(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Though sometimes vaguely regarded as a minor British literary figure, G. K. Chesterton is considered by many informed readers to be one of the great writers of the English language in the twentieth century. A prolific author of astonishing creativity, he published dozens of books (including novels, biographies, and social, literary, and religious criticism), hundreds of short stories and poems, and thousands of essays. Though nowadays perhaps most often remembered as the author of the well-known Father Brown detective stories, he was a public intellectual in the media of his time. His enduring cultural significance is found in his sometimes prescient, sometimes naïve critiques of modernist ideas, and in his vigorous, witty defense of the intellectual respectability of traditional Christian doctrines. Orthodoxy, one of his most important books, presents his effervescent apologia pro vita sua.

The title of chapter 6, “The Paradoxes of Christianity,” articulates what in a real sense is the subject of the whole volume. Though Chesterton condemns the use of “mere paradox,” his characteristic humor is pervasively couched in paradoxical terms: Orthodoxy reads like Saint Paul’s epistles as written by Oscar Wilde. With glittering wit, Chesterton endorses Christian doctrine as the logical upshot of a humble and democratic common sense. To some readers his unrelenting inversion of truisms may grow predictable and tedious; to others, the verbal pyrotechnics are redeemed by an abundance of unfashionable truths memorably expressed.

Chesterton explains how he came to Christianity but provides neither conventional autobiography nor ordinary apologetics. Offering “mental pictures” rather than deductions, he tries to show how his instinctive view of life—a view in sharp contrast to the drift of modern thought—was ultimately recognized by him as consonant with historic Christian faith. (A decade and a half later, in 1922, he embraced Roman Catholicism.) His “ultimate attitudes towards life” include the idea that the meaningfulness of the...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Ahlquist, Dale. G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003. The companion volume to a popular television series hosted by Ahlquist, who is both president of the American Chesterton Society and associate editor of the Ignatius Press edition of Chesterton’s collected works.

Chesterton, G. K. “Heretics,” “Orthodoxy,” “The Blatchford Controversies.” Vol. 1 in Collected Works. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986. Provides a broad context for understanding Orthodoxy by including Chesterton’s earlier critique of the religious ideas of his contemporaries, Heretics (1905), as well as still earlier material relating to the his participation in the controversies promoted by Robert Blatchford (editor of the socialist weekly The Clarion).

Kenner, Hugh. Paradox in Chesterton. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1947. The Canadian literary critic Hugh Kenner, one of the architects of the canon of modernism, devoted his first book to a study of Chesterton’s use of paradox.

Kibler, Craig M., ed. Orthodoxy: The Annotated Edition. Lenoir, N.C.: Reformation Press, 2002. Extensive commentary on Chesterton’s text by a Christian journalist who has also published an annotated edition of Heretics (2005).

Lauer, Quentin. G. K. Chesterton: Philosopher Without a Portfolio. New York: Fordham University Press, 1988. An academic expert on the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel and on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl defends the philosophical significance of Chesterton’s thought.

Wills, Garry. Chesterton. Rev. ed. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Wills, a prolific public intellectual, both a Catholic critic and a critic of Catholicism, reexamines Chesterton’s faith and works four decades after his first book on Chesterton.