I’m a man of strange, impossibly geeky ambitions. I’d like to visit all the national parks someday. I’d like to own a vampire repellant kit. And someday, I’d like to compile a list of the “must read” Christian writers–the best, most influential Christian scribblers since Paul (Not Paul me … the original guy). It’d be a list of authors and books that have helped articulate the faith throughout the centuries and who still have something to tell us today.
“He had an extremely unique combination of genius and humor and used it fully. He argued for Christian morality in unexpected ways. There is pure spontaneity in his writing, a disorganization that is charming. He is like C.S. Lewis with messy hair.”
Author Philip Yancey introduced me to Chesterton in his book Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church. He actually mentioned Chesterton in conjunction with C.S. Lewis, as I recall, and at the time, my knowledge of contemporary Christian authors began and ended with Lewis. If Chesterton was anything like Lewis, I figured, he’d be my type of guy.
He exceeded expectations.
Chesterton and Lewis read somewhat alike at times. They’re both laymen who have an uncanny ability to thwack deep, theological truths into understandable pieces. Both were frighteningly smart and, often, quite funny. Lewis was deeply influenced by Chesterton, who was about 20 years older.
But in some respects, Chesterton feels more contemporary.
Lewis was primarily writing to believers and non-believers who were ensconced in a deeply modernist worldview: The main threats to faith were science and skepticism, and thus apologists required a reasoned, rational series of theses as to why they believed as they did. Mere Christianity is Lewis’ best-known and best-loved apologetic book—a marvel that walks readers through the rationality of faith. Cruise through the Lewis canon, and you’ll find loads of books along those lines.
Chesterton can reason quite well himself. But in many ways, his voice has almost a postmodern feel to it. He embraces the crazy paradoxes inherent in Christianity and lovingly goads (to use the phrase of the sorta Chesterton-esque comic Stephen Colbert) the “truthiness” of his (and our) age. There was never a worldview that Chesterton did not poke a little. He is breathtakingly quotable: Like Kurt Vonnegut, he can leave you reeling in a sentence. He’ll toss out a quip that holds more power than many books do. For example:
The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.
The word \”good\” has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.
There is the great lesson of \’Beauty and the Beast,\’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.
Now, Chesterton doesn’t always work for me. There are times when his logic or conclusions don’t quite make sense—perhaps a symptom of the “messy hair” mentioned by Tippin. But that’s pretty rare, really. And when he works, there might not be anyone better. And even though he spent most of his writing life gently mocking some of the learned men and ideals of his day, he did it with such honesty and good humor that he seems a hard man to dislike—even for those who disagreed with him.
When I think about the type of Christian I’d like to be—and how to live and engage in this increasingly secular culture—Chesterton’s something of a role model. He never apologized for his beliefs, but he was so completely secure in his faith that he greeted every intellectual challenge with a wink. He had an ability to find truth in unexpected places and humor everywhere. He knew that ideals were important, but he insisted that beauty and laughter and goodwill held a powerful wisdom of their own. His attitude recalls another Chesterton quote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
Of the other people in Tippin’s list, the only other person I’ve had the opportunity to read is Dorothy Sayers: Tippin is right that Sayers’ language can be thick at times in her non-fiction work, but she’s a heckuva mystery writer. As for the others on the list … well, it looks as if I have some reading to do.