It was quite ironic that as I was reading this book I noticed that a friend of mine was regularly updating his Facebook status with quotes from G.K. Chesterton. Mind you, they weren't any old quotes, they were no doubt quotes that particularly struck him. It is a real shame that he isn't on Goodreads (or has made any mention on Facebook what book he is reading) because no doubt he is reading some Chesterton at this time, I just am not really sure which one it its (though it is no doubt one of his Christian books, and one of the more popular ones at that). Okay, I could have asked him, but my only real interactions with Facebook tend to involve sharing photos of cats and posting blogs and other things (and the occasional remark regarding some place I am visiting).
Anyway, here are a couple of the quotes that he has posted:
A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.
The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
Come to think of it, he might just be reading The Everlasting Man as we speak, especially since this is one of those books that is so deep, and so thought provoking, that one simply cannot read it once and get anywhere near enough out of it that one could get out of it. It reminded me of some of C.S. Lewis's works, which can also be incredibly deep, that I had to read twice, or even three times, to really appreciate what he was saying.
Anyway, as I have mentioned in the title of this review, this is a book about the spiritual history of humanity. It is Christian without a doubt, which means that he concludes the book with the argument as to why Christianity is the best religion, and why Christ is the only person worth following. The thing is that I have read many books that have a similar purpose, and other than the afore mentioned C.S. Lewis, these books simply do not seem to have the same punch that Chesterton's carries. I have read many Christain books in my life, and there are very few that I would recommend, let along give away as presents and not feel that I am ramming Christianity down people's throats, yet both Lewis and Chesterton do not make me feel that way.
I thought about this as I was reading the Everlasting Man (and as I was composing this review), and I believe there are two reasons. The first is that they write really, really well. Many, if not all, of the Christian books that I have read these days tend to be very dry and academic (with the exception of Phillip Yancey). Sure, many of us read non-fiction, me being one of them, yet Chesterton's writing is almost, if not, poetic. He has this gift of being able to write something in that way that is beautiful, yet incredibly confronting. I feel that many of the Christian authors out there could learn a thing or two from Chesterton, and in fact they probably should consider having some form of writing classes in today's Bible Colleges.
That is the other thing – neither Chesterton nor Lewis were theologically trained. C.S. Lewis was a professor of English Literature and G.K. Chesterton was a journalist. They aren't writing as theologians, they are writing as lay people, and in a way lay people can actually have a much better understanding of Christianity than a pastor who has spent years at Seminary and has a string of letters after his name. In fact I did a couple of subjects at a local Bible College and I have to admit that I hated it. What Bible College was doing was that it was turning my faith from a thing of the heart into a thing of the head, and once one's faith becomes purely academic, one is actually in danger of losing one's faith.
Anyway, there are a few things that struck me in this book, and I wish to talk about some of them,
The thing with Chesterton is that he can be incredibly funny, and his opening chapters on the cavemen were just that. While he does not seek to critise the art of science, he understands that it is just that – art. The problem with prehistory is that we do not have any written records of what happened back then. All we have are some paintings on the wall of a cave and some speculation. In fact it was the paintings on the cave wall that he was poking fun at, namely because the scientists at the time had come up with this idea and were sticking with it, when it fact there could be a number of things behind it, such as it being a nursery (since the walls of nurseries can be covered with pictures of animals), or were simply something that the cavemen (or their kids) scribbled because they were bored.
The other thing he wrote about was this absurd idea that cavemen breed by whacking a woman on the back of her head with a club and then dragging her back to his cave. I'm sure we have all seen something like this:
The problem Chesterton sees is that first of all this is pure mythology. There is actually no evidence that cavemen ever did that. In my mind this poses a further problem, and a problem that we still, unfortunately, face today – it objectifies women. By creating this myth it creates this idea that women are little more than objects that men can take for themselves, forcefully. This suggests that cavemen were little more than animals, and Chesterton doesn't believe that they were – the cave paintings go a long way to prove that. The problem is that there are many, in fact way too many, men who seem to think that this is acceptable behaviour. The furore over the events at Stanford College demonstrate that such attitudes are still alive and well today, even in a supposedly civilised society such as ours. The problem is that such images only serve to reinforce this attitude. We are not animals, we are civilised human beings, and we need to start treating everybody, regardless of gender, race, or class, as civilised human beings.
Chesterton then progresses through the ages to the conflict between Carthage and Rome. This appears in a chapter entitled 'Gods and Demons'. The interesting thing is that he paints Rome as being a civilisation lead by the gods of the sky, while Carthage was led by the demons of the Earth, in particular Moloch. As an interesting side note he points out how we don't name our children after the heroes of Classical Athens, such as Agamemnon, Achilles, and such, however we use names from the defeated Trojans, such as Paris and Hecktor. No doubt this probably has a lot to do with the Romans claiming descendancy from the Trojans, but as I suggested, this is a side note.
Oh, that's right:
Anyway, I get the impression that Chesterton isn't a big fan of merchantalism with the fact that he connects the Cartheginians to the Near Eastern god Moloch, and child sacrifice. His point is that the Cartheginans were merchants and were ruled by merchant princes, and this was in fact their downfall. No doubt this is a rather (or not too) subtle jab at the British Empire, famously called 'A Nation of Shopkeepers' by Napoleon. The thing is that he has a point – Hannibal was on the verge of destroying Rome, however the merchant princes in Carthage saw that the defeat at Cannae was enough to undermine Rome and saw no need to continue spending money to finance Hannibal's war effort. Since Hannibal was starved of resources, despite having control of the Italian Peninsula, it gave the Romans an opening to launch a counter-attack, one that eventually destroyed Carthage.
We see this absurdity in out world today, with the farcical austerity measures imposed by almost every developed economy. The belief is that to stimulate growth one must cut taxes to businesses, thus starving the government of revenue, and forcing them to cut funding to essential services. Thus governments need money, so they sell of profitable assets to build and maintain infrastructure (selling the house to remodel the kitchen), yet refuse to take on more debt, while cutting interest rates to ridiculous levels to force the private sector to take on more debt (debt is bad for government, but good for the private sector). The problem is that businesses don't always use tax cuts to expand the business, or to grow the economy – in many cases they simply shove the savings into an investment fund for their retirement.
The funny this is that the champion of the neo-liberals, Adam Smith, actually warned against the foly of allowing businessmen to dictate economic policy – they would always do it for their own interests, and when self interested people are given charge of the economy, it always, inventively, suffers.
The Persistence of Christianity
It is very easy for a Christian to get caught up in the idea that it has lasted two thousand years without alteration, but we forget that this is also the case with other regions – Buddhism clocks in at around 2500 years, and Judaism and Hinduism are looking at around 3500 years. The argument then goes that it has lasted 2000 years in its purest form, but once again I would argue against that namely because there is a debate as to what the original Christianity actually was, and not everybody accepts that the Bible is as authentic as Christians claim it is.
The thing with Christianity, or at least what I believe Christianity to be, is that it always seems to revert back to a specific norm. As the faith grew, splinter sects began to appear and to change the original message. While I accept that not everybody is going to agree with me, my basic preposition is that it boils down to one commandment given by Christ – love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself. The problem was that Christianity devolved into be good and you will go to heaven, be bad and you will go to hell (with good and bad being defined by those in power). However, at every turn a grass roots movement would arrive to shift this back to the centre. We saw this happen with the invention of the printing press, and we are seeing it again with the rise of Social Media.
In both periods powerful interest groups had seized control of the faith to exert their own agenda. We saw that with the medieval Catholic Church, and we are seeing it again with the hate fuelled extremist movement. These days so called Christians are running around turning it into a form of libertarian, free market, small government ideology, and certain elements of society – single mothers, the LGBT, foreigners, and many others – are demonised and persecuted. Yet while they are running around persecuting people they are screaming out that they are in fact the ones being persecuted. Yet many Christians who have become sick and tired of this endless dogma are rushing to social media, which is giving them a voice to say 'hey, we aren't actually like that, we aren't a religion of hate, we are a religion of love'. Yet it is still early days – elections aren't won or lost, yet, in the Twittersphere, but the time is coming.