Champion of Faith and Common Sense
Many years ago, this reviewer attended a weekend stay at the home of a prominent historian and Roman Catholic gentleman, to assess his personal memoir before publication. I spoke with the great man’s wife beforehand and expressed a personal concern: what with her husband being quite serious about his faith and my being a lifelong Protestant, would there be a significant barrier or conflict between us? She said, “Jim, set your mind at ease. Our beliefs are vital to us, but in this house we’re much more interested in the mere Christianity that unites us.”
In much the same spirit, Kevin Belmonte undertakes his biographical and critical overview of Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874–1936)—the influential Roman Catholic convert deemed a “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Pius XI—and presents him as a writer for all Christians, Catholic and Protestant.
Who was Chesterton? He was a noted poet (best known for “The Ballad of the White Horse” and deemed among the best poets of his day by fellow poet Charles Williams), an inventive novelist (renowned for “The Man Who Was Thursday”), one of the world’s premiere authorities on Charles Dickens and Shakespeare, creator of the acclaimed Father Brown detective stories, respected playwright, advocate of the social-political program known as Distributism, noted Christian apologist, articulate advocate for the unborn, author of numerous biographies (including the world’s best short biographies of Robert Browning and St. Thomas Aquinas), and flamboyant public figure.
He was, as Mr. Belmonte amply demonstrates, a towering genius. From the beginning of his career in the late 1890s, Chesterton was recognized as a precocious and well-read writer, a formidable debater (beloved even by his opponents), and a master of seeing and crafting paradoxes as tools of seeing old things in a new light. And although his life was a whirlwind of exhausting activity, Chesterton was one of the humblest and merriest of men, encouraging his readers to view life with immense gratitude and wonder, thankful for the gifts of life and forgiveness for even the most heinous sins, while wondering at the breadth and depth of the God who brought both to pass.
There is much to admire in Mr. Belmonte’s volume. The author demonstrates a remarkably strong knowledge of Chesterton’s principal works and makes sure use of the critical essays and reviews that have been written about them. He is especially good at presenting many of the salient points in Chesterton’s life, especially his friendships (with, for example, Bernard Shaw and [the writer] E. C. Bentley) and the critical reception of his key books at the time of their publication, quoting generously from these contemporary assessments. Mr. Belmonte is also quite effective in focusing upon the period of 1900 through roughly 1914, which was the period of Chesterton’s highest achievement.
Twenty-five years ago, a respected biographer and essayist published an article that styled Chesterton “the everlasting bore” on account of his nonfiction, which can be admittedly trying when taken in book-length flights, with metaphor piling up upon paradox and the author zooming from one related subject to another by way of illustration, until the reader might find himself thinking, Just get to the point, please! (though perhaps this assessment says more about the attention span of the modern mind than Chesterton’s skill as a polemicist.) Mr. Belmonte states a strong case for considering his subject’s nonfiction in exactly the opposite light, finding in such works as Heretics (1905), Orthodoxy (1908), and The Everlasting Man (1925) much that can speak to the modern reader who is attempting to make sense of the world around him.
In seeking to present Chesterton in light of the “mere Christianity that unites” Catholics and Protestants, Mr. Belmonte must necessarily skim lightly over several essential aspects of his subject’s life. These include Chesterton’s friendship with the militantly Catholic Hilaire Belloc (surely the most influential friendship of his adult life), his advocacy of distributism (a pre-Reformation-based system of widely-dispersed property ownership), and the signal differences Chesterton saw between Catholicism and Protestantism, especially in matters of authority. Chesterton saw the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church as offering wise, considered judgments that have endured the millennia. From this question and his answer to it flow Chesterton’s beliefs in other matters, such as his views of capitalism, birth control, the drinking of beer and wine, and all manner of cultural developments that resulted from both the Protestant Reformation and modernity.
Still, within the bounds the author has set for himself, Defiant Joy is an informative, lively work, covering much ground within a short span and providing a colorful outline of the life and works of a larger-than-life subject. Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Belmonte succeeds in showing how there is much for Protestants to admire in the legendary Chesterton, and why he was beloved both in his age and in ours.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of "Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind" (Madison Books), an admirer of Chesterton, and a longtime book reviewer.
Posted: February 27, 2011