This Is GK Chesterton’s 150th Birthday — Here’s Why He Remains So Relevant Today

COMMENTARY: The vast scope of his writings means there is always something pertinent to any circumstance.

G.K. Chesterton is seen in a portrait that appeared in Putnam’s 1914 edition of ‘Magic: A Fantastic Comedy’
G.K. Chesterton is seen in a portrait that appeared in Putnam’s 1914 edition of ‘Magic: A Fantastic Comedy’ (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

“The first fact about the celebration of a birthday is that it is a way of affirming defiantly, and even flamboyantly, that it is a good thing to be alive,” — G.K. Chesterton

Writing about the defiant and flamboyant G.K. Chesterton is fraught. It requires quoting him, and then one quotation piles upon another, and it seems a disservice to the reader for the author to interrupt Chesterton’s words with his own. So what results is a compendium of quotations, more a small anthology than an article.

But it is Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s 150th birthday; he was born May 29, 1874. So to write about him — and quote him — is meet and fitting.

The English language is not short of great Catholic convert writers. St. John Henry Newman inspired GKC, and GKC in turn inspired the incomparable Msgr. Ronald Knox. Their impact, though massive, is not as far-reaching as Chesterton’s. He is not only widely read, but there is a small industry of journals, conferences, lectures and reading clubs that churn out chunks of Chesterton constantly. I would be pleased if there were a Society of Ronald Knox, but there isn’t. There is a flourishing Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. They are not oddballs and cranks, a sort of Catholic version of Comic Con. Rather they are serious — but not too serious — scholarly devotees.

About oddballs and cranks, though, GKC was attentive and patient, even indulgent. He may well have smiled upon a posthumous ChesterCon. After all, in a mixed-up world, who decides what is right side up?

“A scene is often most clearly seen when it is seen upside down,” wrote GKC.

Such are not mere quips, but contain a depth of insight. Consider how he applied that perspective to St. Peter’s decision to be crucified upside-down: “His humility was rewarded by seeing in death … the landscape as it really is: with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills, and all men hanging on the mercy of God.”

Chesterton loved the landscape, that local part of God’s creation that we are most in contact with. But he was aware that the landscape — and all creation — had, from the beginning, been turned upside-down and inside-out by sin. A world so contorted could not be merely described as it looked; to get at the truth required juxtapositions and contradictions, paradoxes and apparent absurdities.

Chesterton has been called the “apostle of common sense,” but he may well be called the “apostle of original sin,” the evidence for which a common-sense approach sees in abundance. Original sin is the “only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” GKC wrote in Orthodoxy.

A good way to understand Chesterton is that he did not devote himself to volumes on sin and redemption, creation and eschatology; instead, he wrote his Father Brown detective stories, which 75 years after his death were made into a BBC television series. Father Brown knew well one of the consequences of original sin — namely, that an ordinary man could become a murderer. The flipside is the truth that Father Brown devoted his life to — namely, that an ordinary man could become a saint. Common sense takes both together; it is what makes sense of our common experience.

Chesterton wrote magnificently on the saints, with two of his most-read books being biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas. Both the Franciscans and Dominicans are celebrating major anniversaries this year: 800 years of the Franciscan rule, the first Nativity scene and his stigmata; and 750 years since the death of St. Thomas Aquinas. What better anniversary observance than to re-read GKC’s twin biographies of the saints?

The immensity of Chesterton’s literary corpus means that there remains something relevant to any and every circumstance. I might suggest two aspects of his life and thought that are most relevant today.

The first aspect is to remember GKC as a journalist. That was his profession, which he originally understood as a vocation and later lamented was becoming a trade. He loved the excitement, the rough edges, the clatter and clash of journalism, particularly daily newspapers. It bears noting that two of the greatest — and most courageous — journalists of the 20th century, Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge, both converted to Catholicism.

Chesterton was convinced by the truth of the faith, persuaded as it were by the approach of Aquinas. Muggeridge was converted by the witness of Mother Teresa, persuaded as it were by the approach of the poor man of Assisi.

Journalism, after a sort, has never been more abundant. It needs the model of Muggeridge and Chesterton, magnanimous men of mirth who battled against the mendacities of the age. The answer to the avalanche of bad journalism is good journalism, and Chesterton taught us how to do it well by being good, how to pursue the truth with a smile.

The second aspect is to remember Chesterton as a convert. He saw the Church from outside before he came inside. Hence his well-quoted observation that the Catholic Church is “larger on the inside than it is on the outside.”

Cultural polarization and political partisanship spill over into the life of the Church, and it is tempting for many Catholics to make the Church smaller on the inside. Chesterton would be the first to point out that this temptation occurs in every age, because temptations are even older than original sin. But we feel it acutely today.

“The birthday is a dogma no normal men deny, a formula of fundamental confession; it thanks Heaven by implication for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of life,” wrote Chesterton, who knew that dogma was the path to liberation.

Few embraced the blessings of life with the joy and delight of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. On his 150th birthday, the Church thanks Heaven for his creation and the preservation of all his works.