Laughing with Chesterton

 
 
It could be said that the pun is mightier than the sword. If this is true, then wordplay may be as important as swordplay in the never ending wars between the dark powers of the underworld and the light of Christ.
 
So this essay on the brilliantly annoying style of G. K. Chesterton might also be titled, "the magic of the metaphor, the enlightenment of alliteration or the annoyance of the non sequitur."
 
Do some people read Chesterton in a state of continued ecstatic delight at his style? Do they ride the roller coaster of his thought with never a moment of queasiness, or do most people (like me) vacillate between admiration and annoyance? Do others sometimes consider his puns to be punishment, his alliteration ludicrous, and his non sequiturs annoying? Surely there are many who find the portly prophet to be overly playful. They consider his style as overweight as the man, and find his verbal gymnastics as strained as if he himself had attempted to do a backflip or a cartwheel.
 
However, whenever I am tempted to criticize something better than myself, Lady Wisdom reminds me to withhold judgment. There may be something there I had not seen. There may be a pearl in the oyster; a treasure hidden in the muddy field; or a beloved son in the pig pen.
 
It was not until I began to attempt a Chestertonian style in my own writing that I began to realize the genius that this theological Oliver Hardy had actually achieved. I first found myself writing in a playful and surprising style in my book St. Benedict and St. Therese. I then jumped in full tilt in my study on the Apostles’ Creed called Adventures in Orthodoxy.
 
What I discovered is that the Chestertonian style was particularly well suited to the content at hand. How shall one write a book on a philosophical or theological subject for a popular audience? The content itself seems dry, and yet for the enthusiast it is the most stimulating subject of all. As Chesterton wrote, "People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe. There never was anything so perilous and exciting as orthodoxy."
 
It seemed that a style both deliberately delightful and teasingly torturous was one that might both annoy and enlighten the audience. It was, if you like, the style of a playful and unpredictable prophet. After all, isn’t this what we see with Hosea who marries a whore, Nathan who tells King David a scorpion story with a sting in the tale, or Elijah who flies away on a whirlwind? Indeed, isn’t there a playfully prophetic note in the teaching style of Our Lord Himself when He punctures the pompous with His Head-of-Caesar-bearing coin trick, or when He skewers the self righteous with His, "Let-the-one-without-sin-among-you-cast-the-first-stone" punch line?
 
The Chestertonian style has the capacity to wake us up with wordplay, and within the semantic twist a moment of enlightenment occurs. Chesterton says that "Thinking is making connections," and Chestertonian thinking consists of making surprising linguistic connections that reveal surprising theological connections.
 
Not only does this happen for the readers, but as I attempted a Chestertonian style myself, I discovered that the linguistic legerdemain helped me to make new connections which opened new ways of seeing my subject. I had first observed this in my discipline of writing poetry. It was in the process of searching for a rhyme that I would be given a totally new perspective on the meaning and message of the poem. In pressing the words into the rhyme and rhythm of the poem, the words themselves yielded fresh juice.
 
I am working now on a sequel to Adventures in Orthodoxy. Titled, The Romance of Religion, it is a study of the significance of stories and the sacred, the stupendous and the sacramental. As I hammer away at the keyboard, I am constantly turning my mind to verbal gymnastics. I am not doing so merely to entertain the reader, or to imitate Chesterton, and I am aware of the danger of a pathetic pastiche — a kitsch confection and a stumbling and insulting imitation of a master.
 
However, I am taking the risk, and as I do I am finding several other truths unfolding. First of all, the task of writing is much more fun. I enjoy the wordplay, the intellectual gymnastics and the theological tumbling. Secondly, there is metaphysical fun in the metaphorical fabrications. As I play with the words the concepts they represent come alive. The language and syntax and meaning are suddenly a dance or a drama with unexpected twists and turns. Metaphors are miraculous because they establish new connections between otherwise seemingly unconnected things. When the poet says his love is "like a red, red rose," we see for the first time that Love is indeed ravishingly beautiful and sweet. It is temporal and fleeting, and furthermore, it bears a thorn.
 
Chesterton’s sometimes annoying style does the same. It creates new ways of seeing, and opens windows in the mind and surprises us with truth. He is a rollicking, rotund, jocular jester in the court of the Almighty. He is a jongleur de Dieu — God’s juggler, and just like all the best jokers, he reveals fresh perspectives on this weary world and the tragic comedy which is the daily duty and the divine destiny of the Human Race.
 


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is Chaplain to St. Joseph’s School in Greenville, South Carolina. His books are available at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker

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Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • Cory

    Father Longenecker, I am not a G.K. Chesterton fan for a lot of the reasons you give. I actually get tired of his constant puns and wordplay. But you helped me undertstand his reasons for doing that.

    I don’t think I’m going to be picking him up again any time soon, but this gives me more of an appreciation for why so many other Catholics love him. Good article.

  • Doug Moore

    Very well explained. The nature of GKC, attracting, repelling and attracting once again; the reader to stick with it. For me, the second reading is the time when some of the fog lifts. More clarity waits for the 3rd reading, etcetera.
    I have just finished reading his autobiography.Great article, Thanks.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Hmm, I suppose that GK Chesterton is my favorite stand-up divine comic!

  • Gabriel Austin

    Because so few of us can do it, we fail to recognize that the genius of Chesterton lies in his extraordinary ability to think. nd to think things through. He was a natural born thinker.

    It is this, for example, which astonished Gilson on reading GKC’s book on Aquinas. GKC had a clearer sense of Thomas’ thinking than Gilson was able to acquire after decades of study.

    For a clue of GKC’s style you might read Belloc’s THE PLACE OF GILBERT CHESTERTON IN ENGLISH LETTERS. One point: GKC had an armory of similes. When he wrote “It is as if…”, the subject had better duck.

    There is also the study by the physicist S.L.Jaki OSB CHESTERTON: A SEER OF SCIENCE.

    The mystery is why you think you might be able to emulate his thought and his style. Try instead to write plays like Shakespeare. You cannot beat natural talent.

  • D.B.

    …but as someone else wryly observed, “Heaven help us from his admirers.” I find the idea of “Chestertonianism” to be absurd for the simple fact that he was who he was, and no one can recreate that. He was a Catholic, a committed and whimsical man. I think he would be the first to agree with this. It is much like the issues Jack Kerouac had for the rest of his life after he wrote On the Road…everyone wanted to be a “Beatnik”…I enjoy Chesterton, easily count him to be one of my favorite writers (although I believe Ronald Knox to be a superior Apologist for the Faith)…but I don’t put him on the pedastal some of my brethren do.

  • Michael Baruzzini

    “Those who look at the matter most superficially regard paradox as something which belongs to jesting and light journalism. Paradox of this kind is to be found in the saying of the dandy, in the decadent comedy, “Life is much too important to be taken seriously.” Those who look at the matter a little more deeply or delicately see that paradox is a thing which especially belongs to all religions. Paradox of this kind is to be found in such a saying as “The meek shall inherit the earth.” But those who see and feel the fundamental fact of the matter know that paradox is a thing which belongs not to religion only, but to all vivid and violent practical crises of human living.”

    G.K. Chesterton, “The Ball and the Cross”

  • Lynn

    I don’t think I could wade through very much Chesterton on my own steam, but I adore on EWTN the various Chesterton series hosted by Dale Ahlquist, who with excellent precision presents commentaries on his most beloved author. He has an excellent web site & magazine as well..the Chesterton Society.

    Chesterton is a masterful complete & clear thinker who came to believe that all starts & ends with the One True Catholic Church. Chesterton is a timeless visionary and Alhquest his devoted messenger. Chesterton is the “apostle” of commonsense through his masterful use of paradox; a genius in his own right. But simultaneously he often forgot where he was to be at any given time.

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