My introduction to Chesterton was seeing a copy of Orthodoxy on a friends apartment bookshelf in Brooklyn in 2009. I had no idea who he was, or what the book was about, but I was told I should read it.
Back home, I found a copy on my dad’s bookshelf, so I borrowed it and devoured it. I had never read anything that was so well articulated, so well thought out. It was as though he had reached out of the book, grabbed me by the arms and turned me up-side down. He made it seem like our culture was walking on the sky, rather than on solid ground.
After Orthodoxy, I wanted more. I attempted to read The Everlasting Man but didn’t get very far. I think I tried to read it too straight. I wanted to follow his ideas, his logic, with exactitude, but it left me dizzy. Chesterton is no drive on the Interstate. He is a backwoods-mountain-bushwhack trail. If you let him lead you, you’ll think you are lost, but at the end you’ll look back over the course which led you to where you are, and say, “Ah, the view is beautiful from up here!”
This past week I picked up The Everlasting Man again, and that old feeling came back. His words grabbed me, turned me up-side down, then put wings on me so we could fly together.
His “Introduction – The Plan For This Book” starts with the seed of a line, “There are two ways of getting home, and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.”
He goes on to say, “The point of this book, in other words, is that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it.” The idea being, that when familiarity breeds contempt, one must escape the familiarity till they are not close enough anymore to view it with contempt. Only at this point can they truly see it for what it is. This is especially true of Christianity, Chesterton asserts. When we are overfamiliar with it, we cannot judge it effectively. While the one within Christianity would be the best judge, the next best judge is someone that does not come ready with his judgments, but someone who is far enough away to see it in all of its color and wonder against the backdrop of heathenism. (When Chesterton says “heathenism,” he simply means, man without religion.)
Chesterton’s goal, then is to turn you up-side down. To make you see with new eyes, both man in the backdrop of the natural things, and Christ in the backdrop of humanity.
“And I say that in both cases, when seen thus, they stand out from their background like supernatural things. They do not fade into the rest with the colours of impressionism; they stand out from the rest with the colours of heraldry; as vivid as a red cross on a white shield or a black lion on a ground of gold. So stands the Red Clay against the green field of nature, or the White Christ against the red clay of his race.”
I am picking up Chesterton in the middle of reading John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable. I confess, Crossan has intrigued me for a few years since I picked up his Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography. I wanted (and still want) to learn more about the historical context of the life and times of Jesus.
Crossan’s writings, though, have called into question many of the things that I have taken on faith. For example, he says that even though the account of Joseph and Mary returning to Bethlehem for the census makes for a charming Christimas story, it’s in fact very unlikely that they did that, since censuses at the time never required people return to their hometown to be registered. Rather, people would be registered in the town that they were currently living in, so as not to cause mass travel and disrupt the entire economic system.
This was the first time I had ever heard someone call into question the inerrancy of scripture. In The Power of Parable, he does the same thing by essentially arguing that not only did Jesus tell parables, but some accounts of Jesus’ life are parabolic as well, and did not actually happen.
I’m still in the beginning of this book, but to be quite honest, these things shake me. But I think they shake me in a good way. I don’t want to go through life in a bubble. I want to be thoughtful about the things I believe. I want to know why I believe what I do. Yes, certain things need to be taken on faith, but delving into them in the process, I believe, will only strengthen that faith rather than destroy it.
What I mean is that I used to have a fear of different beliefs and opinions, never really wanting to get into the shoes of the people that hold those different beliefs, for fear that my own beliefs would be compromised, questioned, or weakened. This fear has come from thinking their is a direct correlation between holding fast to a certain set of doctrines and Godliness. And conversely, I have thought that to call into question any key doctrine is to immediately slide towards atheism.
It may sound silly, but I think that view is fairly common among orthodox believers. I have far too often spoken negatively about other religions, and even other branches of Christianity (such as Catholicism) without actually ever having read any of their texts, or any of their key proponents. In other words, I have never sought to actually get inside their head, their history, and their beliefs.
As a result, my conversations with people who have believed differently, have sadly digressed quickly into debates or arguments over the facts backing the belief system. These conversations have never led to anything worth remembering. They are like political debates. No one actually convinces you of anything, and each side cheers when their view is supported, and no one actually wins. Or rather, someone does win, but at the expense of the other person.
That’s what I appreciate about Chesterton. He is trying to go far enough away from home to attempt to see Christ with clear eyes. He wants to open you up to wonder again. To see things for the first time.
In order to strike, in the only sane or possible sense, the note of impartiality, it is necessary to touch the nerve of novelty.I mean that in one sense we see things fairly when we see them first.
Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 13-14
I wonder if Crossan is so far inside Christianity, that he is no longer able to see “the White Christ against the red clay of his race.” He has painted Jesus red.