Books Every Christian Should Read: Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

This is the first in a (hopefully regular) series on books that every Christian should try to read. I’m starting with this one because it is my favorite and by far the one that has had the greatest impact on my life. My goal is to highlight books that you won’t find on the bestsellers list in your local bookstore or the ‘new and popular’ page on Amazon, precisely because they are not new. But just because they are not new, doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Screwtape Letters, “the characteristic errors of one [generation] may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.”

page11-400px-Chesterton_-_Orthodoxy,_1909.djvuGeneral Facts:

Title: Orthodoxy
Author: G.K. Chesterton
First Published: 1908
One-Sentence Synopsis: Chesterton presents an apologetic for orthodox Christianity (as found in the Apostles Creed) by recounting his own journey from agnosticism to faith.

Benefits

Many Christians can probably point to a particular book, sermon, or experience as the moment (post-conversion) when their faith finally ‘clicked’ for them, when the world started to make sense. It’s like someone with impaired vision putting glasses on for the first time or a mostly deaf person being fitted with hearing aids. You might not even have known there was a deficiency, but in hindsight, you can’t even believe how you ever lived that way. From casual conversations I’ve had, it appears that most Evangelicals who had that experience reading a book point to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. For me, it was Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

As a new Christian, I often swung between the two extremes of intellectualism and emotionalism, being dissatisfied with whichever brand of Christianity I found myself in. I was convinced of the truth of Christianity and the need to place my faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, but I found Christianity itself, or perhaps, rather, Christians themselves, to be another matter altogether. I struggled to find a way to satisfiy both my intellectual, analytical, side that craves logic and facts and my melancholy side that relies on instinct and whether something “feels right.” Like Chesterton,

“I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the [twentieth] century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. … I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion.”

Reading Orthodoxy was the first time I realized that Christianity could be both intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying, that one could simultaneously be a scholar and a mystic, and that as “the answer to a riddle,” Christianity was neither a dry truism nor a subjective feeling, but the very thing that made sense of the world. As John Piper wrote, Chesterton “sees more wonder in an ordinary day than most of us see in a hundred miracles.” Because of that, I re-read Orthodoxy every year or two, and skim my notes and highlights in it even more frequently than that. I constantly find myself applying quotes and thoughts from it (and Chesterton’s other works) to my daily life. Perhaps no other book other than Scripture itself has had as profound an impact on my life than this one.

Cautions

Chesterton was Anglican when he wrote Orthodoxy and eventually converted to Catholicism. While the nature of the book (arguing for the essentials of the faith, or what Lewis termed ‘mere Christianity’) eliminates most denominational assertions, there might still be some passages that will make some uncomfortable (e.g., he’s not a big fan of Calvinism).

Excerpt

From Chapter 4: The Ethics of Elfland:

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. …

The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grow-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bring forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last appearance.

This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were willful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and subconscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.

References

Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. 2013. Orthodoxy (Moody Classics). Chicago: Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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