Converts Who Followed Chesterton Across the Tiber

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Many religious roads lead a convert to Rome, and a frequent guidebook is something written by G.K. Chesterton: often Orthodoxy. In his new collection of convert stories, My Name is Lazarus, Dale Ahlquist, the world’s greatest living Chesterton promoter, claims that he can name a couple of thousand who followed the fat journalist across the Tiber.

An occasional convert to Catholicism jumps from Bible-chattering fundamentalism to hyper-rational ultramontane fussiness—i.e., a hairsplitting apologist who still doesn’t see reality. These men—for men they usually are—are often pie-in-the-sky even if they’re still angry. If they remain in the Church, their smugness is often off-putting and dampens further conversions. If that’s what it means to be Christian, outsiders sometimes say, count me out of this I’ve-got-it-all-figured-out ideology. For all his zeal, Chesterton simply won’t tolerate that kind of conversion for long. He said at the beginning that the worst thing about Catholicism is Catholics.

Ahlquist’s collection doesn’t include converts who end up like this, but it includes every other sort from all corners who started out convinced of the falsehood contained in: secular Islam, atheistic Judaism, megachurch pentacostalism, Oxford secularism, Episcopalian liberalism, pre-Vatican II lapsed Catholicism and Unitarian Theosophism (whew!). He even includes some who made more than one of these stops on their journey. One was a struggling Midwestern actor; another, a Belgian-educated child-of-the-sixties scientist; and another, an Evangelical child Bible star. The common thread, defined using a phrase that recurs, is that “they read their way into the Church.” To a person—from the Marxist to the Jehovah’s Witness—they describe themselves as intense seekers of truth, looking into authors as diverse as Thoreau and Derrida. Chesterton helped them find the joy in Christianity’s truth, but in this volume the surprise is the occasional pain that continues in the convert’s world which is never free of sin and torment. Like confession, Chesterton’s writing confronts sin, but temporal effects remain in the fallen world.

The model is set by Chesterton’s own “composite” conversion story, woven together by Ahlquist from several books. It begins with a happy childhood memory of the deep reality of toy theater, followed by an encounter with sin (“I could imagine the maddest crime, when I had never committed the mildest crime”), self-deception, and the devil. He then veered toward “spiritual suicide,” doubting even the reality of the atheist. The solution was the sacrament of penance, which gave him new life. “Grey and gouty,” the absolved is “five minutes old.” Sin didn’t disappear; however, the Church had a means of dealing with it. She was a “truth-telling thing,” “put logic into life,” and offered a total explanation: “capitalism, crude imperialism, industrialism, wrongful rich, wreckage of the family, are the result of England not being Catholic.” His conversion was “rational and not ritualistic.” He was “received in a tin shed at the back of a railway hotel.” So humbly converted, he had to remain humble: “The great temptation of the Catholic in the modern world is the temptation to intellectual pride.”

 

It is the stories of two women which emphasize Chesterton’s often-overlooked gritty humility. Victoria Darky, after years of evangelical mission work in the South Bronx, felt “something missing in her middle-class” Protestantism: she “needed a church that knew what to do with suffering.” Sin doesn’t go away with conversion; baptism, confirmation, and confession don’t prevent earthquakes and cure progeria. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need prayer, miracles, or redemption.

Emma Fox Wilson from England puts the darkness of the world even more starkly with a question worthy of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov who “returned God’s ticket” on account of the “exquisitely beautiful” and “artistic cruelty” of the moral evil of Turk soldiers bayonetting nursing children in front of their mothers. Wilson asks about evil both moral and natural: “And what about the millions of little girls who are born to starve, or be raped, or drown in mud, or be killed by parasites that destroy a child’s eyeball from the inside out?” She claims that she was once the sort of “snobby and superior,” complacent ultra-convert mentioned at the beginning of this review, but felt that Chesterton’s “A Ballade of Suicide” must have been written by a man who had “plunged deeply into the mud and blood and the sights that might lead you to suicide in the first place.” She quotes G.K. when she says that Catholicism gave “room for wrath and love to run wild.” She liked a church that didn’t have greeters: “any normally constituted human being will shrivel up like a mollusk when confronted with a phalanx of eerily smiling strangers, all trying to push damp missals and a parish bulletin into your hand.” This realism is Chestertonian in its wit that sees past the gloom; it lends credibility to happy endings.

Four other stories by writers in their own right fairly jump out of the book. Dale Ahlquist tells how Chesterton did not ruin his honeymoon when he discovered him in Rome the month Saint Pope John Paul II was shot. Rather, he began a sixteen-year-long process of six conversions (like G.K. himself): from 1) and 2) purposeless Protestantism and contradictory materialism into the Church’s 3) hard 4) institutional 5) realism and then against 6) the world’s and the Church’s enemies.  Father Dwight Longenecker’s unlikely journey from South Carolinian fundamentalism to the “fairyland” of “country vicarage” Anglicanism on the Isle of Wight ultimately led to a three-part paradigm of conversion outlined by Chesterton: “Correcting the Falsehoods,” “Discovering the Truth,” and “Resisting Conversion.” What pulled him out of the faux-medieval “St. Giles Fair”? Father Brown, who “punctures pomposity, unveils vanity, and sees through the fantasies, fabrications, and fictions that always accompany crime.”

Eleven months after former Lutheran theologian David W. Fagerberg read “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy, he and his family moved from a dissertation on “Catholic liturgical geegaws” into the ecclesiology of Catholicism, what Chesterton called “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.” It is a capacious place: “Lutheranism was not large enough to hold all that is in Catholicism, but Catholicism is large enough to hold all the positive things Lutheranism had given [him].” The size of Catholicism, say Chesterton and Fagerberg, means that it can be a “responsive, living teacher.” It does not merely contain “this or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.”

The fourth story jumps out of this book and into another. Kevin O’Brien’s An Actor Bows, also published by the American Chesterton Society, is the product of a hardworking Midwestern career actor who knows how to hold a Philistine audience. He was a committed atheist at age nine, inspired by Madalyn Murray O’Hair on Phil Donahue. He broke into show business singing telegrams in a surprise Superman suit. His libelous cartoons resembling the Simpsons ten years before they appeared may have been stolen by Matt Groening (he can’t prove it). What brought real disappointment, however, was the reality check of contradictions that followed his successive conversions: first, the Lutheran Missouri Synod stated that it wasn’t fundamentalist although the local St. Louis hierarchy insisted that “the fossil record was placed in rocks by the devil to fool us”; and second, his Episcopalian pastor insisted both that life begins at conception and that a woman has a right to an abortion.

Upon crossing the Tiber, he met Natural Family Planning Catholics who used the method as intentional birth control; he knew of parishioners who wouldn’t pay for religious drama but didn’t blink at $350,000 to repave a suburban parish parking lot; and he found that the music was “dreadful,” the lyrics were “heretical,” and the architecture was “shopping mall.” The homilies were “superficial,” “some bishops [are] narcissists,” and “most lay Catholics don’t go to Mass and don’t know what the Church teaches and if they become devout, they turn into self-righteous clericalists and spend their time straining at gnats and swallowing camels.” He concludes of the Church, “Other than that, it’s perfect.”

O’Brien could not get away with taking a sledgehammer to organized Christianity if his gag-filled storytelling were not full of putdowns of himself and if he were not telling a love story (including that of his long marriage) in the fallen but not deserted world. He’s a Catholic Woody Allen, although he laughs and skips away to new adventures where the neurotic Jewish vaudevillian shrugs and pans in on himself. His slow, hilarious rise in becoming a successful producer, playwright, and actor in a Chestertonian distributist business is itself nearly as engaging and grace-filled as his ascent to truth.

One rich Shakespearean metaphor that O’Brien uses several times is that Christianity involves getting into character. The role is Christ. The acting is not about feelings. Sometimes the feelings aren’t there. The show must go on: “Sometimes we find that we have to work from the outside in. Sometimes we have to imitate gestures or attitudes when we don’t really feel it inside. Sometimes we have to get on our knees and pray, even though ‘the thoughts remain below’ (Hamlet, Act Three).” This EWTN actor has played Orestes Brownson, Father Brown, and St. Paul, but he knows his big-time billing. He’s a husband and father, and he’s no longer playing himself. It’s Christ who must live in him.

Kenneth Colston

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Kenneth Colston’s articles and reviews have appeared in The New Criterion; LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; First Things; New Oxford Review; St. Austin's Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He is a retired teacher who lives in St. Louis.

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