"G.K. Chesterton, the Eccentric Prince of Paradox"
It is staggering to find that this disorganized man produced more than one hundred books on a vast range of subjects and with evocative titles such as The Man Who Was Thursday, The Barbarism of Berlin, and Sidelights on New London and Newer York. He gave us Father Brown, the mild-mannered priest-detective who knew much more about human depravity than the two callow Cambridge students who pitied his simplicity (or rather that of the Yorkshire priest on whom the character was based), and whose investigations were interspersed with comments like, "One can sometimes do good by being the right person in the wrong place," and "One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak."
Chesterton's immoderation was known to all men. He worked, ate, and drank too much. He grew fatter and fatter. His nostalgic hankering after the robust Catholicism of the Middle Ages included the feasts and the hogsheads of wine but stopped at the fasting. Notre Dame's famous chauffeur, Johnnie Mangan, tells of his visit for lectures and an LL.D.:
He was close to 400 lbs. but he'd never give it away … I brought him under the main building, he got stuck in the door of the car. Father O'Donnell tried to help. Mr. Chesterton said it reminded him of an old Irishwoman: "Why don't you get out sideways?" "I have no sideways."
Not surprisingly, Americans loved him. Journalists were delighted by his bons mots. Thus his remark on Broadway's dazzling lights: "What a glorious garden of wonders this would be to anyone lucky enough not to be able to read." In a remark quoted in the New York Times in 1931 he observed: "There is nothing the matter with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong." To an American interviewer on another occasion he said: "Slang is too sacred and precious to be used promiscuously. It should be led up to reverently for it expresses what the King's English could not."
Like his friend Ronald Knox he was both entertainer and Christian apologist. The world never fails to appreciate the combination when it is well done; even evangelicals sometimes give the impression of bestowing a waiver on deviations if a man is enough of a genius. For one who could be careless about wider implications in other fields, Chesterton held to a notably reasoned Christianity, perhaps because he never considered the answers until he formulated the questions.
And he made others think, through pronouncements zany enough to pass their defenses and explode devastatingly within their minds. He was a master of the metaphorical Mickey Finn which (because paradox is involved?) has the opposite effect, galvanizing people into action or into self-examination, making them vulnerable.
He locked horns with the modernistic teaching of R. J. Campbell and the so-called New Theology, which even seventy years ago was identified as old heresy. Early Christians not only saw our modern problems, but saw through them. Claiming to be a development, modernism was actually an abandonment of the Christian idea.
Chesterton marveled that religious liberty now meant that hardly anyone was allowed to mention the subject. He complained that "the act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice." Orthodoxy (the title he gave his most telling book) was widely regarded as the one unpardonable heresy. "Critics were almost entirely complimentary to what they were pleased to call my brilliant paradoxes; until they discovered that I really meant what I said."