Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Review: Orthodoxy

You don't have to be on Facebook or Twitter for long to spot one of the many social networking trends, whether it's posed photos; inspirational quotes with picture included; soppy sentiments (I plead guilty for yesterday's reminder of our engagement anniversary); games; or quotations from books. One of the authors who always gets a mention is the English writer, GK Chesterton, most notably from his book Orthodoxy.

Having found it for free on the Amazon Kindle store, it was downloaded and read, although not necessarily completely understood. Chesterton sets out in Orthodoxy to 'attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.' (p. 1) To some extent, it is autobiographical, yet at the same time, he is writing in opposition to some other key thinkers in his day, against their philosophies and theories. In a certain sense, it's like listening to someone on the phone, only really hearing one side of the conversation, and not grasping all that is going on. The intellectual challenges and issues are those of his own day and experience, the debate raging in the letters pages of the London Times and such other papers, against George Bernard Shaw and other controversialists.

Chesterton's wit is very obvious, with his turns of phrase and his self-deprecating humour. Early on he declares: 'For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me. I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.' (p. 6) He tells how his experience of life has confirmed each of the main doctrines of Christianity, having worked from philosophical premises, so that what he would expect is exactly how things actually are: 'Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine.' (p. 75)

He has little time for revisionists or innovators in theology: 'Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.' (p. 10) Similarly, he declares: 'And though St John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.' (p. 13) There are great appeals to tradition, such as this one: 'Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.' (p. 43)

As I've said, there were some parts I found difficult to grasp, partly because he was answering the accusations and challenges of others (in the most forthright of terms), and partly because he seemed to be using words I knew, but not in a way I could understand. one such is in his contrast between mysticism and reason; sanity and insanity.

The memorable phrases seem to roll off his pen: 'In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.' (p. 90) 'We have said we must be fond of this world, even in order to change it. We now add that we must be fond of another world (real or imaginary) in order to have something to change it to.' (p. 102) 'In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell.' (p. 107)

I'm not sure what my final opinion on Orthodoxy (the book!) really is. The special moments shine out like gems or stars, but there was a lot of other stuff to wade through to find them. While Chesterton was answering the questions his society (or particularly, some of the fashionable intellectuals) were asking, the questions have now changed, even if the answer remains the same. If you are wanting a challenge, then plunge in - the rewards are within - but the cost of finding them may just be too great. Having said that, the Kindle edition is free, so it'll not harm your pocket!

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