First Things Indulges in a Little Gratuitous Chesterton Bashing

in a piece that takes various Chesterton quotations that generally preserve quite a lot of common sense and then subjects them to flat-footed heckling for no particular reason other than being contrarian and jerkish.

Much of the heckling works if you are into that sort of thing, sort of like a 13 year old’s heckling “works” as pure logic when the snot-faced little brat retorts to Mom’s “I said come here immediately” by jail-house lawyering what “immediately” might mean: “Measured on the basis of quantum physics, ‘immediately’ is not possible since no human being can move in a space of nanoseconds.” Any clever high schooler can pick apart random sentences from a FB page. You can do it with aphorisms from the Sermon on the Mount (“Oh yeah, like a camel can literally go through the eye of a needle! Why not just say that our job creators are all going straight to hell, Jesus!”). But none of this constitutes real critical thought. It’s just heckling and the kid deserves the slapped face he gets.

Several of the deconstructed quotes, ripped bleeding from their context, can be ridiculed if elevated to the status of the Ten Commandments(something that would have horrified Chesterton). However, some of the nitpickiness by the First Things author seems to me to be wilfully obtuse and ultimately contrary to the Faith out of spite, such as:

  • “Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all.”

Love means to love what is worthy of love; everything else is vice.

  • “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”

This is basically a Sartrean thesis: The will by choosing to love something endows it with the value which makes it capable of being loved. I don’t think I need to explain how pernicious this thought is, since we all know from Thomas “quia bonum intellectum est obiectum voluntatis.”

Both passages suggest a complete unfamiliarity with the fourth and fifth chapters of the epistle to the Romans or with, well, ever having been around parents of people like the author of this piece, who doubtless had moments where they chose to love their sneering, superior know-it-all child when there was not much for the neighbors to appreciate. The secret of grace–as of parenting–is the love of “God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Romans 4:17). That is why

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man–though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5;6-8)

Still I was prepared to cut the piece some slack since I–yes, even I–think that Chesterton is misquoted at times or his word misused to support agendas rather remote from his intentions. That is, until one of the commenters, one AF Zammoro, wrote:

Were you perhaps frustrated at how such a second rate, miseducated, and fat Englishman could have such cache (sic) amongst a certain class of Catholic reader? Did you trip over a hardcover of the collected works this morning? Did you find yourself looking at some photo of Chesterton or other and just think, “Goodness, what an ugly man”?

And the author of the piece responded:

Of the commenters so far, AF Zamarro has things more or less right.

At which I realized the author is a second rate, miseducated ass who seriously believes “Chesterton was fat and ugly” constitutes brilliant argumentation. May he find the love and generosity he refuses to extend a good man like Chesterton extended to him from God, that he might cease to be a malicious ass and become a saint–as Chesterton is.*

First Things: What happened to you guys?

*Note to panicky readers who fret about such matters: no, I am not claiming the authority to canonize saints of Holy Church. This bogus and deeply stupid complaint was first leveled when I mentioned that I consider Perry Lorenzo a saint and a mob of self-appointed Inquisitors with no sense of irony whatsoever took it upon themselves to don their paper mitres and threaten me with excommunication for admiring a man I think was deeply admirable and thinking he lived a holy life. As anyone not wilfully obtuse can grasp, Catholics have a long and happy tradition of saying, “Aunt Agatha was a saint” without expecting that people will take that opinion as some sort of serious claim to unilateral papal authority. That’s why, when the crowd shouted “Santo subito!” at JPII’s funeral, Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t tell them to shut up and stop usurping the Church’s authority to canonize saints. But then, Cardinal Ratzinger was a real bishop with common sense, whereas combox and Facebook bishops imagine false claims of episcopal authority to canonize where none are being made even while themselves making real claims of episcopal authority to excommunicate where they emphatically do not exist.

Bottom line: I pray for Chesterton’s intercession when I write because it is my private opinion that the man was a saint and now enjoys the beatific vision. If I’m wrong, I’m sure God will understand. I hope and trust that GKC will merrily pray for the spiteful little men who seriously believe “Chesterton was fat and ugly” is just the sort of argumentation the readership of FT needs.

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  • antigon

    Dear me. Actually went & read this. Troubling to see Msgrs. Zamarro & Milco decide to authenticate rumors about how their recent Ex-Lax treatments have so utterly & obviously failed.

  • Clare Krishan

    If appearances are to be taken at face value
    then your Yale alumni looks just the sort who might actually enjoy being an extra in the next Chesterton Society movie project, o fortuna!

  • Thinkling

    One of Chesterton’s fortes is to say something sounding exactly so outlandish, but upon continuing the reader finds in context that he was actually saying something quite profound, making the reader’s conventional wisdom then seem outlandish.

    The author should have tried The Onion or Eye of the Tiber instead. Otherwise the piece is a straw man that would make Ray Bolger blush.

  • To me, First Things was Fr. Neuhaus. I abandoned ship when he passed away. Looks like it’s a good thing I did, though I do find some good articles there from time to time.

  • ivan_the_mad

    Bets the author of that twaddle would become quite hot under the collar if an atheist or some such asserted a Biblical quote, completely out of any sort of context, to “disprove” Christianity?

  • Alexander Anderson

    As per usual, Ye Olde Statistician, summarizes my thoughts better than I can in the comments section. The author has contracted the literalist disease of the Late Modern Man. Reading through the piece I *almost* thought that the author was simply playing the part of the most tone-deaf of the type of people Chesterton criticizes. Being that he’s somewhat serious… I fear for the man.

  • dominic1955

    Total moron. I would think the editors or someone at First Things should have maybe been more charitable and let him know what a fool he was making of himself. Since they failed in this, they should flagellate themselves publicly for publishing something so stupid. If they or he would have just taken the 5 minutes to read those quotes again, realizing they are stand alone and out of context, in even a “Confucius say…” fortune cookie style I hope he would realize even then they mean something different than what he forced them to mean.

    There is a legitimate gripe if he leveled his “criticism” against some of his fellow morons who cherrypick Chesterton quotes completely out of context to support something silly or to try to say something he obviously did not intend to say. I think we’ve all seen those.

    • dominic1955


      That, or those people who put on a bowler and smoke a pipe to be self-consciously counter-culturally eccentric, quote Chesterton and Belloc thoughtlessly and fancy themselves some sort of pinnacle of Catholic intellegentsia. I do not think I am alone in wishing those kinds of folks would tone down the weird.

  • Paul

    Chesterson was ugly and fat! I can’t believe anyone would admire him >:(

    • Mark Shea

      I agree. Chesterson *was* ugly and fat and wholly unadmirable. Chesterton, however, was ugly, fat, and wholly admirable. And he could spell people’s names right. 🙂

  • tz

    He said we needed to pay attention not to the times but to the eternities.

    To update, we need to watch the BV, not the TV. (Beatific – and not Re-V-isionism).

  • Louise

    Chesterton was certainly fat, but was not ugly imo.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Yay! Give ’em one in the eye for me Dark Lord!

  • Palloo

    “First Things is published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”

    To the contrary, “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”


    “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

    So there, First Things! So much for people quoting your stupid articles and dumb writers! Nyah nyah! Boooweeooooo! Spttlttttttt . . . I don’t wanna talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! You mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

  • Tony

    It was pretty embarrassing. I found myself laughing and saying, “Well, yes, I agree with GKC there,” again and again. My favorite: “Travel narrows the mind.” I know what he’s getting at there; anybody who has ever been in the company of rich snobs (or not-so-rich snobs) who collect foreign cities the way some people collect tacky works of art knows that such people leave narrow and return narrower. The real adventure is waiting for you next door. That’s why we travel — or one reason, anyway: to duck the adventure waiting next door.

  • I am a huge, huge Chesterton fan but sometimes I can understand why there might be a reaction from GKC, since his fans (like me) sometimes do him a disservice by a kind of vicarious smugness on his behalf, and sometimes forget (in the case of his Catholic fans) that he is not a mouthpiece of the Magisterium.
    Having said all that, I don’t want to read the piece because it would annoy me too much.
    The Bible wasn’t written in logical propositions. Chesterton didn’t write in them either.