I’d like to do a short blog series on one of the most important books most of us have probably never read.
Recently, I read G.K. Chesterton’s magical book “Orthodoxy” I’ve heard Chesterton quoted at length my entire life, but I had no idea how wonderful I’d find this book.
After all, Orthodoxy isn’t exactly the sexiest marketing title, and considering that it’s 80 years old, you’d think it would be beyond crusty. Reading it, it was as if he was responding to the latest blogs. And reading him, I get the impression he would be responding to all the latest blogs, with a cheeky defiant joy that makes us realize not just that we are arguing about the wrong things, but we might just be arguing about the in the wrong ways.
Chesterton, names names and calls out people’s positions, but a cursory reading of his life, you find out that these are people he’s friends with, and who he loves. He seems to have the rare gift of disagreeing agreeably, and you can’t help reading him without having a sense of his great and defiant joy.
And the reason that Chesterton writes Orthodoxy, or defends it, is because of the radical nature of it all. Here’s how he says it:
Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.
The context of this book, is a world very much like the one I find myself in. He’s writing in early Post-Christian England and he’s trying to explain the history of the Church, the reason She’s done and thought the things she does.
He’s trying to explain the Gospel in a world where moral relativism and secularism is slowing chipping away at the way people view their world.
And he’s not trying to stop it, he’s trying to re-enchant us…by reminding us of just how enchanting the Jesus story has always been.
And then it dawned on me. This is a word that must be brought back to the Christian vocabulary. In a time when Conservative and Progressive are the easiest ink to write someone off with, orthodoxy reaches for a metaphor past politics. It reaches for the metaphor of the wisdom of the ages.
There was something so enchanting about reading Chesterton’s gospel-soaked view of the world. A world where sunrises happen not by some natural law, but by a joy filled God who says each morning “do it again!” There was something disarming about reading someone who doesn’t have an agenda for any of today’s controversies’, but has a whole new light to shed on all of them.
He writes about how the Church has always had to fight to define boundaries and a strong center, against ways of making the Gospel either too worldly or too other-worldly. She’s always working out ways to bring orthodoxy to bear on the day she’s in.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.
Which sounds like a hard claim to back up. Not a lot of people sign up for a lecture on Orthodoxy, but only because they don’t know what Chesterton does.
Christianity: the Lion Tamer
Joy brackets Jesus’s life on earth.
At the beginning of his life when Mary goes to Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaps for joy as a baby, and Mary sings, When Jesus has been raised from the dead, the Prodigal Peter sees him from a boat and leaps into the water for joy.
And this is orthodoxy…It is, in the words of Chesterton, “creating boundaries so that good things may run wild.”
Here’s how he describes it:
Let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious…Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs.
Did you catch that? The Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas…she was a lion tamer! But God and the Church went in anyway. The purpose of Orthodoxy, isn’t to restrict and bind, but for human happiness…not the trivial kinds of happiness that we think of today, but the deep seated kinds of ways we have to find our place in the universe and to find that our place is good.
We live in a time and place that values individual freedom above all, but freedom must not just be from something, it must be for something. And for that to happen we must find the limits of freedom and the purposes of the God who gave them to us.
This is the joy of Orthodoxy. It is finding the walls, so that God’s good things may run wild.