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Filtering by Tag: G-K- Chesterton

The Romance of Grief

Jean Hoefling

My mother died on a snowless January morning high in a hospital room from whose window one could see pretty much into forever. Sudden failings in her body’s systems had taken hold—imbalances of blood and bone and lung. Frailty won the day. Fresh in our shock we gathered, reeling from the cruel slap of this impossibility.

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Consequent Horribles of Hobbled Philosophy: Chesterton’s Cogitations

Joy and Matthew Steem

Self-portrait of G. K. Chesterton based on the distributist slogan "Three acres and a cow".
Self-portrait of G. K. Chesterton based on the distributist slogan "Three acres and a cow".

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency. — G.K. Chesterton

Any reader of Chesterton knows that he is quite quotable; however, sometimes his quotidian nature can also stump and confound. Take the above for instance: while we can appreciate the need for good philosophy [think C.S. Lewis] what are we to do with the “horrible things” that Chesterton stands against? After all, in our culture isn’t practicality a good thing? And that goes for being progressive and efficient too, not?

We want practical money managers; progressive medical technology; and surely, efficient cars and refrigerators.

But it is not these things that Chesterton warns about.

G.K’s primary concern is that these traits become ends in and of themselves without reflection on their potential consequences. Take for instance his gripe about “a practical man.” For Chesterton, the practical man cares only about the final results of an endeavour (whether that be in business or politics or whatever) and not what took place in the interim (the steps which were taken to achieve the end result: an example would be the food industry using GMO food without considering the potential consequence). Chesterton posits, “When will people see the simple fact that practicality is a question of means, not of ends?”

For Chesterton, being practical is linked to being progressive. So back to the example of GMO: a perfect example of progress. Progressives look ahead to solve current problems without doing the hard work of fixing something now. A good example might be the average power consumer being unwilling to lower their power outage by 15%, instead trusting that the power companies will, with scientific aid, be able to simply reduce the amount of pollution that is created. Or, the desire to increase crop production through GMO – instead of tackling the uglier and slightly more work intensive trouble of consumer waste (stats proclaim that we waste between 30-40% of our food). Chesterton doesn’t approve of putting one’s trust in the future when we could take action now.

Lastly, efficiency itself is value neutral; as a tool it can be employed for either good or bad. Further, once turned into a process, it can be easily used for control. Most of us know that the Nazi death camps were pristinely efficient. It was this very efficiency which palpably made the death camps so heinous. Euthanasia is efficient as were the desired outcomes of eugenic programs. Less nasty examples were the assembly line productions which turned workers into automatons. Efficiency is a means, but it is not an end in itself. It’s a handy tool that can make our lives better, but it must be placed in its proper hierarchy—i.e. below us. Ultimately, Chesterton wants us to ascertain, whenever efficiency is employed, what is the end game? And whom does it ultimately serve?

A Defense of Skeletons

Jean Hoefling

 Adriaen Van Utrecht

The truth is that man’s horror of the skeleton is not horror of death at all. It is man’s eccentric glory that he has not, generally speaking, any objection to being dead, but has a very serious objection to being undignified. And the fundamental matter which troubles him in the skeleton is the reminder that the ground-plan of his appearance is shamelessly grotesque. - G.K. Chesterton, "A Defense of Skeletons"

In his quirky essay, Chesterton writes of walking through woods where the forest folk kept apologizing that it was winter and the trees were bereft of foliage. “There was evidently a general feeling that I had caught the trees in a kind of disgraceful dishabille and that they ought not to be seen until, like the first human sinners, they had covered themselves with leaves.” We’re a lot like those peasants regarding our own souls, trying to appear more clothed and commendable than we are, knocking around with planks sticking out of our eye sockets while we swipe at someone else’s dislodged eyelash with a bony phalange and hope no one mistakes us for a character in Saint-Saëns tone poem, Danse Macabre. (See St. Matthew 7:3) Yet deep down we know that when death strips us of the pretty outer wrappings, our “shamelessly grotesque” frame will be exposed by the likes of devouring worms.

How little of grace we understand. For if our hearts were more gripped by grace, we might not only be less shy about our undignified skeletons, but waste less energy in denial about the inevitable core of our human nature. Who knows, laughing at our souls’ bare bones might be just the thing that begins to heal our poorly disguised pride.

As an example, I give you my recent preparation for the Sacrament of Confession. I wrote out my tiresome, amateurish sins on a 3x5 card as usual, using a pencil (badly in need of sharpening) so that I could tweak my wording. Somewhere down the list I wrote, “I’ve been jealous of another’s life.” What nonsense. It isn’t the other’s life I’m jealous of; I have one of my own. And who is this ambiguous “another?” I forced myself to erase and rewrite the embarrassing truth: “I’ve been chronically jealous of a close friend’s wealth and opportunities.” How petty the words looked on paper, how undignified. Still, I felt a twinge of elation in my brute honesty, blurted out the next day at church before the icon of Christ while the priest stood by. For in my insistence on specifics I had momentarily conquered that eccentric glory Chesterton talks about, that tendency to grope for coverings to hide the truth of what I am. And I take heart that someday I might be comfortable enough with my skeleton that I can boldly dash off concise sins of omission and commission with an expensive pen that doesn’t skip ink, and without hesitation. “Let our sins be strong,” Martin Luther said. And let our willingness to admit them for what they actually are be stronger still.

Afterward, I turned from the icon and went my way, vaguely amused. I forgot to look into its glossy surface to see whether a reflection of my own skull was grinning back at me.

Cue the Fairy Tale Characters, Please

Jill Reid

jill-reid_fairy-tales-nov-16-post My sister once bought a Dollar Store Snow White wig for my daughter. Three-year-old Ellie used to drag it behind her the way Linus clung to his blue blanket. She donned it at breakfast and slept in it at naptime. Day after day, wigged and rapt, she caressed the cheap dark locks with sticky toddler paws as Disney’s Snow White’s soprano pierced the thin walls of our apartment.

Symbols are powerful. Even sticky old wigs have their magic, and in retrospect, the season of the Snow White wig was thick with both fairy tale and curse. Disney’s Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White played on loops on the living room TV, their Technicolor endings a crescendo of orchestra music, ball gowns, and satisfying conclusion. Meanwhile, I re-read passages for literature classes in which the dragon killed Beowulf, and Othello murdered Desdemona. Mr. Hyde overcame Dr. Jekyll, and poor tentative Alfred J. Prufrock measured out his “life in coffee spoons.”  

Those stories, in contrast to the fairy tale, were as fragmented as the world my child and I lived within. During the season of the Snow White wig, my own life experience with single parenthood, toddler potty training, and exhaustion dug in its heels against the “simplicity” of fairy tales. Really, how do you embrace the enchantment in Snow White’s story, when what you have read and lived and survived suggests that in your own story, should you ever bite into one of life’s poison apple, you will have to drive your own poisoned self to the ER?

That was also the season when, in the middle of a week sopping with the weariness of cynicism, my notebook became a revelation. I sat at my desk writing the word “Loss” over and over without even realizing the path my pen was taking. And next to that, I jotted down a statement by C.S. Lewis that, prior to that moment, had existed only as a lovely sentiment I intended to quote to students.

“Loss. Loss. Loss,” my notebook read. "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” C.S. Lewis told me. And just like that, after months of rolling my eyes at Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, I saw the wisdom in Ellie’s beautiful, tangled Snow White wig. “What,” I could almost hear Snow White whisper, “has ever been easy about overcoming a curse?”

Perhaps when C.S. Lewis talks about growing old enough to read fairytales again, he alludes to the slowly re-gained wisdom in believing in the possibility of the cursed truly overcoming their curses  - even on this side of heaven. Rather than a curse that divvies itself out over a lifetime in wrinkles and mortgage payments, the fairy tale offers one pure cup of concentrated curse, potent as Snow White’s apple, for us to swallow and overcome all at once. There is a special kind of relief in knowing exactly what curse you’re up against , how to defeat it, and that it can be defeated at all.

Of fairy tales, Neil Gaiman, in a paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s longer explanation, wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Each day, the dragons gather.  They show up in the latest news cycle.  They loom when I sit down to pay the bills or comfort a sick child.  In class, I spend hours discussing all the gray spaces where the heroes fall to dragons or where, sometimes, there are no heroes at all. But, as I grow older, I believe more and more that in a world full of dragons, there is a special wisdom in embracing the fairy tale, matted and familiar as a Snow White wig, as a place of empowerment, where we can, at least for the breadth of a story, watch the dragons fall.

The Chesterton I was Wrong About

Joy and Matthew Steem

smiling-g-k-chestertonEver had one of those cool moments when, after reading about a favorite person, you suddenly receive this flash of insight? You feel one part shame for not seeing it before, but three parts satisfaction for at least coming to it eventually? Well, I should have seen this with G.K. Chesterton quite some time ago, but I didn't. The surprising insight was that he was, like, actually, friendly.

I was introduced to a Chesterton who was so cool a cat that he could trounce any erroneous and ill-conceived ideology: political or religious or anything else which might stand in the way of orthodoxy. This Chesterton destroyed the proud scientific triumphalism of H.G. Wells and Huxley (think eugenics), the utopian dreams of Shaw, and other secular humanists of his time. This giant, mentally and otherwise, trounced the materialists and atheists with blasting wit and withering humour. To be truthful, I originally read the man in the following way: I searched for a topic that I disliked and then would try to find an essay on which Chesterton criticized it. (This is a wretchedly shameful thing, and I have since repented heartily.) Of course, generally if you look for a thing, you can find it. But it’s just not the right way to go about it. But everybody knows this, so I will move on.

I suppose I might have seen Chesterton as the Crusader—sword of truth in hand, gleefully excited  to bloodily slay the perfidious untruth—in light of him being introduced to me as an apologist. This is one of the troubles with some Christian apologetics: it seems that often the desire to be correct is more important than that the apologist demonstrates a loving alternative to an error in reason, however, that's another topic. Anyway, I read how Chesterton had, with short shrift, dealt with the heretics of his day. To make matters worse, I read some of his more popular works (Orthodoxy, Heretics, What’s Wrong with the World and others) through that lens: tinted with impatience, brute force and pomposity. And of course, sometimes when having a crusader mentality, that seems pretty cool!

Yet, having read more of the man, I see that my early assumptions were about as far out to lunch as ... well, I don't know what. I was just really wrong. Chesterton was actually hugely humble, rarely took to an uncharitable offensive—according to most who knew him and all the biographers—and was exceedingly gracious. He also took the time to understand thoroughly the arguments of his opponents—a thing that Thomas Aquinas would approve—and tried to always gain some type of common ground with an opponent.

Moreover, unlike debaters of our own time, Chesterton was actually friends with many of his opponents. Yes, he actually was. I mean no disrespect towards to apologists like William Lane Craig for instance, but I doubt very much that if Mr. Craig died, Hitchens (if he were alive today) or Dawkins or Sam Harris etc., etc., would offer the widow financial assistance! Yet after Gilbert Keith Chesterton had passed away, this is exactly what Shaw did. During his lifetime, his opponents were truly his friends. And I wonder if this is why he was so persuasive in his life: because he was not wrestling against a person but rather an ideology. He loved people, and because his actions followed suit, people listened to him.

I wonder if today many of the apologist types—all of us—need to worry more about initiating conversation and friendship than in just being right.

Glorious Potentiality

Aaron Guest

By Oliver Vass - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, On the first day of 7th grade my history teacher asked us to write down a nickname she should use for us in class. Did she mean we could choose a nickname we wanted to be called by? An Aaron by any other name? I had felt so penned in by name at 12. It had already been egregiously mispronounced (“erin”) and misspelled (I possess a litany of incorrect name tags). Back then I didn’t know of any really admirable Aaron’s either — Aaron Sele, a first round pick by the Boston Red Sox, would not make his debut until I was in 8th grade. These days it’s still burdensome: The double A’s mean I get butt-dialed all the time.

If this comedy sketch had been around 24 years ago… my name and nickname would’ve been coveted by all.

Naming is not an endeavor, whether for my writing or my children or my own self, that I approach lightly. Madeline L’Engle, in Walking on Water, believes Naming to be one of the impulses behind all Art, a way to aid in the “creation of… a wholeness”. Naming is incarnational. It portends what the Caedmon’s Call lyric deems “glorious potentiality”.

I think in this way, too, Naming is an Art. And Art, considering G.K. Chesterton’s humorous and brilliant definition, is limitation: “If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature.”

When it comes to naming the characters in a story, whittling away hours searching for the correct name is a foolproof way to not end up writing the story. Ron Carlson tells about the stock names he uses when he starts any story, waiting for the drafts to reveal the name. It works like this for me. Like the focus on a camera lens, the name crystallizes when I can see the potential of the character emerge on the page.

To some extent, my wife and I did this with our three kids. We didn’t tell anyone the names until each child was in our arms. My thought then, as now, is everyone has an idea of what an Isaac or a Lucy or a Vivian should look like based on “accidental laws” surrounding an Isaac, Lucy, or Vivian they have known. Everyone has their own interpretation of “what’s in a name.”

Take a look at the controversy over the actress playing the role of Hermione in the London performance of the new Harry Potter story. This Shakespearean question of “what’s in a name?” still generates robust—and asinine, twittish: ‘but we have a certain picture from the movies!’—discussion. I am ecstatic that Hermione is being extirpated from the cold, dead hands of those who wish to cement the accidental laws of Art onto her. What will make Hermione Hermione in this new chapter of Harry Potter is that she simply “retain that dear perfection [read: potentiality] which [she] is owed.”

I had had a thing for the The Hardy Boys in seventh grade. I wanted to bask in the potentiality of the name Frank. In his “keen-ness” for details, his ability to get out of jams involving criminal syndicates (just flex your muscles and inhale when they tie the ropes around you!), his sense of adventure and justice. And so I was forever Frank to my teacher: my sister had her for class six years later and was asked how Frank was doing.

I have loved, relished, treated as sacramental, the naming of our own kids. And so when they draw homemade wands from inside the pockets they have somehow sewn into old blankets doubling as robes and they are casting spells in English accents while being chased by my father pretending to be Lord Voldemort (yes, I said his name), I notice how gloriously long their necks are.

Christmas Gifts

Joy and Matthew Steem

 "ChristmasEveOhio1928" by Father of dok1 / Don O'Brien - Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - You have probably heard the over-used saw, “tis better to give than to receive.” Now aside from the advertisers who glibly employ it for entirely selfish reasons (may they be sent for a week to the 8th circle of Dante’s hell) here is my annoyance: a gift with a motive is no gift at all, unless it’s to make the receiver thrilled to their booties. Romantic friends with pure intentions know that warming glow felt deep in their hearts as the beloved opens up some carefully chosen little treasure. Parents also know a similar feeling – or so I am told, not yet partaking in parenthood – of watching a twinkly eyed tot ogling over their gifts. I rather doubt that the parents were secretly plotting in the corners of toy department how best to psychologically manipulate their children into being better behaved, or quicker memorise their classical education. If they did, the gift would cease being a gift.

And so, I find myself troubled when one of the greatest Deific gifts offered is seemingly proffered with a large string. Maybe it’s just me, but so often during the holidays I hear, often performed with beautiful voices in song and hymn, that the Christ child has been given to the world as God’s heavenly priceless gift. I feel the tingles now just thinking of it. In the second breath coming from the preacher though, we are told that we owe this divine sovereign something in return. I am bothered.

Sure. I suppose that is the truth. I guess the tot who has just received the gift from pleased parents should feel indebted to her or his familial guardian. (Though, isn't it funny how often the parents look happier than the child!)  And yet despite that being the case – maybe – I think if we were to ask the gifting parent whether their child should primarily feel obligation, that parent would suggest that we had never been a parent, or at any rate a true parent. They might even give us a rude look from over a shoulder as they left us standing by the punch bowl.

And so back to the well-meaning religious types who proudly proclaim God’s best gift to humanity ever, ever in one breath, but then in the next espouse how unrighteous we are if we don't hold up to our end of the gift.

Did you see that? The last word shouldn’t have been “gift,” it should have been “deal.” But is that what we humans were given at Christmas, a deal?

G.K Chesterton speaks very fondly of Christmas and of gift giving and goodwill, but also of the nature of the grandest giver of them all. He cleverly uses the name Santa, but all the adults will know exactly of whom he is talking. During the holidays, he says,

[As a child]  I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them.... I had not even been good— far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus ... was [a] benevolent agency... [that gave us] toys for nothing. Of course, most people who talk about these things get into a state of some mental confusion by attaching tremendous importance to the name of the entity. We called him Santa Claus, ... but the name of a god is a mere human label. ... [As a child] I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet ... Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it.

So why did “Santa” give him the gift of existence? “It was,” says Chesterton, given in “a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.” No strings attached. Except maybe thankfulness.

Don't Worry, it's Not Religious

Joy and Matthew Steem

  Photo by Gisling / CC BY 3.0

We have to react against the heavy bias of fatigue. It is almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar; and for fallen men it is often true that familiarity is fatigue. - G.K. Chesterton

If you don't mind, visualize a short little mental clip for me.

A friend and I have just been walking for 35 minutes to get to every booklover's Mecca, Powell’s City of Books in Portland. One square city block of bookish awesomeness. Despite the heat and slightly sweaty state of our sandals—when book hunting, comfy feat are important—we are hugely stoked about beginning our four-day Powell’s event. Just as we are coming close to our destination, we see two peddlers nearly blocking the entrance to the bookstore. One peddler is a dude with dreadlocks, and the other is an easy-on-the-eyes hippie chick—flower print dress, dark flowing hair, and all. We creep closer. (We are introverts, and thus can creep super well, trust me.) As we get closer, we notice that they have a sign in front of them that says “free.”  Turns out, they are giving away a thick book and a CD in a shiny cellophane package. No cash is exchanged.

Odd, right?

Now, despite my country mouse nature, I am intrigued: one of the objects is a book. After watching cautiously, I finally accrue enough courage to approach Mr. Dreadlocks and ask what they are handing out. Just as my friend and I get to him, and he starts to point to the book in his hand, flower-dress girl coos to a passersby in a reassuring singsong kind of voice, “Don’t worry, it’s not religious.”

Turns out it was a free novel, and true to flower girl, it wasn't religious. But here is the thing: why did I immediately sympathize with the passerby? I even laughed. And then I caught flower girl’s eye and she laughed with me. And then my friend joined in, and we shared a tripartite moment of mirth in that shared though unspoken understanding—that secret, but not-so-secret knowledge that people don't even want something for FREE ... if it’s religious.

Here is something of a bit of a play on words: when someone wants our attention (a seller, a student, a lawyer, a preacher) what do we do? We “pay” attention. There is a kind of transaction that takes place.

So the idea that something religious is of so little value that no one wants to pay attention to it, even when it is free, is a problem. At least it seems this way to me. And while I was thinking about this, I remembered G.K. Chesterton, and something pertinent he said about how we think about Christianity. He offers that Christianity has the problem of everyone being—or thinking they are—familiar with it. And this, he calls a “bias of fatigue.”

He goes on to say that it is nearly impossible to present vivid facts to a person suffering from the bias of fatigue. Chesterton’s advice is that in order to meaningfully convey information about Christianity, a change in imagery may be helpful. In The Everlasting Man, he says:

I am convinced that if we could tell the supernatural story of Christ word for word as of a Chinese hero, call him the Son of Heaven instead of the Son of God, and trace his rayed nimbus in the gold thread of Chinese embroideries or the gold lacquer of Chinese pottery, instead of in the gold leaf of our own old Catholic paintings, there would be a unanimous testimony to the spiritual purity of the story. We should hear nothing then of the injustice of substitution or the illogicality of atonement, of the superstitious exaggeration of the burden of sin or the impossible insolence of an invasion of the laws of nature. We should admire the chivalry of the Chinese conception of a god who fell from the sky to fight the dragons and save the wicked from being devoured by their own fault and folly. We should admire the subtlety of the Chinese view of life, which perceives that all human imperfection is in very truth a crying imperfection. We should admire the Chinese esoteric and superior wisdom, which said there are higher cosmic laws than the laws we know.

I have heard the statement “Jesus needs better PR,” but the only problem is that we (people) are it. And, maybe, just maybe, the problem of the bias of fatigue is that we are tired, too?

The Motivation of Art

Joy and Matthew Steem

9 Steem It is surely something worthy of merit that G.K. Chesterton’s quotable words have been equally employed by those from both right and left of spectrum. Rarely can an individual be used thusly. Perhaps this is because it is so easy to capitulate to the laziness of polarization. Anyway, in an angsty mood I was looking for easy ammunition from GKC. While thumbing through Chesterton titles, I stopped at Utopia of Usurers. Cute, right? To be honest, I was looking for easy ammunition against materialism. Indolence often reaches for the easy weapon, and I was guilty. Happily though, Chesterton in an essay titled “Art and Advertisement” served up something grander than a mere angsty quote: this time it was a timely inquiry into motive in the creation of art.

As Chesterton sees it, before the advent of mass advertising, a substantial motive for artists in their creation of art was to make a living.[1] No surprise there. Artists need to eat too, and we surely love sautéed stems of asparagus more than those of the thistle, despite the fact that the later are, indeed, quite edible (you can even make a hearty soup from them if needs be). However, many an artist was paid by a patron—oh, how sweet the sound of that word—who valued the art that s/he bought for its own sake. Of course not all, there are rich philistines as surely as there are poor ones, but art, so GK argues, was valued more for the thing it intrinsically was—a beautiful creation.

And herein, for Chesterton, is the dangerous difference: while the earlier motive for the creation of art was, among other things, for it to be appreciated by a patron, the motive in the advertiser is to employ human creativity to sell more stuff.

This bothers Chesterton greatly enough, for it is taking a creative power and employing it for an exclusive monetary purpose. Is there a better definition of this than pimping? And here I am reminded of how clever advertisers are in first inciting our emotions with such and such a picture or whatever, and then craftily weaving into that experience a self-serving purpose—invariably one that will line their own silken pockets. The ways advertisers try to incite us to buy stuff is legion. And they do it by using art—or, if you like, human creativity.

But what’s worse for Chesterton is that as the power of art is increasingly realised for its substantial ability to incite desire, advertisers will increasingly invest more and more funds into enlisting individuals adept in the arts. But, of course, whereas before art of value was largely made possible by patrons who knew that quality would cost money, now the advertiser is equally willing to spend copious amounts of funds for quality creativity, too. The difference being the motive: the first was for the sake of the art and the second is merely for the effective harvesting of more cash from the public. And to Chesterton, this is akin to prostituting out human creativity. And I might add, that for the less educated of the population, who might not have experienced truly “good” art, how are they going to distinguish between art and advertising? After all, both evoke an emotion. Now that the advertisers have truly embedded themselves in the very fabric of our culture, perhaps part of the answer is to, as Northrop Frye advised, help facilitate an “educated imagination.” And part of this education, and aiding in the ability to distinguish, would be as Iris Murdoch has so astutely said, to make known that “anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.”[2]

[1] If you are looking for a philosophical reason why an artist does not have to make any money – what a thought! – in her or his art, and still be justified, see Josef Pieper’s Happiness and Contemplation. It will assuredly warm your heart.

[2] This quote, along with some other very grand thoughts can be found in her essay “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts.

What’s Wrong with the World: Why Chesterton was Right

Joy and Matthew Steem

9 Squinty Owl Sometimes the problem with especially pertinent ideas is that they sound too simple. We read or hear the timeless ideal, whatever it is, and then all too quickly the largesse of its truth is lost to us. After all, it just makes so much sense, and is so simple! “Oh, yes, that is a most helpful truth,” we will say upon receiving it. Perhaps it contains too much truth for us to wrap our heads around? Many axiomatic statements are like that. They are just so replete that it takes a rather large aperture of mind to be able to actually suss out all their import.

In one of his more widely read books, What’s Wrong with the World, G. K. Chesterton makes a statement just three pages in: “What is wrong [with the world] is that we do not ask what is right.” So majestically large a proposition, isn’t it? It’s something like Heidegger’s question, “why is there something rather than nothing.” There is just so much truth in the statement that I don’t know where to start.

So for Chesterton, the first problem is to define what is right. Not necessarily what is wrong, but what is right. At first this sounds rather odd, not? It did to me. Isn’t that exactly the problem in our world—that we don’t talk enough about the troublesome issues? Whether injustice to humans, animals or the environment (thus the great attraction to social justice*), or problems in the community or church, it often seems that we need to spend more time discussing the problems. After all, it is easy to think that these problems are being ignored because they’re not being talked about enough, right? “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”! Not for G.K.

As Chesterton sees it, “we agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out.” Here is why he wants us to argue about the good (or the right): we all basically already agree about what is wrong. We agree that poverty should be dealt with; we agree that there are problems in the government (whichever country we live in); we agree that there are problems in the church (whichever one we attend); and we even probably agree that there is a problem with prostitution. In fact, Chesterton says that in being able to see such problems, we are unlike doctors. We all energetically nod in agreement “about the precise nature of the illness.” However—and herein lies the rub—we don’t agree about what is actually healthy.

“We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one,” says G.K. And with a little retrospect—and just consider the various flavours of theology we all adhere to—it’s a good point he makes about us not being in agreement about what kind of religion we want. “We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity,” he rightly quips. Touché Mr. Chesterton, touché. (I am reminded that in another piece Chesterton humorously suggests that the day on which the Puritans finally left England should be marked as a national holiday.) Even in issues like social justice, we disagree over how to solve the problem. In general, we can all agree on the state of insanity, what we don’t agree on is what actual sanity looks like.

So, what is the solution? Being able to agree on what is right: thus his statement, “what is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.” Chesterton seems to think that only then will we agree on what the solution is and how it is to be implemented.


*Disclaimer: I actually detest the term “Social Justice” due to its confusing justice and mercy and rights and responsibilities. With that said, for the sake of convenience it is sometimes just easier to go with it.

Chesterton and the Latitudinarians

Joy and Matthew Steem

Man and camera I have often heard people who read Chesterton say that despite the expenditure being a mite difficult, reading him was something most definitely delightful. Perhaps this is because Chesterton has the uncanny ability to rephrase a thought or concept in an untraditional way—through a new lens. In many ways I find this helpful since it enables me to rethink what I previously assumed had already been soundly concluded. Either way, looking through the Chesterton lens is often rewarding. And more often than not, the G.K aperture captures a very large region of thought. Plus, Chesterton himself simply refuses to be narrowly labelled or simply catalogued. I suppose, if asked his category of choice, he would quickly and loudly respond “orthodox,” but then even that word would have to be greatly expanded since for many it simply means conservative. And orthodox certainly isn't just that.

In fact, Chesterton spoke out against many an aspect of conservatism. Actually, when it came to capitalism, the vitriol he uses is nearly startling. (“Starling” due to the most unfortunate truth that for many—including me, though it’s changing—the word “Christian” is often linked to conservative, and conservative is linked with capitalism. A truly nasty bit of connection.) Anyway, I was surprised then when I first saw his use of the word “Latitudinarian.” If you go to Google and type in the word “latitudinarian,” you will see the following words:

Latitudinarian was initially a pejorative term applied to a group of ... theologians who believed in conforming to official Church ... practices but who felt that matters of doctrine, liturgical practice, and ecclesiastical organization were of relatively little importance.

And if you search for “latitudinous,” you will get: having latitude, scope, range, breadth, etc., especially of ideas, interests, interpretations, or the like.

Sounds really quite nice, doesn't it? It sounds positively inviting and timely, even. I mean, in terms of the ecumenical movement, it sounds downright attractive. And in terms of mindset, it seems more than just helpful. The more latitude of thought, the better the perspective and ability to appreciate things. Yet every time Chesterton uses the word latitudinous, it is in a pejorative manner—like a lot.

But then again, Chesterton has a way of viewing things differently. So when it comes to largess of breath and range and all that, here is what bothers Chesterton about being overly latitudinous: since the nature of the world is circumscribed by limitations—and we know that our acts of volition (to choose to act in a certain way, whatever it is) will necessarily mean that we will be rejecting some other action—there must be limits even to breadth.

So is it sensible to have a wide perspective? Absolutely. But even with this, there must be limits. In his Orthodoxy, Chesterton says that as in life, in art there are laws and limits.

If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel.

Thus while having latitude is good (we must have an expanded enough vision to appreciate variation and variety), we must always maintain the ability to have distinctions. Namely because, when breadth trumps distinction, nothing can be really distinguished, and then, of course, there is an inability to perceive variety. And what is the spice of life? Why, it is variety, of course.

[Some sources for Chesterton’s view on limits and latitudinarians can be read in greater depth from his grand Orthodoxy, and from the following essays: “About Shamelessness,” “Rabelaisian Regret,” “The New Theologian,” and “The Flag of Thought.”]