Saturday, July 5, 2014

Where are the Heirs of Chesterton and Lewis?

This is the first of my articles that appeared in the Catholic Voice. That was in September of last year and I've been writing for it since then. In fact, I'm just about to start writing this issue's article.

I chose to keep my articles in the Catholic Voice exclusive to print at first. But since it's been almost a year now, I think I'll start putting the older ones on the blog, keeping a respectable delay between them.

“This book will change your life”. It’s a claim often made, to the extent that it has become a joke, but it actually happened to me.

I can still remember standing in the post office queue in University College Dublin, reading the first chapter of the book in question, and becoming more enthralled by the second. At that time, I was an agnostic in search of God, but none of the books I read even began to answer my questions, or to convince me intellectually.

This book was different. It tackled my questions head-on, rather than skirting around them, or gliding past them. The book was Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, first published in 1908. I am a slow reader, but I had finished reading by nightfall, and—although it took some further reading to overcome all of my reservations—it was this book that propelled me towards accepting the truth of Christianity.

This is not an unusual story. As readers of The Catholic Voice will know, G.K. Chesterton was an English writer of the early twentieth century who produced an incredible mass of journalism, poetry, detective fiction, and Christian apologetics. (Originally an Anglican, he converted to Catholicism in later life.) He was a wit and a character, his massive frame, famous absent-mindedness and unforgettable aphorisms making him a celebrity of his day. The list of well-known people who converted to Catholicism through reading Chesterton would probably fill this whole page.

Prominent amongst them would be Marshall McLuhan (the communications theorist who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”) and the English priest and detective writer Ronald Knox, who wrote a much-respected set of rules for detective writers.

Another colossal figure who was drawn towards Christianity through reading Chesterton was C.S. Lewis. Most people know of his children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia, which are amongst the best-selling books of all time. His books of literary criticism and Christian apologetics also remain very popular, and he too has been responsible for many conversions to Christianity—important examples being the Oxford academic Alister McGrath and the American scientist Francis Collins, who led the team that mapped the human genome. Lewis (though not a Catholic) was also very important in my own coming to faith.

Chesterton died in 1936. Lewis died in 1963 (on the same day, incidentally, as John F. Kennedy was assassinated.) Although both men’s work continues to speak to modern readers, the question has to be asked—where are their equivalents today? Why are they still posthumously spearheading the defence of the Christian faith in the modern world?

Of course, it’s true that there are still many writers and broadcasters who defend and proclaim the Gospel. But how many of them could really claim to be household names, as Chesterton and Lewis undoubtedly were? Chesterton’s weekly column for The Illustrated London News ran for thirty years, and he regularly debated some of the most famous intellectuals of his day, such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and a host of others. C.S. Lewis, for his part, became a national figure for his radio broadcasts about Christianity during World War Two.

Anyone who reads contemporary Christian apologetics (and the very word “Christian apologetics”, meaning the intellectual defence of Christian belief, has become rather disused), must be struck by the extent to which its writers quarry from Lewis and Chesterton. One encounters Chesterton’s aphorisms (such as “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried”) with wearying regularity. There is also a heavy dependence upon many of Lewis’s arguments, such as his famous “Trilemma”—the insistence that Christ must have been a liar, a madman, or the son of God that he claimed to be, and that he could not have been simply the social reformer that secular culture seeks to make him.

Now, it’s perfectly true that both Lewis and Chesterton drew upon the long Christian tradition before them. There is nothing new under the sun, and Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today and forever”. But the point is that both of these giants of apologetics gave their unique stamp to the arguments they made, conveying them in words and terms that spoke to the readers of their day. (Lewis’s The Great Divorce portrays a busload of souls on a day-trip from Hell to Heaven.) Today’s apologists are still cannibalizing their legacy—which can’t help but leave a suspicion in the mind of an agnostic reader that Christianity is not a living cultural force in the early twenty-first century.

As well as this, both Chesterton and Lewis wrote, not only for a Christian audience, but for the general reader. Lewis wrote respected works of literary criticism, as well as science fiction and fantasy novels. Chesterton wrote a great deal of poetry and fiction, most notably his Ballad of the White Horse and the ever-popular Father Brown stories. All of these works were informed by the religious beliefs of the authors. Chesterton said that “nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true”, while Lewis wrote, rather puckishly, that “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into peoples’ minds under the cover of fiction without their knowing it.” Although there are still Christian undertones in many popular novels (for instance, the Harry Potter books) most Christian writing today is very much written by Christians for Christians. Outside the spiritual ghetto, as we might call it, Christian voices do not sound in popular culture. We are talking to ourselves.

What can be done about this? After all, Lewis and Chesterton were both geniuses in their own way, and you can hardly run geniuses off an assembly line. But I think there are some things that Catholics, and Christians in general, can do to encourage the emergence of contemporary apologists who will once again speak to the wider culture.

The first is to put more of an emphasis upon the imagination. Although both Chesterton and Lewis were masterful logicians, always willing to meet atheists upon the ground of pure rational debate, they were equally willing to appeal to the readers’ imaginations. The book that I mentioned at the start of this article, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, is a work that combines pure philosophical argument with a prolonged discussion of the inner truth of fairy tales. I believe that more hearts are won through the imagination than through argument. (Take the abortion debate in Ireland—all the rational arguments and medical evidence were on the pro-life side, but the country’s imagination had been seized by the Savita Halappanavar case and by pro-choice rhetoric.) I think ordinary Catholics can help achieve this revitalization of the imaginaton through more reading of serious poetry and literature, and through a general effort to cultivate our imaginative lives. Declining to buy Christian books whose intellectual and imaginative content is meagre—books that merely repeat platitudes—would also be a big help.

The other step ordinary Catholics could take is to bone up on philosophy. Philosophy is the only real frontier where the secular and religious mind can meet and argue. The historian Harry Crocker, in his book Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church, points out that the ancient society in which Christianity was born was much more philosophically literate than society today. Philosophy liberates us from the idea that there is no knowledge outside scientific knowledge, that the brain is the mind, and many similar fallacies inflicted upon us by modern currents of thought. Perhaps philosophy should even be taught as a subject in Catholic schools.

Finally, I think ordinary Catholics should be more willing to assert and defend the truth of Christianity when it comes under attack, rather than simply pleading religious freedom or the right to have one’s opinions respected.

These steps, I believe, would foster a culture more likely to produce a modern-day G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, so that Christians don’t have to keep trading on former apologetic glories. In the meantime, we can all try to follow their lead—by putting our whole heart and soul, rather than a few stock arguments, into the outspoken defence of our faith.

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