What is your question about G.K. Chesterton?

Dale Ahlquist is the President of the American Chesterton Society. The G.K. Chesterton Conference will be at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, July 27-29. For more information: https://www.chesterton.org/36th-annual-chesterton-conference

Here are three questions:

1. Why was G.K. Chesterton once so popular?
2. Why did he stop being popular?
3. Why is becoming popular again?

Now the answers:

1. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English author of books, poems, plays, and essays, who wrote about everything and did so with great wit and verve and insight. People bought newspapers just to read his columns and bought radios just to hear his voice. Immensely quotable (“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”) and immensely immense (300 pounds), he stirred the literary world with his paradoxes (“A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.”) and his puns (“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”) and both (“Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”). Even though he was not a Catholic, he created a beloved character in detective fiction who happened to be a Catholic priest: Father Brown. He wrote one of the last great epic poems in the English language: The Ballad of the White Horse. He debated some of the leading intellectuals of his day: George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow. He conducted two extended speaking tours of the U.S., and every one of his lectures was front page news and was sold out. And he had the same success in Spain, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and the Holy Land.

2. He stirred the literary world again in 1922 when he was received into the Catholic Church. His conversion was world wide news, but in some people’s minds he went from being a writer to being a Catholic writer. Though he had always pointed to God (“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”), he was now pointing to Rome. After his death, he naturally disappeared from the newspapers, but then he disappeared from the classroom, where his books were once taught. The world became a more depressing place after World War II, and Chesterton’s message of hope and joy was not what a jaded and despairing world wanted to hear. His battle against fads and fashions gave way to… fads and fashions. His writing, which dealt with the big questions, fell out of favor in a climate that wanted to deal with the small questions.

3. After two generations grew up with no exposure to Chesterton, a new generation started to rediscover him. They found him to be prophetic (“The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality: and especially on sexual morality.”) and timely (“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”) and profound (“The most ignorant of humanity know by the very look of earth that they have forgotten heaven.”) He speaks the truth plainly (“Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it.”) but also poignantly (“When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights.”). And he’s still refreshingly funny. (“It is a the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)

The American Chesterton Society has played a role in the Chesterton revival. Gilbert magazine and “The Apostle of Common Sense,” a well-watched series on EWTN helped popularize Chesterton. We have also hosted a major conference that has been held in a different city every year. This year we are going to be in Colorado Springs. The three day event features outstanding speakers on a wide range of topics from literature, history, philosophy, economics, and faith and reason. But in a Chestertonian spirit, the conference is filled with much laughter and convivial debate. It is an event like nothing else on earth.

It is open to everyone, from the novice to the well-read. Everyone will find something to fascinate them and inspire them.

 

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.