Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God

Ralph C. Wood, Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God (Baylor University Press, 2011)
$34.95, hardcover, 325 pages

In Book eight, Chapter twelve of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asserts a seemingly common-sense truth that has been progressively forgotten, ignored, or repressed over the course of the last two centuries: "the household is earlier and more necessary than the city." Not only in the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and Castro, but in the western democracies of Europe and America, the state has grown increasingly larger and more invasive, at times taking to itself the role of the family.

Though neither Britain nor America has come close to instituting the kind of police state that held Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in thrall, the integrity of the British and American family--and with it, the integrity of the local township, church, school, and pub--has been slowly whittled away by the monolithic pervasiveness of the federal government and the corporate-capitalist complex. In contrast to the Catholic teaching of subsidiarity (which calls for matters to be handled on the smallest and most local level possible), democratic governments and CEO's on both sides of the Atlantic have sought to centralize all political, economic, social, educational, and moral authority.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), an Anglican convert to Catholicism who shared his adoptive church's teaching on subsidiarity, was one of the modern world's most imaginative, entertaining, and perceptive critics. In addition to writing apologetics (Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man), fiction (The Man Who Was Thursday, the Father Brown detective stories), poetry (The Ballad of the White Horse), literary criticism (Charles Dickens, Robert Browning), and biography (Saint Francis of Assisi, St Thomas Aquinas), Chesterton was an active journalist who commented widely and often on the social, political, economic, and religious issues of his day. Together with Hilaire Belloc, he advocated a form of subsidiarity called distributivism. Conservative in his moral and doctrinal stances but liberal in his crusade against conglomeration in government and business alike, Chesterton has left a powerful, if at times paradoxical legacy that continues to attract adoration and accusation, awe and exasperation, partisanship and dismissal. 

Ralph Wood's Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God positions itself in the midst of this ongoing, often heated debate over Chesterton's accuracy and applicability as a prophet of modernity. Although Wood, University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University, offers fine analyses and interpretations of Chesterton's maddeningly elusive Man Who Was Thursday and rousing, Christian-humanist Ballad of the White Horse, and although his book is part of a series titled "The Making of the Christian Imagination," Wood shows far less concern for Chesterton the artist than for Chesterton the social radical, belligerent patriot, and foe of Islam and evolution. 

Wood is strongest and most helpful in unpacking Chesterton's distributivist views and in tracing the historical forces that led to the social-economic-political centralization that Chesterton so resisted. Chesterton emerges, as he should, as a late Victorian critic of utilitarianism. Together with Dickens, Browning, and Thomas Carlyle, Chesterton opposed the mechanization of the worker, the commercialization of society, and the de-spiritualization of man. And he located the cause of this not only in statism (thus giving him many conservative fans) but in capitalism as well (hence his many liberal fans). Indeed, writes Wood, "Chesterton's critique of unbridled capitalism as a system that encourages greed--sanctioning not economic cooperation among neighbors but a competitive gouging of each by all--was unstinting from beginning to end."

Chesterton, Wood shows, put his focus on property rather than capital. He had a nationalistic love of England, but he located his nationalism in local ownership of land and of the products of one's labor. Like Marx, he opposed the alienation of the laborer from the things he produces, but unlike Marx, he did not trade in human freedom for the control of the collective. That freedom, of course, needed to be acted out within limits, but those limits were human, moral, and imaginative, rather than being imposed from above by big government or big business.

In assessing Chesterton's distributivism, Wood is both fair to his subject and challenging to his readers. He is a little less so when he tackles Chesterton the sometimes hawkish patriot. Though he is right to point out that Chesterton was perhaps too jingoistic in jumping on the "hatred of the Hun" bandwagon during WWI, Wood tends to critique Chesterton from a strongly pacifist point of view. Rather than give Chesterton the benefit of the doubt, he too quickly closes the book on "just war" theory, taking for granted that German aggression and realpolitik was no better or worse than that of England or France. Still, Wood does an excellent job excavating those moments in Chesterton where his Kipling-like jingoism gives way to a more chastened Christian vision that eschews triumphalism, exposes the dangers of a will-to-power mentality, and advocates the extending of hospitality even (and especially) to one's enemies. 

There are, however, two areas of his book where Wood unfairly critiques Chesterton from a vantage point that is grounded in fashionable academic "broadmindedness" rather than in that perennial common sense that Chesterton possessed in such great measure. I respect Wood's attempts to build bridges between Christianity and Islam--indeed, I have committed myself to building such bridges at my own university--but his desire to come across as tolerant and inclusivist leads him to obscure or explain away Chesterton's truly prophetic warnings of the dangers of Islam.

Chesterton brilliantly worked out the social, martial, and political consequences of a theology that began by consciously rejecting the Trinity in favor of a radically monotheistic, wholly other, intensely "lonely" God who thunders on the mountaintop. Allah is not the same God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that difference does put Christianity and Islam at enmity. Though few readers notice it, it is significant that when C. S. Lewis (in the appendix to his Abolition of Man) placed side-by-side the great moral law codes of the nations of the world (Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Chinese, Jewish, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Egyptian, Indian, Australian, Native American), he specifically chose to leave out all reference to Mohammed or the Koran. Lewis, like Chesterton, knew that there is something at the heart of Islam that is eternally hostile to the gospel and the creeds of the church. To promote peace and understanding is a good and Christian thing, but we must not close our ears to Chesterton's warnings simply because they make us feel uncomfortable or "narrow-minded."  

But Wood's somewhat biased treatment of Chesterton's views on Islam pales in comparison to his unwarranted, and, I'm sorry to say, smug dismissal of Chesterton's critique of Darwinian evolution. Determined to uphold a Christian academic attachment to theistic evolution, Wood, rather than learn from Chesterton's prophetic critique of Darwin, uses him as a club to beat intelligent design (ID) theories that he clearly considers harmful to Christianity and to the Academy. Although both Chesterton and ID base their arguments against macro-evolution on what we know about nature and man, Wood levels the same old tired "God of the gaps" accusation against both. Worse yet, though he includes an appendix in which he praises Chesterton for exposing the dangers of eugenics, he resists drawing the straight line (drawn by Chesterton) from Darwinian survival of the fittest to genetic engineering. 

Still, though I find much to criticize in Wood's handling of Chesterton's views on Islam and evolution, I very much applaud him for his careful research, his lucid style, and his ability to draw together all aspects of one of the most paradoxically brilliant and brilliantly paradoxical writers (and figures) of the last century and a half. His book merits close reading and should inspire the kind of intensive dialogue that I've tried to initiate in this review.

Louis Markos (, Professor in English & Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include Apologetics for the 21st Century, Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, From Achilles to Christ, and Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Victorian Age.