“Orthodoxy”–Book review

“To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
– G. K. Chesterton


Is it okay to start a book review with that? That’s how I feel after finishing Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy by Chesterton

I’m glad I read it, but I admit I didn’t understand all of this classic published in 1908 by English writer and theologian G. K. Chesterton.

“I do not propose to turn this book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics; I should be glad to meet at any other time the enemies of Christianity in that more obvious arena. Here I am only giving an account of my own growth in spiritual certainty.”

In speaking to his future readers, Chesterton says,

“If he does read it, he will find that in its pages I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.”

And so he begins his explanation of how he came to believe in Christianity.

“In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. . . . this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”

“I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me to-morrow.”

To give you insight into how the book works, here are its nine chapters:

  1. In Introduction in Defense of Everything Else
  2. The Maniac
  3. The Suicide of Thought
  4. The Ethics of Elfland
  5. The Flag of the World
  6. The Paradoxes of Christianity
  7. The Eternal Revolution
  8. The Romance of Orthodoxy
  9. Authority and the Adventurer

Clear now? Maybe not.

But even though the book is wordy and confusing at times with a profligate mix of metaphors and allegories and obscure references to things I don’t know about, I do find great merit in it (to say otherwise would be an affront to the many before me who see it as a masterpiece). And perhaps I’ll tackle it again in a few years and put more of the pieces together.

There is this popular and beautiful passage:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon.”

And more quotes to think about from Orthodoxy:

“Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.”

“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

“The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both locked themselves up in two boxes, painted inside with the sun and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even into the health and happiness of the earth.”

You may alter the place to which you are going; but you cannot alter the place from which you have come.”

* * *

Are you a Chesterton fan? Which works would you recommend? Please share here.

14 thoughts on ““Orthodoxy”–Book review

  1. floyd

    Wow. That will make you think. I’ve never read any of his work. Maybe someday, but to much on the plate for now and he’ll make my head hurt! I’ve been trying to get through a two hundred and fifty page book of easy reading for the last month… I suppose if I had more time to read I wouldn’t appreciate it the way I do now.

  2. perfectlips

    Good review. That is the flavour I have of Chesterton (I’ve only read The Man Who Was Thursday, which was published in the same year as Orthodoxy).

    They are from another world those guys (Chesterton, Wells, Shaw, etc.). Fat old blokes waddling about pontificating to other fat old blokes. um, you could say if you were being unkind.

    I find the certainty of empire rather hard to wade through, but I agree it means some things can be stated very directly. I like that image of the childishness of God.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I have to say that P. G. Wodehouse was more on my level of British reading this month. Chesterton was a bit dense. He required me to slow down more than I’m used to. Probably a bad sign that my brain is indeed being rewired with today’s faster pace.

  3. Lynn Severance

    LIsa – congratulations on persevering through “Orthodoxy”. It was on a reading list I was given for one of my study times in Oxford even though the study focus was C.S. Lewis.

    I waded through it and can’t say I got even as much as you have put in your review, although I did like what you extracted.

    I hear many say what a classic it is and there are Chesterton groups that meet as they truly are devotees of his writing. I simply could not “get it”!!! And it was not ever brought up on our study tour which for me was good as I would have sat with not much to say although I may have gained some insights if any had spoken about its merit and message.

    That said, I am sure you will relish “The Brothers Karamazov”!! That, like “Bonhoeffer” will be worth the long read and is a book I can relate to as a true “classic”.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Perseverance is a good word for it, Lynn. 🙂 Your comments make me feel better about not enjoying it as much as I had hoped.

      But yes, I am enjoying The Brothers Karamazov more than expected. I’ve commented on it several times to Jeff that it’s really quite good–I guess my expectations were that it would be harder to read.

      I followed your suggestion and got the book on CDs this week. It’s even more delightful now to hear the Russian names properly pronounced and the intonation of the characters’ personalities. I definitely enjoy audio books too!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Well, I hope I’m not inappropriately discouraging people from reading Chesterton. ha. But yes, maybe there would have been a better book to start off with. If I hear of that, I’ll pass it along.

  4. Jennifer Dougan


    Phew, that sounds heavy. 🙂 I was reading and re-reading the quote you have in the preface about the poet and the logician’s approaches to understanding the heavens. Smiling at that, and still pondering…

    I saw your link to the Shack Revisited too. What was that like? How was it different than the original Shack?

    Have a great weekend!

    Jennifer Dougan

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Definitely a lot to ponder with Chesterton’s words. I’m sure I didn’t even comprehend a lot of what he said. ha. But what I did get was worth it, so that’s that.

      I actually just finished The Shack Revisited yesterday and loved it. It’s a non-fiction book about the Trinity, specifically the relationship between Father, Son, Spirit, and us as believers. The author (different than The Shack’s author but friends) uses excerpts and examples from The Shack throughout the book. I didn’t agree with everything he says, but I did with most of it and found it encouraging and enlightening.

      My weekend has been warm and sunny so far! Hope the same for you, Jennifer.

  5. Cathy

    Hi Lisa, I just started following your blog. : )

    I have this book on my e-reader but have been putting it off. One day I’ll get to it! I really enjoyed your review and the quotes you included. I love quotes! Sounds thought-provoking.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      If you do read it, let me know what you think, Cathy. I think part of my problem in reading it was I didn’t want to go slow enough to truly savor and understand it. When books start to ramble a little (pardon me for calling Chesterton’s writing rambling! ha), I start wanting to just skim, which admittedly does not make for comprehensive reading. So maybe I’ll give it another chance in another season and take it slow and easy.

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