Why Everyone Should Read the Prince of Paradox

Written by: Spenser White

Perusing the library as I tend to do in my rare moments of free time, I found a shelf of books that intrigued me. Most of the books on the shelf shared the same cover, a silhouette of a fat man on a tan background. On each book was written “The Complete Works of G. K. Chesterton.” I quickly sorted through the books, looking for one in particular, a book that had changed my life.

One of my teachers, Mr. Nathan Pegors, introduced me to the writings of G. K. Chesterton my freshman year of college (I attended a philosophy-based gap year program). My class read his apologetic work, Orthodoxy, and we discussed his proofs and implications. Reading this book fundamentally altered my conception of the world. Before reading Orthodoxy, I had not pondered the wonder of the Christian life. Before Chesterton, I had never questioned why the grass or apples were green. Chesterton thoroughly convinced me that “tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy).

Chesterton was not simply a good wordsmith, Chesterton spun great tapestries of words. He was a master (if not THE master) of the English language. No word Chesterton wrote falls to the ground in vain. In my humble opinion, one of Chesterton’s best writings is his defense of the Trinity, which he called a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice. After explaining the folly of Unitarianism (the confession that God is one and only one), Chesterton waxes eloquent:

Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.

This paragraph, alone, above all my arguments, should interest you enough to read his works.

However, Chesterton did not only write works of Christian philosophy and theology. He is also well known for his Father Brown mystery series. These stories follow the adventures of the quirky English priest Father Brown. Chesterton wrote many of these stories for local literary magazines and are thus accessible in one short read. The number of stories he wrote is astonishing. Different readers resonate with different stories, because each addresses a different theme, as a quick survey into my Chesterton-inclined friends reveals. One friend enjoys the dark and gloomy story “The Hammer of God” for its frank air of “angstiness.” Another friend prefers “The Queer Feet” and in it, Chesterton’s discussion of social class. “The Eye of Apollo” is my favorite because of its theme of belief and action. To quote Italian Catholic Marxist and social critic, Antonio Gramsci, “Father Brown is the Catholic priest who through the refined psychological experiences offered by confession and by the persistent activity of the fathers’ moral casuistry, though not neglecting science and experimentation, but relying especially on deduction and introspection, totally defeats Sherlock Holmes, makes him look like a pretentious little boy.” (Letters from Prison, p. 354.) Chesterton shows his skill by focusing more on the characterization of his characters and not simply using them as one-dimensional figures to further the conclusion of the mystery.

The crowning glory of Chesterton’s writing, though, is his continual sense of awe at the world. Known as the Prince of Paradox, he enjoyed explaining apparent contradictions, not as mere contradictions, but true paradoxes that reason cannot comprehend. This admiration of paradox is not wishful thinking though, as Chesterton was a highly rational man. He simply recognized that human reason has its limits (a scary thought for those living in a post-rationalist age) and called the world to see that too. Chesterton walked around like the babies he constantly admired: “Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic.” Therefore, Chesterton constantly called for his readers to find the wonder in the ordinary, explaining, “Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary.” Chesterton’s mission was to introduce the world to “The Romance of Orthodoxy” and to argue that, amid modernism, Christianity faces down the cold, scientific calculations of the rationalists and laughs at them.

Not all Chesterton’s works are easy reads, but they are well worth the struggle. In fact, I recommend starting with Orthodoxy, but it is not a quick or simple read. You will find you need to chew on individual paragraphs and think about what they mean. All things considered, Orthodoxy—as well as the rest of Chesterton’s works—very well may be some of the most rewarding reading you will have ever undertaken. Everyone should read Chesterton, and if not all his works, then at least Orthodoxy and some, if not all, of the Adventures of Father Brown.