Michael Coren’s Gilbert: The Man Who Was G.K. Chesterton

My first encounter with G.K. Chesterton created quite a problem for me.  I first read him in the midst of what I can only call a myopic fascination with and nearly obsessive reading of the works of C.S. Lewis in high school and college.  In fact, my initial reading of Chesterton was due to Lewis’ own frequent reference to him and, in that sense, was a kind of corollary extension of the Lewis mania of which I was a willing and joyful victim.  So it was that I picked up Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, though Lewis himself seemed more fond of his The Everlasting Man.

The problem I encountered when reading Orthodoxy was that it deeply challenged my own relatively recent (at the time) conviction of the seminal supremacy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  Clearly, I am using “problem” here with no small measure of tongue-in-cheek, but I do remember experiencing an acute kind of spiritual sensory overload upon reading Chesterton for the first time.  I found myself thinking thoughts that were utterly unthinkable to me at that time.  Scandalous thoughts like, “I think Orthodoxy may actually be more poignant than Mere Christianity.”  Or, “I think, if I am honest with myself, that I frankly enjoy reading Chesterton more than Lewis.”

I suspect the significance of this (and, of course, it is only significant to my own journey, but it is insignificant in every other conceivable way) can only be understood if I stress how blatantly life-changing, worldview-changing, spiritually-challenging, and path-altering Mere Christianity and the Lewis canon were and are to me.  I know that my experience with Lewis and his work was no greater than the myriad similar testimonies of those whose paths and thinking were altered by Lewis’ writings, but I daresay that it wasn’t less.  This is, of course, another post for another day, but I will say that Lewis’ work fell on the heart and mind and eyes and ears of a young fundamentalist Baptist with as much intensity, heat, and, if you will allow it, damage as any literary bomb that ever fell on any unsuspecting soul.

When I say, then, that the thought of Chesterton being superior to Lewis was scandalous to my own mind, you must believe that I mean precisely that.  It felt almost like a betrayal, except for my being assuaged by the realization that Lewis would have wholeheartedly agreed with the assessment.  I should also say that though I would likely claim (I still struggle here) that Chesterton is, overall, more edifying and enjoyable to read than Lewis, I rather suspect that Lewis’ genius was more thoroughly consistent and, in a sense, more spiritually sober in terms of its overall impact.  But even here I waver.

I realize that may not make sense, but I truly do not care.  If George Bernard Shaw could name the tandem of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc “The Chester-Belloc,” surely I can be allowed to express my appreciation for “The Chester-Lewis.”  Certainly, in my own experience, no two writers have so affected me as these two.

Why the attraction to Chesterton?  I’m always trying to flesh this out, but I think, for me, above all else, I am most deeply touched by Chesterton’s celebration of paradox, his uncanny demonstration of common sense, and his almost casual but always penetrating evaluations (and often dismissal) of philosophies and ideologies that take themselves too seriously indeed.  Of course, there is also Chesterton’s deeply contagious sense of joy and wonder, his childlike perception of the sheer miracle of existence.  Chesterton’s writings (and Chesterton himself) are a wonderful tonic to the malady of societal insanity to which we have all been exposed and with which, to some extent, we have all been affected.

In 2003, Roni and I traveled with one of my Doctor of Ministry seminars to England where we spent two weeks completing our course on sight at Cambridge, Oxford, and other locales.  (Please note:  I do not claim that I “studied at Oxford” and find that way of describing the experience misleading.  I say this for personal reasons.  I would just assume that my peers refrain from saying the same.  We did study, and it was at the locale of Oxford and Cambridge, and it occasionally involved meetings with some of their faculty ((like Bruce Winter)), but that is all.  Forgive this idiosyncratic digression, but I have my reasons.)

While on this trip, in a bookstore in Stratford, England, I picked up Michael Coren’s 1989 Gilbert: The Man Who Was G.K. Chesterton.  I have only just read it on our recent trip to the 2011 gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Arizona.  I do suspect that Chesterton would have found that fact amusing.

The biography is a solid, often very enjoyable, occasionally mildly frustrating, and seldom uninteresting look at a man who was larger than life in many ways.  Coren tells the story with aplomb, and I had difficulty putting it down.

Coren offers personal insights and evaluations that stop short of tabloid peering.  He is honest about Chesterton’s weaknesses without lapsing into vitriol and charitable with Chesterton as a man without lapsing into hero-worship.  In this very helpful biography, Coren situates Chesterton squarely in his own day while acknowledging his continuing impact on the many who still turn to his work.

Coren provides some fascinating insights into the story of Chesterton’s marriage to Frances, his finances, his often surreal but usually charming personal quirks, his literary output, his many significant relationships, his political views, and his spiritual journey. I was struck by the interesting dynamics between Chesterton’s friends and the influence of his wife (which, in some ways, mirrored the reaction of C.S. Lewis’ friends to his wife, Joy.)

I do wish he would have spent a bit more time exploring the reactions and receptions of some of Chesterton’s major works, particularly Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, but it is likely difficult to keep a biography at a managable length if one comments to any significant degree on such a prodigious literary output.

In all, Coren’s biography is helpful, substantive, balanced, and informative.  I certainly do feel that I have an overall better grasp of GKC the man than I did before reading the biography.

I do think everybody should have some acquaintance with Chesterton.  He is, regrettably, not to everybody’s taste.  (One of my dearest friends found Orthodoxy virtually unreadable!  Though I can’t conceive of how such a thing is possible, it apparently is.)  Others, particularly Baptist readers, may find Chesterton’s Catholicism difficult to handle.  I, for one, never fail to learn from Chesterton, even when I disagree with this or that position he might hold.

This is a really good biography of a really great man.

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