In Bloomsbury’s book on English literature (is Bloomsbury correct? I don’t have the book in front of me. I’ll check later). the author who contributed a piece on GK Chesterton pretty much dismissed him as not worth a lot. I don’t remember that author’s name but Chesterton’s is remembered by millions though he died in 1936.
There are many biographies of Chesterton but the one I enjoyed most was by his friend Maisie Ward. I suppose the majority of biographies these days work on being “realistic” and to some of those writers that means discussing at length “the warts”. I’m not utterly opposed to that. There is only one Jesus and the rest of us fall far short so if biographers do a thorough search on any of us they’ll find plenty of “warts” (and plenty of alleged warts as well, no doubt). Sometimes I think I can spot the relish with which a writer writes to bring down “a god”. I think, for example, (though this is perhaps a bit harsh) I see it in Wilson’s biography of CS Lewis. Of course, I never thought Lewis was Jesus (nor did he!) so I “get it” when people show us some truths that make our heroes less than “Sir Galahads”.
I think “realism” is legitimate and important (unless we begin to worship it as at a shrine) and I think that writing or speaking that doesn’t at least take some account of truth that is less than pleasing to a subject’s friends or family isn’t helpful. But I can’t help thinking that covering a beloved’s wrong is a good thing and important. I think the same is true of one we esteem and are grateful to for many good reasons. But, understand, I do think that some things need to be dealt with openly and judiciously. Sometimes and in certain situations the whistle should be blown!
But is there not a kind of spirit that can shape us and lead us into seeing (real!) evil or shabbiness or purposed violence and urges us to write or speak about it with a salivating fever and relish; urgently feeling the need to tear open the body of humanity to expose the seething wickedness that can be found there? Showing it in movies like Casino or The Good Fellas or newspapers and books that we’re well acquainted with? Yes, but we want realism! I think that’s a good thing! I also think a very little of certain kinds of realism goes a long way. A lot of it is bound to generate contagious cynicism and gloom and smugness in the writers & speakers.
What kind of realism is it if a husband speaks lovely things of his wife but feels compelled by “honesty” to speak of really distasteful things he finds in her or thinks are in her?
I take seriously William Lyon Phelps’ remark on books. He said this: ”Zola was an artist of extraordinary energy, sincerity and honesty; but, after all, when he gazed upon a dunghill, he saw and described a dunghill. Rostand looked steadfastly at the same object and beheld the vision of Chanticleer.” Yes, I’m currently convinced there is a spirit abroad among us that leads us to “expose”. But I also know there are millions, whether Christian or non-Christians who take to heart this truth, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
But I didn’t intend to go into all that. (There’s no cure for my lack of discipline I’m afraid.) I simply wanted to tell you (perhaps again) since it’s on my mind, that GK Chesterton in a little collection of his essays called, What’s Wrong With the World makes the claim that a major problem with it is that we have lost the sense of wonder. There is, he insisted, many wonderful things, we just don’t have the capacity to perceive them. Everything (pretty much) is reduced to materialism or rational explanation or economic or social worth. “What does it do? What difference does it make? What’s it worth?” All these asked in a severely pragmatic spirit. “Wonder?” Poof! It vanishes in a cloud of purple smoke or maybe more likely, it slowly withers in us. GK says that we (the world and all in it) have grown old and God has stayed young! God doesn’t make flowers en masse, He makes them one at a time (no doubt with speed passing the speed of light). He loves individual humans also. (I know this raises difficult questions. But not right now.)
He, like a little child isn’t bored with repetition. We acknowledge it (realistically) and adjust to it but He delights in it. Following Chesterton’s lead I’m looking forward to the day when I walk into a room and there’s a baby sitting on the floor with its eyes big and wide in amazement—it has just discovered the wonder of its toes (you’ve seen that, haven’t you!) and there beside the baby is God with His eyes wide open looking at the same thing. He’ll turn and say with excitement in His great voice, “Have you seen these?”
Reduce all we want; make Christmas nothing but a time of greed and capitalism and pain for many poor people, children and parents (sadly, there’s a great deal of that), but if that’s all we see and miss the wonder of the Christian faith and the incarnation of God we’ve been hurt and we have grown old while God remains ever young and ever joyful knowing where He’s going with all this.
(Holy Father, enable us to balance reality with wonder or at least enable us to seek to balance them! This prayer in the name of the ever-young Prince.)