The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton

I have been a big fan of G.K. Chesterton since college. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Rich Mullins’ music, and I read somewhere that Chesterton’s Orthodoxy was Mullins’ favorite book. I picked it up and devoured it. I had heard of Chesterton before, but my limited exposure had only informed me that he was handy with a quote, and also handy with the knife and fork. Reading Orthodoxy, I was impressed with his skill at using language, but I was also impressed with the joy he evidently took in writing, and his determination to see the world with gratitude. I quickly read his other popular books: What’s Wrong With the World, Heretics, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Club of Queer Trades, The Everlasting Man, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, and most of the Father Brown Stories. I never read his Autobiography, however, until now.

I recommend this book to all Chesterton lovers, but I recommend reading a different biography first. Chesterton was notoriously interested in ideas rather than facts, and that interest carries into his account of his own life. The book only follows the haziest chronology, and the name (though not the presence) of his wife, Frances, is entirely absent, by her own request. But it has beautiful prose, and is a joy to read. If you’re already familiar with the facts Chesterton neglects to mention, you’ll get a lot more out of it.

Here are a few quotes that stuck out to me:

I for one have never left off playing, and I wish there were more time to play. I wish we did not have to fritter away on frivolous things, like lectures and literature, the time we might have given to serious, solid and constructive work like cutting out cardboard figures and pasting coloured tinsel upon them (51).

No man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything (99).

I have never taken my books seriously; but I take my opinions quite seriously (113).

The truth is that for most men about this time [of the Boer War] Imperialism, or at least patriotism, was a substitute for religion. Men believed in the British Empire precisely because they had nothing else to believe in (145).

A sort of Theosophist said to me, “Good and evil, truth and falsehood, folly and wisdom are only aspects of the same upward movement of the universe.” Even at that stage it occurred to me to ask, “Supposing there is no difference between good and evil or between false and true, what is the difference between up and down?” (157)

Very nearly everybody, in the ordinary literary and journalistic world, began by taking it for granted that my faith in the Christian creed was a pose or a paradox. The more cynical supposed that it was only a stunt. The more generous and loyal warmly maintained that it was only a joke. It was not until long afterwards that the full horror of the truth burst upon them; the disgraceful truth that I really thought the thing was true (175).

It was the secularists who drove me to theological ethics, by themselves destroying any sane or rational possibility of secular ethics (177).

I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid (217).

Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it (230).

I have generally attempted, in a modest way, to have reasons for my opinions; and I have never been able to see why the opinions should change until the reasons change (235).

Man seems to be capable of great virtues but not of small virtues; capable of defying his torturer but not of keeping his temper (239).

I could not be a novelist; because I really like to see ideas or notions wrestling naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women (282).

I have written several books that were supposed to be biographies; and lives of really great and remarkable men, meanly refusing them the most elementary details of chronology; and it would be a more than mortal meanness that I should now have the arrogance to be accurate about my own life, when I have failed to be thus accurate about theirs (303).

It matters very little whether a man is discontented in the name of pessimism or progress, if his discontent does in fact paralyse his power of appreciating what he has got (328).

A whole generation has been taught to talk nonsense at the top of its voice about having “a right to life” and “a right to experience” and “a right to happiness.” The lucid thinkers who talk like this generally wind up their assertion of all these extraordinary rights, by saying that there is no such thing as right and wrong. It is a little difficult, in that case, to speculate on where their rights came from; but I, at least, leaned more and more to the old philosophy which said that their real rights came from where the dandelion came from; and that they will never value either without recognising its source. And in that ultimate sense uncreated man, man merely in the position of the babe unborn, has no right even to see a dandelion; for he could not himself have invented either the dandelion or the eyesight (329–330).

What has troubled me about sceptics all my life has been their extraordinary slowness in coming to the point; even to the point of their own position. I have heard them denounced, as well as admired, for their headlong haste and reckless rush of innovation; but my difficulty has always been to get them to move a few inches and finish their own argument (331).

Of all the other systems or sects I know [besides Christianity], every single one is content to follow a truth, theological or theosophical or ethical or metaphysical; and the more they claim to be universal, the more it means that they merely take something and apply it to everything (332).

Existence is still a strange thing to me, and as a stranger I give it welcome (334).

Book Review: Decision Points

Instead of proceeding chronologically, George W. Bush structures this memoir of his presidency around the various “decision points” from his time as president and before: his decision to quit drinking, to run for governor and then president, to put the United States on war footing after 9/11, to invade Iraq, how to deal with the financial crisis in 2008, etc.

While he does express regret at times (e.g., that there was a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, that he flew over New Orleans after Katrina rather than landing), he is confident that the major decisions he made were the best ones to make under the circumstances. In other words, if a decision is big enough to warrant its own chapter, then it was the right decision. This confidence can sometimes be maddening, but I believe that it flows inevitably from Bush’s understanding of leadership as primarily concerned with decision-making. Since Bush believes that decision-making is what makes a good or bad leader, he is heavily invested in his major decisions being the right ones. Through much of the book, he comes across as a genuinely likable person: thoughtful, caring, empathetic, desiring to put the needs of others before his own. But when it comes to evaluating the consequences of his major decisions, it’s like he puts blinders on. He believes that major decisions are what make or break a leader, and he wants to think of himself as a good leader. Therefore, his major decisions were the right ones.

I recommend this book, but not because I agree with every decision Bush made. In fact, I agreed with some and not others. This book is unique in that it provides a view of historic events from 2000 to 2008 that is available nowhere else, and for that reason it is valuable. Like him or not, Bush was the most powerful political figure in the world for eight years. Learning about his decisions, and the rationale behind those decisions, is important for anyone seeking to gain an understanding of what happened in the first decade of the 21st century, and why.

Note: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Book Review: Evolving in Monkey Town

One difficulty with evangelical American Christianity is that many of us don’t, or can’t, make a distinction between what is essential to the faith and what is peripheral. When the brightest young people in our churches start to question the peripherals, like the union between Christianity and political conservatism for example, we feel threatened. We think they have lost the faith.

This is what happened to Rachel Held Evans. She grew up in Dayton, TN, the site of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, the daughter of a theologian and a school teacher. By her own admission, she “knew all the answers.” She won the Best Christian Attitude Award at her elementary school four years in a row. When she heard her grandfather had voted for Bill Clinton, she thought he was going to hell.

But while she was studying at Bryan College in Dayton, cracks began to appear in her armor. She began to wonder about what happened to people who had never heard the gospel. It seemed unfair to her that she should be a Christian merely because she was born where she was. Her friends became concerned about her.

Unlike some who begin to doubt Christianity as they grow up, however, she didn’t decide that it was all nonsense. The reason why she remained a Christian is that she turned to Jesus. She spent a summer reading through the Gospels, and ended up more strongly committed to the “God in Sandals” than she had ever been. This did not take away her doubts. She writes, “I would argue that healthy doubt (questioning one’s beliefs) is perhaps the best defense against unhealthy doubts (questioning God)” (219-220). It allowed her to remain a committed follower of Jesus without having to know all the answers anymore.

This book resonated with me, and it will resonate with a lot of people who grew up in the world of evangelical American Christianity but are no longer entirely comfortable within it. When, as a teenager, I began to doubt what I had been told in church and at my Christian school about the way the world was, I turned to Jesus. In the end, the only reason I stayed a Christian then, and why I am still a Christian today, is that I could not give up on him.

I’d recommend this book to any Christian high school or college student who is experiencing doubts, or anyone who knows such a person. Through telling her story, Evans shows us a way to deal with doubts. Doubts can be the means to a more mature faith. Treat them as a way to refine faith and focus more radically on Jesus, and let the peripherals fall away.