May 29 is G. K. Chesterton’s 134th birthday. He was a British journalist and brilliant writer. Nobody exploits the power of paradox like Chesterton.
I celebrate his birthday by recommending his book Orthodoxy.
The title gives no clue as to what you will find inside. It had a huge influence on me forty years ago in ways that would have exasperated Chesterton. He did all he could to keep me from becoming a Calvinist, and instead made me a romantic one—a happy one.
If I thought his broadsides against predestination really hit home and undid true biblical doctrine, I would keep my mouth shut or change my worldview. But his celebration of poetry and paradox undermines his own abomination of the greatest truth-and-mystery-lovers around today, the happy Calvinists.
Nothing in this Calvinism-abominating book came close to keeping me from embracing the glorious sovereignty of God. On the contrary, the poetic brightness of the book, along with the works of C. S. Lewis, awakened in me an exuberance about the strangeness of all things—which in the end made me able to embrace the imponderable paradoxes of God’s decisive control of all things and the total justice of his holding us accountable.
One of the reasons that Calvinism is stirring today is that it takes both truth and mystery seriously. It’s a singing, poetry-writing, run-through-the-fields Calvinism.
It’s the Arminians that are the rationalists. Arminianism trumps biblical sentences with metaphysics: God can’t control all things and hold us responsible. God can’t choose some and love all.” Why? Metaphysics. Out with mystery! It just can’t be!
So Chesterton’s anti-Calvinist shotgun sprays all around today’s poet-Calvinist and misses the mark.
A few of you may be swept away into the folly of Roman Catholic sacramentalism. A few others may be confirmed in your tiff with joyless Calvinists. But for many readers, especially the Bible-saturated ones, this book will awaken such a sense of wonder in you that you will not feel at home again until you enter the new world of the wide-eyed children called the happy-Reformed.
Here is a flavor of what to expect in Orthodoxy1:
- “[This book] recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.” (12)
- “It is one thing to describe an interview with a... creature that does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t.” (11)
- “Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.” (17)
- “Only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease but the medicine.... He was damned by John Calvin.” (17)
- “The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens in to his head. And it is his head that splits.” (17)
- “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything but his reason.” (19)
- “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health. When you destroy mystery you create morbidity.” (28)
- “The ordinary man... has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradictions along with them.” (28)
- “When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened the door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.” (54)
- “Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.” (159)
- “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” (48)
1 Page numbers from Orthodoxy (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1959).