I received some lovely presents for Christmas last year: an Edgeworth-colored coffeemaker, a few gift cards, a picture of ponies drinking milkshakes and a paperback copy of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
I loved Chesterton’s novels and stories, but I had never read any of his nonfiction. Orthodoxy and Heretics had been recommended to me for years by friends and teachers. It was clear there was no getting out of it. My unalterable destiny was to read at least one of these books, and so I settled upon Orthodoxy as a Christmas gift when my loving mum insisted on buying me something for the holidays.
Was Orthodoxy worth all those recommendations? Is this spiritual memoir a worthy read, or should Chesterton have stuck to writing stories?
Orthodoxy was thoughtful, engaging and lively—but not at all the book I expected it to be.
You see, I had assumed Orthodoxy would be a work of either apologetics or lay theology. I expected either a focused defense of Christianity or something along the lines of The Gospel According to Chesterton. Orthodoxy turned out to be something much different, and much more interesting.
In his book, Chesterton lays out a sort of spiritual quest—no, a spiritual ramble, which began with his basic beliefs about existence. His views of the world required a certain set of facts or principles. No existing worldview seemed to fit his revolutionary ideas. Every ideology he tested rang false; every philosophy had some damning flaw.
It was with great surprise he realized his daring new ideals were perfectly matched to one very ancient worldview—Christianity.
Chesterton loved paradoxes: things that seem contradictory yet are true. It came as absolutely no surprise to me that Orthodoxy is packed with fascinating paradoxes from start to finish. Christianity, despite its ancient heritage and old traditions, is the most revolutionary creed on the market, maintains Chesterton. It is a system of ludicrous extremes, and it is the only system to make sense.
I wondered at the beginning whether Chesterton would try to prove any of his assertions by logic. He does not. In fact, he cheerfully confesses, “This is not an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly autobiography.” Orthodoxy is not a work of lay theology. It’s more like a wandering essay packed with poetic prose and cheerful sarcasm.
Anyone looking for a concise defense or explication of religion in Orthodoxy won’t find it. The book is a lively discussion, not a lecture or sermon. For those contented to read a clever set of perspectives on faith and modern worldviews, Orthodoxy is absolutely a worthwhile read: thought-provoking, unapologetic and witty.
My only notable criticism of the book is the way Chesterton constantly alludes to thinkers ancient and contemporary (for his time) without explaining their philosophies. He tosses out names like Zola and Bellec, apparently expecting his readers to know exactly who they were and giving only the faintest hints of their ideologies. I recognized a few of these allusions, but most of them sailed over my sad, ignorant head. Chesterton clearly assumed I would be a good deal better educated than I am.
Its frequent allusions to random thinkers aside, Orthodoxy is a fascinating exploration of ancient doctrines, modern philosophies and the strange habit old things seem to have of being more revolutionary than new ones. Readers expecting structured arguments will be disappointed, but anyone looking for a wry discussion of ideologies sacred and secular is in for a superb read.