Friday, November 21, 2008

Celebrating 100 years... Chesterton and Grahame

Halfway through this year, I remembered this was the year of a marked centenary. G. K. Chesterton penned Orthodoxy (he wrote The Man Who was Thursday the same year as a story illustrating the same theme).

I had heard of Chesterton prior to college, but I did not read him until then. Little did I know how influenced I was by Chesterton long before I knew the name.

In my struggle of feeling homesick at home, God curiously led me to three different men on my journey that spoke the very thing I thirsted to hear; ironically, none of them are clergy, but public speaker, author, and musician. They were men who "got it," or at any rate, they got me. They were those Professor Kirk talks about in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; that once you've been to Narnia, you don't need to talk about asking others if they've been there too. You'll see it in their looks.

It was in their looks, their words, their poetical suspicion of the world being at once beautiful and monstrous at the same time. They were men who saw the glory of earth in ruins, waiting to be re-united with heaven. Those men were C. S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and Rich Mullins.

I've heard it said that Lewis has a Chesterton book opened next to him as he wrote a lot of his works. One glorious passage in Mere Christianity said, "God is like the sun; you cannot look at it, but without it you cannot look at anything else." I thought that was brilliant Lewis. Lo, it was in fact brilliant Chesterton. Actually, as I got more deeply into the classics, I discovered, that fine piece of prose was an alteration from Plato.

The humanities, lost in today's evangelical church (though cherished in some evangelical universities) and largely devalued in our modern and postmodern world, has been my source of strength and courage to pursue humanness as good. That's why they are called the humanities after all. Chesterton drew heavily on them.

Without imaginative, metaphorical, storied visions as these, deeply influenced by the Scripture, I would find life, at least my own life, dull. I would hardly know why I should follow Christ. I would find him, as many modern apologetics proclaim, as true. But without these prophetic visionaries who have beheld the beatific vision and shared it with the passion of a star, I would be left finding the good news of the kingdom at hand as a wasteland, devoid of the beauty that touches on the longing of my human heart.

One of my favorite talks by Ravi Zacharias is on the meaning of life, which he later put into Can Man Live Without God? Buried in the heart of his argument is a discussion of fairy tales and how the lessons they teach are completely consistent with the way life is lived today, and consistent with the gospels. This was borrowed from Chesterton. Once, sitting in Ravi's living room, petting his border collie named, "G.K.", I asked him about Chesterton's influence and he said he thought the "Ethics of Elfland" was one of the finest chapters of the 20th century. You'll find that chapter in Orthodoxy.

Rich Mullins also borrowed inspiration from Chesterton. His popular song, "Creed," resounds in the chorus with this pithy phrase,

I did not make it,
no, it is making me,
it is the very truth of God not the invention of any man.

This is Chesterton's Orthodoxy: "God and humanity made [orthodoxy], and it made me." Another poetic paradox of Chesterton shows up in Mullins song, "Growing Young."

We are children no more,
we have sinned and grown old
and our father still waits
and watches down the road
for those crying boys to come running back to his arms
and we're growing young.

Chesterton put it this way, "We have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we." This is from Orthodoxy. Mullins called it his favorite book.

Whether we know the name or understand the words of Chesterton, today's church is deeply indebted to this rotund man of mirth who is still as relevant today as he was 100 years ago. He "got it." And the philosophical battles he faced then are the same ones still strongly lingering now. One of my favorite ideas in Chesterton is the very last paragraph in Orthodoxy. But I will not give it away. Let it be your tasty dessert as you read the book.

Christianity Today just did an interview about Chesterton with Inkling scholar, Lyle Dorsett. It's a short interview but he puts it in a nutshell.

Dorsett mentions Malcolm Muggeridge at the end of the article as one of the only apologists since Chesterton to use humor. But Muggeridge, who I did my graduate work on, wasn't very influenced by Chesterton. He does retell the story as a young boy seeing this towering figure. But it was the recollection as young boy and that was about it. Muggeridge had his own journey to take, one more treacherous of a search than even Chesterton's who discovered his heresy was orthodoxy. Muggeridge was 5 years old when Orthodoxy was printed. Lewis was 10.

For your pleasure, I've recorded part of chapter 1 from Orthodoxy. Listen to Chesterton's paradoxes, how he holds our experiences in tension--like "romance." His definition of "romance" is not like ours today, but is the more historical, Western idea that we are losing daily in the age of unreason. Let his metaphor about the yachtsman discovering England work into your meditation today.

Orthodoxy, Introduction in Defense of Everything Else (mp3, 8 min)

But there's another book celebrating 100 years, another book important to the Christian imagination. This book is in the same tradition as the deeply human Chesterton. Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows is a celebration of human experience personified in the animals: the intelligent Rat, the faithful Mole, the impetuous Toad, the wise Badger, the chatty Otter, and many others. Disney stripped Toad's "wild ride" from the book, leaving children with a paltry imaginative glimpse into a deeply imaginative tale.

Jonalyn and I are reading the Wind in the Willows before bed these nights. Well, I've been doing the reading aloud; she's doing the listening. It's a cleansing of the soul after a long day of work. Wind in the Willows as a title holds a deeper meaning than a mere discription of nature brushing against river plants.

As a taste, I've recorded a section from the book where they meet Someone. They hear flute playing in the distance as they are looking about for Otter's son. Sunrise is nearly upon them. And they follow the music... Let the words and desciptions play in your soul. And I think you'll also note a similar "feel" and description here that I'm sure Lewis borrowed for Aslan. Grahame is subtle in his storytelling; a real master.

Wind in the Willows, excerpt from chapter 7 (mp3, 15 min)

I'm glad there is a God to be thankful to (a Chesterton idea) for my gratitude pours out that these two works were made for the generations to help us see ourselves and our world for what it is--frail yet good, with a Master of Ceremonies always busy behind the scenes.
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