Big Man on Campus
With Orthodoxy’s Centenary, A Chesterton Revival at Colleges
BY Anthony Flott
February 1-7, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/23/09 at 10:03 AM
Parents and professors beware: There is a danger lurking on Catholic university and college campuses that threatens to radically change students.
Once embraced by higher education, Catholic and secular, Chesterton later was mostly erased from curricula. But as the world marks the centenary of his signature book, Orthodoxy, GKC is making his way back to the classroom — and beyond.
And that’s a dangerous thing, says Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society (Chesteron.org).
“The main reason a book like Orthodoxy is not taught on most campuses is quite simple: It’s too dangerous,” Ahlquist said. “It changes minds and changes lives.”
Like the author himself, Orthodoxy is many things: a case for Christianity via positive presentation of the Apostles’ Creed and a spiritual autobiography. It is one of his most-quoted books and embraced by Catholics and Protestants alike (Chesterton was not yet Catholic when he wrote it).
“It stands alone in 20th-century literature,” said Ahlquist. “There is not another book that can possibly be compared with it. Some, like the Argentine writer [Jorge Luis] Borges, consider it a work of art. Some, like Bishop [Fulton] Sheen, consider it a work of philosophy. It is both. It is neither.”
And, says Stratford Caldecott, director of Thomas More College’s Center for Faith and Culture in Oxford (ThomasMoreCollege.edu), the book is written with the common man in mind.
“In general, people are not philosophers — or not consciously so — and they don’t tend to read a huge amount,” said Caldecott. “Orthodoxy does not expect them to plough through long abstract arguments or tons of scholarship. In a sense, it leads you straight to the heart of things — it helps you see the ‘form’ of Christianity, almost at a glance.
“And, it is entertaining to read. In fact, it’s a riot.”
Out of Favor, Back in Favor
Being able to stimulate brains and move hearts while still generating belly laughs was part of Chesterton’s wide appeal. “There was a time when Chesterton was required reading in virtually every English-speaking university in the world,” said Ahlquist.
Over time, that changed. Somehow, the man of giant physical and literary stature fell out of favor on secular campuses. “Then he faded from the Catholic campuses,” said Ahlquist.
The former is understandable. But why the latter? Father Ian Boyd, a lifelong student of Chesterton and president of the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture at Seton Hall University (Auth.shu.edu/catholic-mission/chesterton-index.cfm), points to “timid prisoners” of a culture “de-Christianized and secularized.”
“I think instead of challenging these institutions some people have been rather conventional in accepting the list of writers approved by people who aren’t very friendly to Christianity,” said Father Boyd.
But that’s changing, as noted in a December article in The Wall Street Journal. “G.K. Chesterton is looking pretty contemporary,” wrote the paper’s Allen Barra, who noted that the ever-paradoxical Chesterton was quoted by Republican presidential nominee Mike Huckabee, while Democratic supporters cited GKC’s influence on President Obama.
Chesterton’s positive presentation of the Church and Tradition, said Ahlquist, is regaining a foothold among those in the Church who in the last 40 years “rushed to embrace new ideas and go right along with a lot of fads and fashions offered by the world” only to realize that “none of that works, none of that lasts, and they are looking again at the solid rock of the historical faith.”
Caldecott, who also is the G.K. Chesterton research fellow at St. Benet’s Hall in Oxford and editor of Second Spring, said there has been a “flood” of Ignatius Press reprints of GKC writings, accompanied by a number of scholarly books about him in print and forthcoming.
The resurgence can be attributed to seemingly unlikely sources: evangelical Protestants and students.
“It has been the evangelicals who are probably mainly responsible for his larger-scale rediscovery in the U.S.,” said Caldecott. “They turned to him after discovering his influence on C.S. Lewis. But by now, the Catholics are catching up.”
Especially on campuses. “He is making a comeback now, but it is coming mostly from students who have stumbled upon him, not from the faculties who — through no fault of their own — were never exposed to him,” said Ahlquist.
Big Man on Campus
Leading the way is Seton Hall. Its G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture was established “to promote the thought of G.K. Chesterton and his circle and, more broadly, to explore the application of Chestertonian ideas in the contemporary world.”
The institute’s efforts include lecture series, research, writing and conferences in the United States and around the world. It also publishes The Chesterton Review, now in its 35th year of promoting Chesterton and other “sacramental writers,” such as Lewis, Tolkien and Bernanos. The review has grown to nearly 400 pages, almost 1,400 subscribers and a Spanish translation.
Various student programs are offered at Seton Hall, too, such as “Saints and Sleuths,” dramatizations of the works of Chesterton and others.
Thomas More College in Merrimack, N.H., also has vibrant Chesterton offerings; its Center for Faith & Culture in Oxford is custodian of the G.K. Chesterton Library. His work is also part of the curriculum.
“We read some of Chesterton in our humanities curriculum, and he is introduced to our writing program, which began reading The Everlasting Man,” said Thomas More senior Michael Lichens.
A philosophy major, Lichens credits Orthodoxy and other writings with leading him into the Catholic Church.
And so it’s a good fit for him at Thomas More, where he said Mary Mumbach, cofounder of the college and former literature professor, encouraged reading Chesterton and often would use him in her lectures. Lichens said many students also read Chesterton in group settings and privately.
Other colleges are catching on. Father Boyd points to Christendom College (Front Royal, Va.), the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minn.) and the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio) as places “keenly interested in Chesterton.” Ahlquist cites the University of St. Thomas in Houston and the University of Notre Dame as other institutions taking an interest in Chesterton. The trend applies to non-Catholic and secular universities, too. Caldecott pointed to evangelical Wheaton College’s (Illinois) Marion E. Wade Center, which is devoted to Chesterton and related authors. Cornell University, meanwhile, is home to Chesterton House: A Center for Christian Studies.
“I think the new Catholic colleges that are developing and the new movements in the Church and the home-schooling people … there are many signs of hope,” Father Boyd said. “Almost always you find these people honor Chesterton and what he stands for.”
Study Makes Sense
Study of Chesterton, said Caldecott, helps students discover or rediscover Christianity and to realize that “it is not something that an intellectual needs to be ashamed of. It chimes with common sense. It can be defended against anyone.
“They also need to learn from his sense of humor, his love of life, his gratitude for every waking breath. They can learn from his friendships — he remained friends even with his intellectual enemies. They can even learn from his technique, which was to turn something on its head, often, to get to know it better.”
“He’s a great religious teacher,” said Father Boyd. “He’s got what the Bible calls the gift of wisdom. Chesterton was a sacramental writer who was always writing about God but seldom using religious language. Stealth evangelization.”
Anthony Flott writes
from Papillion, Nebraska.
Chesterton and the Jews
Was Chesterton an anti-Semite?
That’s a charge that’s often raised, and, if true, would tarnish the sheen of a man who is often invoked as a paragon of Catholic thought.
“It’s an unfair charge, and it gets repeated and repeated,” said Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society. “It has to stop.”
The society took a step toward that end with its November/December 2008 issue of Gilbert Magazine, a monthly devoted to the study and promotion of Chesterton (GilbertMagazine.com).
It seems that the charge emanates from the fact that some of Chesterton’s poetry contains joking references to Jews. In addition, his brother, Cecil, exposed an insider trading scandal involving British government officials, some of whom were Jewish.
But, says Ahlquist, “everything about his writings and about Chesterton himself contradicts the idea that he’d be against anyone because of religion or race.” The jokes in the poetry were “asides,” he said, “not full frontal attacks.”
Said Ahlquist, “He didn’t hate anyone. His criticism was always based on behavior.”
In fact, when Adolf Hitler was on the rise in the 1930s, Chesterton condemned the “atrocities” taking place under Nazism.
After Chesterton’s death, some Jewish public figures, including Humbert Wolfe, hailed the Catholic writer. Wolfe had earlier written about Chesterton being anti-Semitic but later regretted it, Ahlquist said. “He wrote a moving tribute when he died.”
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