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G.K. Chesterton: fresh and accessible today
Marking the centenary of the literary career of G.K. Chesterton, the 'National Catholic Register', a US weekly, recently interviewed Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society. Ahlquist grew up as a Baptist in St Paul, Minnesota. He now hosts an EWTN television series devoted to the writer who helped bring about his conversion.
When did you first start reading Chesterton?
I started reading Chesterton on my honeymoon. Someone recommended Chesterton to me because I had been reading C.S. Lewis. They said that if I read Chesterton I would never have to read Lewis. I was intrigued because I had never heard of Chesterton or seen any books by him.
Our honeymoon was spent in Italy, and we happened to be in Rome on the day of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. I was reading Chesterton's The Everlasting Man ... I realised that reading Chesterton was unlike reading any other author in the world. Although I had just finished college, I suddenly felt as if I had been cheated. I felt that my education was just beginning.
What happened after that?
I picked up everything I could on Chesterton. I even did my Master's thesis on him. That was a lot of fun and got me going. In 1990, I stumbled onto a group of people who held a small Midwest Chesterton Society conference in Milwaukee every year.
They were the most interesting group of people I had ever met. People come to Chesterton for many different reasons. Evangelical Christians come because of his Christian writing, Catholics like his Catholic writing, some are attracted by the Fr Brown mysteries, others find his literary criticism appealing, and some enjoy debating his economic ideas on distributism.
After presenting my thesis to the group, one thing led to another and I started the American Chesterton Society. We then combined three different Chesterton newsletters into a magazine and launched Gilbert! magazine.
What does the American Chesterton Society do?
We're trying to raise Chesterton's profile as high as we can and get him back into the classrooms and public discourse. His ideas should be used to engage everything that's wrong with the world.
We work hard to market Chesterton's books and to encourage publishers to reprint his works. Obviously, the most exciting project has been The Collected Works of Chesterton, published by Ignatius Press. To date, Ignatius has published 23 volumes of a total of 45. Each volume has four or five complete books in it. But to give you an idea of how prolific Chesterton was, when Ignatius completes the 45 volumes, it will represent only two-thirds of what Chesterton wrote.
Chesterton led you into the Catholic Church, is that right? Can you tell me how that transformation came about?
It was a long road. At the beginning I tried to ignore the fact that Chesterton had converted to the Catholic Church. I read around that. In time, however, it became harder and harder to avoid that aspect of him. It had been the completeness of Chesterton's thought that impressed me and yet I hadn't accepted the most important aspect of his thought, the key to all the rest. That was the day I made the decision to become Catholic. I was received into the Church in 1997.
A prolific and profound author, why has Chesterton been so ignored by the world and academia today?
For one, he's hard to categorise. Is he a novelist, a poet, a mystery writer, a critic, or an artist? You could find Chesterton in just about any section of a bookstore.
Secondly, he defends his faith in virtually everything he writes. That's really off-putting in the literary, secular world. He puts the reader on the spot and a lot of people are uncomfortable with that. He makes you think about eternal things. I think that's why many people would rather not deal with him. Those who don't have the courage to argue with Chesterton ignore him. He should be read along with all the modern philosophers on college campuses, but he is not.
Chesterton did not try to hide his Catholicism. In fact, his conversion was rather controversial. How did his faith influence his work?
Chesterton's faith touched everything in his life. Chesterton had been defending the Catholic faith long before his conversion. To colleagues, such as George Bernard Shaw, Catholicism appeared to be Chesterton's "hobby." So, it was quite a shock when he did convert. They said he had gone too far. Prior to his conversion he was well liked by many literary luminaries. In some circles his conversion cost him his literary reputation even though nothing changed in his writing.
If Chesterton were alive today what do you think he would be writing about?
Chesterton had the answer for Huxley, Freud, Nietzsche, Shaw and all the rest. He wrote a great deal about the issues of the day.
He wrote that modern philosophy would lead us to the unthinkable because modern thinking was illogical and dishonest. For instance, he criticised the very term "birth control," which he said was "no birth and no control." And he correctly predicted that birth control would lead us to abortion and infanticide.
He would still be writing about everything, but the issue he would tackle head-on would be abortion. After all, it was Chesterton who showed the absurdity of such evils when he wrote, "Let all the babies be born. Then let us drown those we do not like."
How is it that a man who began his literary career in 1900 can still be fresh and accessible today?
He was a universal writer, and truth stretches across geographic boundaries and across time as well. The paradox is that he considered himself a journalist. He thought his work was throwaway writing.
The fact that his writing is still so fresh shows that he was in touch with the truth. He knew which philosophies were merely fads, and he knew that truth never goes out of style. It's always new and refreshing.
For more information, check http://www.ewtn.com/series/chesterton.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 11 (December 2000 - January 2001), p. 9
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