Do some people read Chesterton in a state of continued ecstatic delight at his style? Do they ride the roller coaster of his thought with never a moment of queasiness, or do most people (like me) vacillate between admiration and annoyance? Do others sometimes consider his puns to be punishment, his alliteration ludicrous, and his non sequiturs annoying? Surely there are many who find the portly prophet to be overly playful. They believe his style to be as overweight as the man, and find his verbal gymnastics as strained as if he himself had attempted to do a backflip or a cartwheel.
However, whenever I am tempted to criticize something better than myself, Lady Wisdom reminds me to with hold judgement. There may be something there I had not seen. There may be a pearl in the oyster; a treasure hidden in the muddy field; or a beloved son in the pig pen.
It was not until I began to attempt a Chestertonian style in my own writing that I began to realize the genius that this theological Oliver Hardy had achieved. I first found myself writing in a playful and surprising style in my book St. Benedict and St. Therese. I then jumped in full tilt in my study on the Apostles’ Creed called The Quest for the Creed.
What I discovered is that the Chestertonian style of writing was particularly well suited to the content at hand. How shall one write a book on a philosophical or theological subject for a popular audience? The content itself seems dry, and yet for the enthusiast it is the most stimulating subject of all. As Chesterton wrote, “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe. There never was anything so perilous and exciting as orthodoxy.”
It seemed that a style that was deliberately delightful and teasingly torturous was a style that might at once both annoy and enlighten the audience. It was, if you like, the style of a playful and unpredictable prophet. After all, isn’t this what we see with Hosea who marries a whore, Nathan who tells King David a scorpion story with a sting in the tale, or Elijah who flies away on a whirlwind? Indeed, isn’t there a playfully prophetic note in the teaching style of Our Lord himself when he punctures the pompous with his Head-of-Caesar-bearing coin trick, or when he skewers the self-righteous with his, “Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone.” punchline?
If a punchline has a pun, then it could be said that the pun is mightier than the sword. If this is true, then wordplay may be as important as swordplay. The Chestertonian style wakes us up with wordplay, and within the semantic surprise a moment of enlightenment occurs. Chesterton says that “Thinking is making connections.” and Chestertonian thinking consists of making surprising linguistic connections that reveal surprising theological connections.
Not only does this happen for the readers, but as I attempted a Chestertonian style I discovered that the linguistic legerdemain helped me to make new connections which opened new ways of seeing my subject. Looking for alliteration I was forced to look again at the subject. Sharpening the language sharpened the process of thought. I had first observed this in my discipline of writing poetry. Searching for a rhyme gave me a totally new perspective on the meaning and message of the poem. The need for rhyme forced me to make new connections. It was by pressing the words into the rhyme and rhythm of the poem, that the words yielded fresh juice.
This week, at last, my sequel to The Quest for the Creed is published. Entitled, The Romance of Religion, it is a study of the significance of stories and the sacred; the stupendous and the sacramental. It is a call to not only listen and tell faith stories, but to live a faith story. As I hammered away at the keyboard I was consciously and constantly turning my mind to verbal gymnastics. I did so not merely to entertain the reader, or to imitate Chesterton, for I was well well aware of the old saw that the only thing worse than Chesterton are the imitators of Chesterton.
However, I took the risk for two other reasons. Firstly, the method matched the message. The Romance of Religion calls readers to take the leap of faith. It seemed best to write therefore with leaping language. The books’s message was a call to set out on the great adventure so it was plain that the style should be adventurous.
Secondly, Chesterton’s style is poetical and as T.S. Eliot said the poet has the duty to “purify the language of the tribe.” In other words, poets are prophets, and prophets take risks. Writers must risk something if their work is to be worthwhile, and if we wish to be masters we must first imitate the masters. I hoped that writing in a rollicking style would not only help readers to see the truth aslant, but in so doing the use of language might also be refreshed.
As I did I found more experiences unfolding. First of all, the task of writing is much more fun. I enjoy the wordplay, the intellectual gymnastics and the theological tumbling. Secondly, there is metaphysical fun in the metaphorical fabrications. As I play with the words, the concepts they represent become more alive. The language and syntax and meaning is suddenly a dance or a drama with unexpected twists and turns. Metaphors are miraculous because they establish new connections between otherwise seemingly unconnected things. When the poet says his love is “like a red, red rose” we see for the first time that Love is indeed ravishingly beautiful and sweet. It is temporal and fleeting, and furthermore, it bears a thorn.
Finally, by taking the risk of imitating the portly prophet, I feel that my own writing has been strengthened and invigorated. The search not just for words, but the best words has improved my own attempts to wrestle with that slippery octopus language. The attempt has opened my language and incidentally opened my eyes.
Chesterton’s sometimes annoying style does the same. It opens up new ways of seeing. It opens windows in the mind and surprises us with truth. He is a rollicking, rotund, jocular jester in the court of the Almighty. He is a jongleur de Dieu—God’s juggler, and just like all the best jokers, he reveals fresh perspectives on this weary world and the tragic comedy which is the daily duty and the divine destiny of the Human Race. I hope my own work might be seen as homage not travesty and that readers will be similarly delighted and enlightened.