross-roads.
He followed this three years later by Orthodoxy,
an account of his own beliefs, with an indication of the considerations
that had led him to them.
Chesterton's principal work of apologetics, of straightforward, direct
defence of Christian belief, is The
Everlasting Man (1925). It is divided into two parts, "The
Animal Called Man" and "The Man Called Christ." Chesterton
undertakes to refute, first, the view that man is just one more species
of animal, not different in principle from the other species, and second,
the view that Christ is just one more religious or moral teacher, and
Christianity just one more religion, not different in principle from the
others. It may be noted that here Chesterton is defending the Christian
faith, as held by all who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, God, and Savior.
— by James Kiefer
A number of the above books and more are available from the Internet Archive. Links to just about everything about Chesterton on the Web may be found at: http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/index.html