Some authors’ books are buried with their generation.

Others live on, finding new audiences who scratch their heads and scribble in the margins.

The writings of English apologist G. K. Chesterton keep coming back—and in this fiftieth anniversary year of his death, book publishers are making his quotable lines more available than ever. CHRISTIANITY TODAY asked Chesterton scholar Arthur Livingston to introduce this perennial Christian favorite and review the recent revival of Chesterton publishing.

G.K. Chesterton was a man of enormous physical bulk and equally enormous intellectual energy—perhaps a combination of Thomas Aquinas and Samuel Johnson. Just as the rotund Aquinas had been called a dumb ox at the University of Paris, the schoolchild Chesterton was often treated as a dullard. Both Chesterton and Aquinas had an early introspective bent that needed modifying before they would be able to communicate easily.

On the other hand, Chesterton’s good-humored epigrammatical gusto at the service of Christian truth and his obvious relish at defending the faith are much like the “lean and lank” Johnson’s. And for each of these early masters, he wrote a book: perhaps the best introduction to Aquinas for nonspecialists (St. Thomas Aquinas) and an intriguing play that deserves revival (The Judgment of Dr. Johnson).

It is nearly impossible to capsulize the writings of G. K. Chesterton. As one critic put it, “Chesterton is recognized by essayists as one of the greatest of essayists; by poets as a magnificent poet; by humorists as a humorist of tremendous versatility; by philosophers as a profound philosopher; by controversialists as a deadly but lovable master of controversy; by political economists as a man of deep political insights; by novelists as a most able novelist; and by theologians as one who saw, sometimes, far deeper than they are able to see into theological truths.”

Despite such adulation, Chesterton never referred to himself as anything other than a journalist. He was not the ephemeral newspaperman the term conjures, but rather one whose observations of the times are worthy of preservation—a follower in the tradition of Addison and Steele, and a precursor of the Mike Roykos and Russell Bakers of our own day.

Chesterton is often compared to C. S. Lewis. And Lewis acknowledged the influence of Chesterton on his style. Lewis must have meant Chesterton’s bantering tone that makes the reader feel he is meeting It is nearly impossible to capsulize the writings of the man directly and without pretense, despite the abundance of wit.

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Lewis’s writing, on the other hand, displays a polished Oxonian tone; whereas Chesterton’s arguments explode in a riot of jokes and paradoxes while always keeping their directness.

Also reviewed in this section:

Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, by Richard Wightman Fox

Breaking Faith,by Humberto Belli

Without Child: A Compassionate Look at Infertility,by Martha Stout

The Jesus Connection: To Triumph Over Anti-Semitism,by Leonard C. Yaseen

Who Speaks for God?by Charles Colson

Words For Weapons

Chesterton was reared in an atmosphere of Victorian liberalism. And since he always pursued thoughts to their logical conclusions, as a young man he flirted dangerously with the self-centered philosophy and decadence of the time. Realizing that modernism was bankrupt, he sought relief in the church of his ancestors and became an Anglo-Catholic.

His later conversion from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism at age 48 did little to alter the tenor of his writing, with the exception of a few books on denominational topics. Certain aspects of his work—his overt hostility to Puritanism and the Reformation—may rankle some readers. But on the whole, there has not been a more articulate champion of classic Christian orthodoxy, virtue, and decency than this rotund jouster whose words were his weapons.

What makes Chesterton’s writing addictive is his ability to get to the heart of a topic—without the slightest hedging. For example, he undertook answering such men as Sir George Frazer, who advanced the argument that Christ was merely another mythical example of the great god’s son who died and came back to life in the spring—of the Egyptian Osiris, the Greek Dionysus, or the Nordic Balder. The world is full of such stories, said Fraser, and, by implication, the story of Christ is just another version of this recurring theme.

Characteristically, Chesterton got to the unstated premise of this argument and punctured it: “If the world is made such that a Son of God would come to save the world, is it then surprising that a Patagonian would dream of a son of God coming to save the world?” This example of Chesterton’s apologetic method appeared not in one of his major books, or even in one of the minor ones, but in correspondence for an obscure journal that was not reprinted in toto until this year.

Getting Started

Where, then, does the beginner start? The essence of Chesterton’s thought is probably best captured in three volumes: Heretics (1906), Orthodoxy (1908), and The Everlasting Man (1925). In the first volume, he gently devastates the thought of most of the prevailing thinkers of his day, from George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling to William Butler Yeats, by following their ideas to their logical—and absurd—conclusions.

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After the publication of Heretics, one wag suggested the book could only be taken seriously when Mr. Chesterton offered his own beliefs as an alternative. The result was Orthodoxy. In its pages he does not attempt a systematic defense of Christian truth. Instead, he slowly allows the reader to see what G.K.C. has experienced—that the major arguments against Christianity are plausible reasons for believing in it, and how those objections led him to belief. It is not uncommon to hear of people who begin highlighting passages in Orthodoxy, only to despair as it becomes apparent that—to do it justice—nearly the entire book would need to be underscored.

The Everlasting Man is, in many ways, a response to H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, a curiously ignorant book, full of cheapjack trendiness that received a great deal of undeserved attention in its day and since—a book whose mischief Chesterton felt he could not ignore.

For all the wit and insight in these three books, the easiest items in the Chesterton pantry for readers to cut their teeth on are the Father Brown stories. Fully 15 years before his conversion to Rome, Chesterton met an unassuming but remarkably brilliant Yorkshire priest. Chesterton offered his opinions on “some rather sordid social questions of vice and crime”—and Father O’Connor promptly refuted them, displaying what Chesterton thought was (for a man of the cloth) a rather profound knowledge of evil.

Chesterton showed his respect for his new friend by generally disguising him as Father Brown—“beating his hat and umbrella shapeless, untidying his clothes, punching his intelligent countenance into a condition of pudding-faced fatuity.” The nearly 50 stories, featuring a plain little priest with extraordinary powers to observe and to reason, are available to American readers as The Penguin Complete Father Brown (1981).

An Excerpt The Everlasting Man

The Idea of Grant Allen

“One of my first journalistic adventures, or misadventures, concerned a comment of Grant Allen, who had written a book about the evolution of the idea of God. I happened to remark that it would be much more interesting if God wrote a book about the evolution of the idea of Grant Allen. And I remember that the editor objected to my remark on the ground that it was blasphemous; which naturally amuses me not a little. For the joke of it was, of course, that it never occurred to him to notice the title of the book itself, which really was blasphemous; for it was, when translated into English, ‘I will show you how this nonsensical notion that there is a God grew up among men.’ My remark was strictly pious and proper; confessing the divine purpose even its most seemingly dark or meaningless manifestations.”

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Neglect And Revival

For some reason, Chesterton was nearly forgotten during the generation immediately following him. Perhaps it was the sheer mass of his output. After all, deciding where to begin reading an author of about 100 volumes is perplexing. In addition, his militant, but good-humored, defense of the faith made his name anathema in those stridently anti-Christian circles that dictate literary fashion. It was probably not a case of denominational prejudices. Although I attained four degrees at Roman Catholic universities, I have yet to hear his name mentioned in a Catholic classroom—unless I do so myself. (This is amazing considering the breadth of Chesterton’s achievement and his having been named Defender of the Faith by Pope Pius XI.)

Fortunately, strong signs of a Chesterton revival have become clear since the centenary celebration of his birth in 1974. The number of his titles in print has doubled; a number of anthologies of his work have appeared; and other writers are once again quoting his epigrams.

And now the fiftieth year of his death has occasioned a great deal of Chestertonia being published:

• G. K. Chesterton, edited by P. J. Kavanagh (Ignatius, 1985, 487 pp.; $16.95), is an anthology that contains the largest chunks of his work. The remarkable study of Robert Browning, the first of his full-length books mostly on individual literary figures, is included showing a highly idiosyncratic but illuminating style. (The best of these is probably Charles Dickens: Last of the Great Men.) Kavanagh’s anthology also contains the complete text of G.K.C.’s most-read novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a type of story that later would be called Kafkaesque (but it was Kafka who must have learned the style from Chesterton since Chesterton’s novel predates Kafka’s writing career).

As I Was Saying, edited by the late Robert Knille (Eerdmans, 1985, 314 pp.; $ 18.95), is the anthology that more fully draws on the complete wealth of Chesterton material, including Dickens, Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Francis of Assisi. And many of G.K.C.’s best essays are reprinted.

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• John Coates, lecturer in literature and drama at the University of Hull, has produced what well may be the best study of Chesterton, placing him in the ethos of his time, Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis (Hull University Press, 1984, 244 pp.; $18.95).

• A few years ago, Alzina Stone Dale produced the first full-length biography of Chesterton worth mentioning since Maisie Ward’s standard 1943 work. She has now produced an interesting coffee-table book, The Art of G. K. Chesterton (Loyola University Press, 1986, xiv + 114 pp.; $25.00). Chesterton’s first ambition was to be a painter, and he managed to produce illustrations for many books until he died. Dale’s book reproduces a number of Chesterton drawings and places them in the context of his career.

• Ignatius Press has announced the most ambitious Chesterton project possible: the attempt to publish the complete works of Chesterton over an extended period. Fr. Ian Boyd, editor of The Chesterton Review, has undertaken this massive project. The first volume is now available and includes the ubiquitous Orthodoxy, Heretics, and the Blatchford Controversy (1986, $17.95, hardcover; $12.95, softcover).

• For two years the Midwest Chesterton Society has been working on a most daring publishing venture, reprinting all 3,000,000 words Chesterton wrote for his weekly column in the Illustrated London News (1905–36). These essays range over the full gamut of English life and manners of the period. Only a handful of these essays have ever been reprinted. When published late this year, the full set will run to ten volumes of about 600 pages each and cost approximately $300. The cost is prohibitive for the home, but for the first time, readers will have access to all these writings in libraries.

T. S. Eliot noted in his obituary of Chesterton that he “did more than any man in his time … to maintain the existence of the [Christian] minority in the modern world.” Were this his only contribution, his name should be enshrined.

But Chesterton is well worth reading in his own right, and for this all Christians should give at least a few of his writings a chance. He may be found addictive. And above all, he is fun.

Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, by Richard Wightman Fox (Pantheon, 1985, 340 pp.; $19.95, cloth). Reviewed by James W. Skillen, executive director, Association for Public Justice.

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Some call theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) the greatest American Christian social thinker of the twentieth century. That claim may be disputed—depending especially on what one means by “Christian.” But there can be no doubt about Niebuhr’s influence and importance, and Richard Fox’s outstanding biography is must reading for those who want to understand the proper role of Christian social and political action in America today.

Fox gives us a rich portrait of Niebuhr’s life and work from his birth, through his Union Seminary fame, to his death after a decade of emotional and physical illness. Not only does Reinhold Niebuhr come alive to the reader, but the American and international contexts of his life are detailed in fascinating ways.

Readers may be surprised, for example, to find out that Reinhold grew up in a German-speaking family and did not learn English well until his graduate school days. Moreover, the student who becomes acquainted with Niebuhr solely through his books might not know that he was more of a political activist, preacher, and journalist than a scholar.

Especially striking is the careful way Fox details Niebuhr’s struggle with modern liberalism while remaining so thoroughly liberal. This I was a personal issue for Fox himself since he had studied under Robert McAfee Brown and Michael Novak, both of whom had been influenced by Niebuhr, each of whom came to quite different conclusions about the “meaning” of Niebuhr:

Was Niebuhr a theological liberal who became increasingly conservative and “realistic” in his political perspective? Or was he really a socialist who became increasingly more critical of theological liberalism?

First Aid To Hypocrisy

Reinhold’s brother, H. Richard, was one of his best and most loving critics. At one point, Richard complained to Reinhold: “You think of religion as a power—dangerous sometimes, helpful sometimes. That’s liberal. For religion itself religion is no power, but that to which religion is directed, God.… I think the liberal religion is thoroughly bad. It is a first-aid to hypocrisy. It is the exaltation of good will, moral idealism. It worships the God whose qualities are ‘the human qualities to the nth degree,’ and I don’t expect as much help from this religion as you do. It is sentimental and romantic. Has it ever struck you that you read religion through the mystics and ascetics? You scarcely think of Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin. You’re speaking of humanistic religion so far as I can see.”

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By the time Reinhold had delivered and published his Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1939–43), he had, of course, struggled much more intensely with Paul, Augustine, and Calvin. But his later writings were still filled with ambiguity, paradox, and tension. According to Fox, Niebuhr “was a religious modernist devoted to Biblical symbols; a political democrat infatuated with Burkean traditionalism; a skeptical relativist committed like William James to the life of passionate belief and moral struggle. He was a thoroughgoing naturalist despite his contempt for what he called ‘naturalism’: the denial of human ‘spirit,’ the reduction of human nature to its psychic or physiological impulses. He had equal contempt for religious supernaturalism, which he thought voided man’s native capacities and expunged man’s own responsibility for his fate. His stance was naturalistic in the sense that his ultimate appeal in both politics and theology was always to the observed facts of human experience. His starting point was the community of concrete human beings confronted by the paradoxically free yet finite character of their nature.”

For all his speaking, writing, and thinking on the tough issues of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was essentially an occasional writer who did not develop a systematic political theory or theology. And none of his work can be considered distinctly biblical—at least in an evangelical or orthodox sense. Biblically rooted political and social thinking cannot ignore Niebuhr, but it must go beyond him and around him in a very self-critical fashion. Fox’s biography is a helpful and enlivening encouragement for such a venture.

Breaking Faith, by Humberto Belli (Crossway, 1985, 271 pp.; $8.95, paper). Reviewed by Ronald Nash, head of the philosophy and religion department at Western Kentucky University and editor of Liberation Theology (Mott Media).

American Christians have a legitimate stake in knowing about the current situation in Nicaragua—its effect on political and religious freedom, and its implications for the church. But they often have trouble knowing whose account to accept. Humberto Belli, the author of Breaking Faith, is no newcomer to Nicaragua or the Sandinistas. He is a native Nicaraguan who, until his Christian conversion in 1977, was a Marxist and a Sandinista supporter. Educated as both a lawyer and a sociologist, he worked as an editorial-page editor of La Prensa, the fiercely independent Nicaraguan newspaper, from 1980 to 1982.

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Belli begins his book with a short, insightful history of Nicaragua’s political struggles in this century and of the Sandinista movement. Because of his own personal ties to the movement and his access to Sandinista documents and speeches, he is able to tell his readers how the Sandinistas have always viewed their movement.

From its beginning, Belli says the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has been led by a nucleus of hard-core Marxist-Leninists who viewed Castro’s Cuba as a model for the society they wanted to establish in Nicaragua. During the late 1970s, the FSLN presented itself as the major umbrella organization opposing the hated Somoza. But secret Sandinista documents cited by Belli show the FSLN leadership had always anticipated an eventual break with its non-Marxist allies once the fight against Somoza was won. According to Belli, their apparent openness toward democracy and Christianity was a temporary measure to mask their true intentions until they could consolidate their power, establish their Marxist dictatorship, and begin their moves to bring all of Central America into the orbit of Cuba and the USSR.

Religious Repression

But Belli’s book is not a political tract. He writes as a Christian for Christians who are often uninformed about Sandinista abuses of Christians. Believers have been tortured and murdered. And Christian organizations have been denied the right to hold meetings.

Belli calls upon Christians outside of Nicaragua to side with their brothers and sisters and express their outrage when Nicaraguan Christians are beaten, abused, or expelled. Even those Christians who may choose to continue supporting the Sandinistas, Belli argues, should demand that the FSLN respect the freedom and dignity of the churches in Nicaragua.

Since Belli completed his book, the Sandinistas have terminated civil liberties in Nicaragua. Breaking Faith makes it clear that the Sandinistas fully expected to do this in pursuit of their totalitarian objectives. The evident support the Sandinistas themselves have given Belli’s thesis makes it even more important for Christians to read this timely and informative book.

Book Briefs

Without Child: A Compassionate Look at Infertility, by Martha Stout (Zondervan, 1985, 137 pp.; $5.95, paper).

Complete college, marry, wait a few years to get settled, start a family. Most adults expect their lives to unfold, with few variations, in just this way. But for an increasing number of involuntarily infertile couples, the last step in their adult rite-of-passage remains beyond their reach. And Christians who are childless often find the least solace in the church, which Martha Stout describes as “the most pro-naturalist, or pro-birth, and pro-family of our institutions.”

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“I can still recall how isolated I felt,” Stout writes of her and her husband’s own infertility. “Except for me, every woman in my weekly Bible study had at least one child. Even the farm animals in the surrounding countryside, whose young trailed bleating behind them, seemed to mock me.”

Stout discovered similar reactions among the dozens of infertile couples she interviewed while researching her book: a sense of surprise, isolation-diminished self-esteem, and confused self-image. After the initial shock and disbelief, there often came waves of anger, a deep sense of loss, and grief. For some Christians the pain was compounded by “the uneasy suspicion that since children are a sign of God’s favor, their absence must be a sign of his judgment or displeasure,” and by the unthinking reactions of others.

(Stout relates one instance of a church meeting in which several people were talking about the number of babies being born in the parish. A man looked directly at one childless couple and stopped the conversation by saying loudly, “Well, what’s the matter with you guys? When are you going to get with it?”)

Pastors and church leaders, as well as infertile couples, would do well to put Stout’s book on their “must read” list. She offers practical information and the combined wisdom of many couples who have moved beyond the pain of childlessness to “deeper places of caring and humility.” If, in response to the comfort the Lord gives us in our sorrow, we become more compassionate people, Stout writes, “we will bear a gift that the Church and the world sorely need.”

The Jesus Connection: To Triumph Over Anti-Semitism, by Leonard C. Yaseen (Crossroad, 1985, 154 pp.; $9.95, cloth).

The connection between L’il Abner and the Gospel of Mark may be summed up in one word: Jewishness. Both the cartoon’s creator and gospel’s author are Jewish, which, according to international consultant and author Leonard Yaseen, places them in a vast network of Jews inextricably woven into the fabric of Christian life.

Yaseen has tackled a difficult task: trying to exorcise the anti-Semitic spirit of centuries in a single book. Yet, fortified by a healthy sense of mission and some well-researched and not commonly known facts, Yaseen has made a significant start.

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Refuting the widely taught version of Jesus’ death “at the hands of the Jews,” Yaseen faults both the Romans and the politically motivated Sanhedrin—a hierarchy both the Pharisees and Jesus were intent on reforming. According to Yaseen, Christ’s death resulted from Jewish sentiment for him, instead of against him.

In fact, claims Yaseen, Jesus must be understood through his Jewishness, of which his lineage, his followers, and even his teachings were a part. Christianity was a Jewish sect, grown in the soil of the Pharasaic tradition until, decades later, its Hebrew members were outnumbered by pagan converts. How then, Yaseen wonders, would Christ react to modern anti-Semitism?

Yaseen’s goal is to convince readers that the New Testament is not a replacement of God’s original covenant with his chosen people but, rather, it is an outgrowth of the ancient root of Judaism.

To underscore Jewish-Christian commonality, Yaseen cites the anti-racist teaching of Vatican II, widespread use of Old Testament psalms, interfaith statements by the World Council of Churches, and the contributions of modern Jews themselves, detailed in 95 thumbnail biographies and 142 photographs. This Who’s Who collection of biographies and publicity photos of Jewish talent—Bob Dylan, Joseph Heller, Cary Grant, and more—would perhaps better constitute a separate book. But for the time being, Yaseen has not “withheld good from those who deserve it” (Prov. 3:27).

Who Speaks for God? by Charles Colson (Crossway, 1985, 192 pp.; $6.95, paper).

Charles Colson rouses the faithful in this collection of essays gleaned from his Prison Fellowship newsletter, Jubilee. The essays are exhortive, uplifting, balanced, and full of a compelling prophetic spirit that makes easy theological or political categorization impossible. Just as John the Baptist was neither a conservative nor a liberal and the apostle James was neither a progressive nor of the New Right, Colson’s activist Christianity defies categorization. His nonideological application of the gospel compels us to listen to him.

Colson’s social activism rises, paradoxically, from his conservative epistemology: “… the title of this collection, Who Speaks for God?, reflects my unyielding commitment to the proposition that neither I, nor anyone else, speaks for God except insofar as they speak founded upon His inerrant word.” From this foundation he addresses issues as varied as AIDS and prison reform; balanced budgets and abortion. Grounded in Scripture, Colson avoids the you-can-have-God-in-your-hip-pocket assumption of much pop theology. Of the gospel he says: “The mark isn’t “success,” it’s faithfulness. God calls us, not to success, but to faith—obedience and trust and service—and He bids us to be unconcerned with measuring the merits of our work the way the world does. We are to sow; He will reap as He pleases.”

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Colson, who has seen a lot of success and a lot of failure, can bear witness to this way of preaching and doing the gospel.

Book briefs by Kelsey Menehan, Cathy Luchetti, and James Sauer.

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