Thursday, July 15, 2010

G. K. & Yates

It is odd how some idea comes across your life in a series of accidental events. I'm not superstitious. I'm somewhat of a Calvinist, but I'm not a fatalist either so I don't believe "everything happens for a reason." But that's besides the point.

Someone here, just a few weeks ago, mentioned G. K. Chesterton and wondered if I had read any of his works. Oddly, I was only acquainted with his name.

Since then, there have been several references made to him within my sphere of associations. I asked my son, "Are you familiar with Chesterton." To which he replied with simple look of "Duh!"

I feel ashamed that I am a man in my fifties and I've been so artistically deprived for so long. I realize now that my deep evangelical years (meaning that there are plenty of evangelicals who were not as deprived as me and therefore were not so "deep" into it) were my personal "Dark Ages."

So, I'm seeing a patient this morning. She has her own interesting (but sad) story. She was adopted into a very conservative missionary family home. They moved to Africa when she was quite young per their professional trade (missionaries). She was sent away to missionary boarding school when she was seven. I think the wonderful missionary dorm parents took good care of her until she was about ten . . . then the husband came in at night to read her Bible stories . . . and to rape her. This went on for years. She was threatened to keep quiet. I think she told me that the dear couple retired as missionary heroes and the man never faced any kind of justice because the acts were swept under the carpet by the organization. You know, the nice facade must be maintained. This patient, amazingly, is still involved with Christian things, but she is not an idealist.

So this brings me to my point. On the cover of her note book this morning she had this quote by G.K. Chesterton (which everyone knows . . . save myself): "Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity." I was dumbfounded. So much so, that I've done some reading about Chesterton and will put some more of his quotes at the end of this.

Have you ever walked around all day with toilet paper on your shoe, hanging from your pants or a bugger hanging from you nose? Then you discover it and you feel embarrassed like every on in the whole world knew but yourself. That's the way I feel. The whole freaken world knew how wonderful fiction was but me! Okay, the other characters in my Dark Ages epoch didn't know either. What I mean is that during my Nav years, we were so dualistic in our thinking, that none of us read fiction but for the C. S. Lewis. I knew Navs who didn't even think that Lewis could have been a Christian because he wrote about witches . . . and he smoked. I'm not saying this literary depravity (correct word) was typical of the Navs, but it certain was of my group. Why read something for selfish entertainment--that is not factual--while the whole world is going to hell? How sad.

But, like I've said before, my children introduced me to fiction about 17 months ago and my life has been deeply enriched since.

So this leads me to Richard Yates, a much less well known literary artist. He wrote the book, Revolutionary Road. Tomorrow I am trying an experiment and I am nervous about it. I'm showing the movie in our home theater and having a discussion about it (like we use to in the LAbri house). I picked this movie because of its great commentary about American life in the 50s, about the pursuit of personal peace (keeping everything on the surface calm) while your private world is going to hell.

Even though I've invited the entire island, so far the only RSVPs have been from a few of our evangelical friends. Some of them are the ones who walked out in the middle of the high school play when homosexuality was mentioned. This movie is rated R and has some sexuality in it . . . as does real life. So far the feeling that I've gotten is that no one seems to know why I'm doing this. But it is the same reason we read fiction. So that brings me back to G.K. and some more of his quotes. I must also mention that he was a prototype post-evangelical, having eventually given up on the (Victorian era) Anglican Church and became a Catholic before he died.

"Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

"Just going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car."

"The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost."

"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."

"The word "good" has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man."


Anonymous said...

I'm much more familiar with Chesterton's non-fiction (Orthodoxy, The Catholic Church and Conversion, What Is Wrong with the World) and poetry than I am with his fiction (except for his Father Brown Mysteries).

Chesterton was quite a character -- look up his biography on Wikipedia sometime. Most of what he wrote is still in print.

In fiction, Chesterton is best known for his Father Brown Mysteries; the complete collection is called The Father Brown Omnibus, and dramatized versions of several of them were braodcast on PBS's Mystery some years ago (and should be available from

He is also known for a very strange quasi-fantasy novel, The Man Who would be Thursday. Web cartoonist Gen Whitmore is running a furry webcomic adaptation of it Wednesdays on her webcomic Little Tails. She's up to 120+ pages at last count.

Also try to score a collection of Chesterton's poetry if you can. He was known for both quirky short poems centering around paradoxes and long epic poetry such as "Lepanto" and "Ballad of the White Horse".

Headless Unicorn Guy

Johan said...

I'm very glad that you are discovering Chesterton. He has a way with words, that's for sure.
And I really enjoy your words on fiction and your journey of discovering important novels with other perspectives.
I myself ask the question to myself this weekend: why does the church not produce men (or women) like Chesterton/Lewis/Tolkien/Sayers/MacDonald or Charles Williams anymore? Christian authors comfortable in writing (fantasy) fiction and apologetics and theology both, appreciated by people in and out the church and church culture, conversant with culture contemporary and in tradition, and enthusiastic, joyful creators with a deeply felt respect for the Creator ...


MJ said...

Johan, I can only answer for myself. I know that there is a tendency for a hammer to see everything as a nail, but I think it is the Dualistic vs Monistic way of looking at the world.

I know that all the years I was an Evangelical, fiction was seen as having no value, unless it was teaching some simplistic "Biblical" (quotes intended) less. Case in point, the popular Left Behind Series.

But when fiction deals with the complexity of life, the pain and suffering of individuals, as well as their dreams . . . but without a simplistic resolution, that is why the present Evangelical paradigm does not place any value on . . . because it is not "spiritual."

I know that fiction was seen as a totally waste of time in my early Christian experience. That's why I'm so amazed with I see people like Chesterton praising fiction (and speaking from a Christian voice) a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

Something to remember, MJ:

Chesterton came out of Liturgical church tradition, not SBC/Evangelical. He started out as a Victorian-era Anglican and ended up as an Edwardian-era Catholic. Both Western-rite Liturgical Churches (one the offspring of the other for political, not theological, reasons) with a long track record. After hundreds to thousands of years, you learn through institutional experience (Chesterton's words) "Which Fresh New Ideas are really Old Mistakes."

Left Behind? Montanism (obsession over the End of the World, 3rd Century).

Spritual Good, Physical Baaaaaad? Dualism and Docetism, from Gnostics of the 1st and 2nd Centuries.

Con Man Preacher, in it purely for the money? Simony, from Simon Magus in the Book of Acts. Later expanded during the Middle Ages to include priests and bishops taking bribes and selling ordinations for cash.

Don't think, Just BE-LEEEEEVE? Pietism.

How Dare You Doubt God's Will? Jansenism (obsession with predestination), 16th Century.

The Battle of the Booze that Baptists periodically fight out to the death? Never a problem in the Liturgical churches.

Over 2000 years of history, Liturgical Christianity can say "Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt."


Anonymous said...

P.S. While all these Evangelical splinter churches (with no history between the "holy history" in the Bible and Our Founder) go Back to the Bible and end up reinventing the wheel over and over.

Johan said...

Yeah, I think it has to do with this dualism thing, the sense that ones ministry must be in the church, or that expressions not explicitly christian are not worthwile.

And, yes, I noticed as H.U.G. said, that most of these authors come from a traditional church. I do think that there is a connection there. Maybe it's the sense of wonder and beauty in liturgy and the building that makes one look at faith through the eyes of the imagination. Maybe it is the sense of seeing life as something fundamentally good (as the Hobbits and Tolkien did).
I know in the Netherlands, the southern parts are mostly catholic. Here people enjoy life, drink beer, party at carnival and are more exuberant. The northern part of the Netherlands is originally calvinist. And that has become associated with frugal, harsh, condemning, work-ethic, austere buildings, an angry god et cetera.

Sigh ... I just read imonks book 'Mere Churchianity' and identified with much that he wrote. As you ask: where's the reset-button? Or: maybe Jesus and his calling are not identical to what we have made of the church. Maybe there is hope in just trusting Jesus and living out of that in the world.


Johan said...

As a tangent to this discussion: you might like this: G.K. Chesterton on Dan Brown (and on fiction):
I liked it :-)


MJ said...

Interesting. I started reading it. I will come back to finish it later. Chesterton was certainly an interesting man with an interesting perspective.

I agree with what I've read. I didn't read Brown, but I lazily saw the movie and enjoyed the drama of the fiction.