by Sam Kim
(Editor’s note: This is the 4th post in a series on Heroes of the Christian Faith.)
I love to kick off every wedding I officiate at with a potent quote from G.K. Chesterton. I did so a month ago, and will do so again this weekend at a beautiful outdoor wedding in a botanical garden in New York City. On one occasion, someone called my homily “pure genius” for indirectly quoting Chesterton as follows: “The worst day for the atheist is to be truly thankful, but to have no one to thank.”
G.K. Chesterton, the jolly English journalist who was well known for his sharp wit and self-deprecating humor, was considered one of the greatest writers and Christian influencers of the 20th century.
This was the man who wrote The Everlasting Man, a book which led a young atheist named C.S. Lewis to eventually become a Christian.This was the man who wrote a novel called The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which inspired Michael Collins to lead a movement for Irish Independence. This was the man who wrote an essay in the Illustrated London News that inspired Mohandas Gandhi to lead a movement to end British colonial rule in India.
I believe there are three inherent qualities that made G.K. Chesterton so beloved, even by the most committed atheists of his day.
First, Chesterton won the acclaim of many of his literary contemporaries (Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy L. Sayers, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis, to just name a few) because of his masterful subtlety. Chesterton did not commercialize the gospel as many do today. Instead, he weaved the Christian narrative implicitly in all he did. He didn’t shake, push, or sell the gospel as if it were a product; rather, he spoke of Jesus as a good friend he had just met for afternoon tea.
Lewis once commented on reading Chesterton, “I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere.” Chesterton had learned to be masterfully subtle, which clearly made his witness winsome to so many.
Second, Chesterton was deeply beloved even by his opponents, because of his contagious and playful joviality. T.S. Eliot said that Chesterton “deserves a permanent claim on our loyalty.” As one of his opponents, renowned atheist George Bernard Shaw, said, “The world is not thankful enough for Chesterton.” Everyone really seems to have been enamored with this man’s sincere joy; it was literally contagious and the joy of the Lord really was his strength.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy: “His humor was of the kind I like best—not ‘jokes’ imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humor. Moreover, strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness.”
Sincere evangelism is more about representing Jesus than talking about Jesus. We usually fail to lead more to Jesus because, for the most part, we get in the way. We can arduously study apologetics or even perfect our gospel pitch, but the problem is not our theology, it is our ontology. For Chesterton, the congruence of his life and faith greatly advanced his witness.
Third, Chesterton’s warm reception by a very broad audience was directly connected to his mastery of light-hearted self-deprecation. In Orthodoxy, in his usual witty and self-deprecating style, Chesterton outlines his long and onerous faith journey to the very obvious as follows:
I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.
Chesterton never took himself too seriously and this precisely is why so many others did, and why they also discovered a beautiful orthodoxy in their faith journey, just as he did.
Sam Kim (@Sam180church) is founder of 180 Church NYC, a community joining God to restore the beauty in all things. He teaches and writes about culture, preaching, and evangelism in various contexts. He is husband to Lydia, dad to Nathan and Josh, and best-friends with his dog, Brownie. Learn more atsamdkim.com