Sunday, May 19, 2013

Is C.S. Lewis Better than Chesterton?

I was watching a video of a lecture given by the Church of England apologist Alister McGrath to promote his new biography of C.S. Lewis. Towards the end of the video, McGrath answers a question from an audience member about the comparison between Chesterton and Lewis.

I found myself quite surprised and indignant at his response (it can be found about fifty minutes and thirty seconds into the video):

Lewis frequently emphasized how much he owed to G.K. Chesterton, especially his book The Everlasting Man. And, indeed, I would personally say that I’m sure Chesterton’s apologetic writings were a inspiration to Lewis. The real danger, I think, is, if you’ve read Lewis and then read G.K. Chesterton’s book, for example Orthodoxy or The Everlasting Man, you kind of feel you’re turning to something that’s not quite as good, and the real problem is that Chesterton actually is very good, it’s just that Lewis is better [audience laughs], and so that inevitably, in a way, we’ve kind of devalued Chesterton as a result, but Chesterton was very important for Lewis.

I find it hard to believe anyone would come to this conclusion. I love Lewis, and I love Chesterton, but Chesterton seems to me to be easily the more important talent and the deeper thinker of the two. For one thing, Chesterton defended and proclaimed Christianity on so many more fronts than Lewis did. Lewis made several important philosophical arguments, including the argument from reason-- that is, that a thoroughgoing naturalism can't explain how the conclusions of rational thought can be defended in the first place, since rational thought must simply a physical process like everything else. (The argument was not original to Lewis, nor did he pretend that it was. Chesterton had made the same argument himself, though he never developed it as fully.) Lewis also made important arguments from the field of textual analysis, which was his expertise. I myself am very struck by his argument that the gospels simply don't read like myth or legend-- that the Evangelists seem to have pre-empted novelistic writing by many centuries, with their use of incidental detail and matter-of-fact reportage.

But Chesterton did so much more. Chesterton's defence of Christianity takes in literary criticism, social comment, history, folklore, humour, politics, sociology, mythology, psychology, and pretty much every other field you can think of. He was so much more prolific than Lewis, writing his weekly Illustrated London News column alone for forty years, and even when he was not explicitly writing about religion, the link between his spiritual beliefs and any given argument he is making is always fairly obvious. Chesterton well and truly defended his claim that "nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true".

Also, though Lewis could certainly be funny, Chesterton is much funnier.

It is true that Lewis was the more careful and analytical writer, and that his clinical prose can sometimes make Chesterton seem (by comparison) sloppy and slapdash. That is a point in his favour. But if Chesterton was sometimes careless, it was because he could afford to be. He was simply brimming over with ideas, inspiration and insight. In depth and breadth and brilliance, I think he outshines Lewis as the sun outshines the moon. Probably Lewis would have agreed.

P.S. Twice today, while reading about C.S. Lewis on the internet, I've come across the claim that Lewis became an atheist as a result of the carnage he witnessed in World War One. One of these claims was during this teaser trailer for a planned film about Lewis's conversion. (Unfortunately, the website to which the trailer directs the viewer is now "suspended". But there was a real studio behind the venture, since there are several articles about the project on the internet. I hope the idea hasn't been scrapped.)

But I wonder how they could make such a mistake? Lewis, of course, was an atheist before World War One, and also after it. He lost his faith in his teens and didn't regain it until he was thirty-two. The carnage of the trenches neither made him an atheist nor a believer. It devalues both his atheism and his conversion to attribute either to an emotional reaction.

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