Making a sensational novel

Chesterton, in dealing with paganism and pantheism, makes this comment in passing:

Indeed it is only too easy  to forget that there is a thrill in theism. A novel in which a number of separate characters all turned out to be the same character would certainly be a sensational novel. It is so with the idea that sun and tree and river and the disguises of one god and not of many.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.98

Wow, a sensational novel where it turns out that several characters were the same one!

The most excellent example of this ever is The Westing Game, a wonderful young adult mystery.

Sorry for the spoiler. It’s still worth the read.

A swipe at evolutionary anthropologists

They are obsessed by their evolutionary monomania that every great thing grows from a seed, or something smaller than itself. They seem to forget that every seed scomes from a tree, or from something larger than itself. Now there is very good ground for guessing that religion did not originally come from some detail that was forgotten because it was too small to be traced. Much more probably it was an idea that was abandoned because it was too large to be managed.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.96

I was thinking what I could compare this too.

How about computer technology? The seed of scratching lines on the wall of the cave evolved into the abacus, which evolved into the slide rule. From their, it gained a head and became a tube computer, then an integrated circuit calculator, then a small PC, then an advanced microprocessor and operating system, and finally it’s evolved today into cloud computing and virtualization.

The seed grew into a tree, right? Bigger ideas gradually developed? No, in fact the bigger ideas (Robots, Artificial Intelligence, near telepathic worldwide communication (cellphones and Twitter anyone?) were all there from the very beginning! Look at old science fiction written when steam engines were still running. The huge ideas have been there all along. To look at the state of computers now days and think these designs and dreams only came along recently would be to make a grave error in interpreting history. The big ideas were driving these things all along. The only difference here is that we (man) are the creators.

Perhaps the big thing (God) has been driving the state of the universe and of mankind all along as well.

Projecting our ideas on the past

Here, Chesterton nails two curious things that we do all the time. We have a grand new idea, but in our minds we legitimize it by comparing it to great things in the past. And we have grand new idea, and we imagine that the people in the past were thinking the same thing as us all along.

It is chiefly interesting as evidence that the boldest plans for the future invoke the authority of the past; and that even a revolutionary seeks to satisfy himself that he is also a reactionary. There is an amusing parallel example in the case of whatis called feminism. In spite of all the pseudoscientific gossip about marriage by capture and the cave-man beating the cave-woman with a club, it may be noted that as soon as feminism became a fashionable cry, it was insisted that human civilisation in its first stage had been a matriarchy. Apparently it was the cave-woman who carried the club. Anyhow all these ideas are little better than guesses; and they have a curious way of following the fortune of modern theories and fads.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.66

Chesterton on the strangeness of man

The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.35

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A mind like a mirror

Speaking of the uniqueness of Man (compared to the other animals), Chesterton uses early cave paintings as a jumping off point for all sorts of things. Here, he ties the existence of art and creative energy back to maker with an interesting analogy.

…somehow or other a new thing had appeared in the cavernous night of nature; a mind that is like a mirror. It is like a mirror because it is truly a thing of reflection. It is a like a mirror because in it alone all the other shapes can be seen like shining shadows in a vision. Above all, it is like a mirror because it is the only thing of its kind. Other things may resemble it or resemble each other in various ways; other things may excel it or excel each other in various ways; just as in the furniture of a room a table may be round like a mirror or a cupboard may be larger than a mirror. But the mirror is the ol ting tht can contain them all. Man is a microcosm; man is the measure of all things; man is the image of God.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.34

Sneaking past the aversion to Christianity

This comes up everywhere. The aversion of people to Christianity (not just generic theism) is uncanny. So often, a person may be on the edge of believing in god and the existence of genuine morals, but the stumbling block is Christianity. Some missionaries and evangelists have documented well that at times there can be an almost (or not so almost) demonic reaction to when you suddenly mention “Jesus”. That person changes before your eyes. A seed of hatred against the church and against God (Jehovah in particular this time) has been long ago planted and nourished in them.

Now perhaps their parents were professing Christians and were also abusive to them. Perhaps they have church horror stories in their past. Of course those all make sense, but what I’m talking about goes much deeper than any of those psychological explanations can provide for. Watchman Nee in his book Love Not the World deals with this and makes a convincing case that it’s our pal the devil (the “cosmocrator”, the ruler of this world) stirring up this particular brand of hatred from the inside out.

In Lewis’s demonic dialog, The Screwtape Letters, we find exactly this going on behind the scenes. Why? Because Lewis’s own journey to faith was hampered by his specific aversion to Christianity. He mentions this in his autobiography. For years he wrote off the wise advice of friends of his who were Christians, for no other reason. Even when he finally concluded that god must exist, he hung out in generic theism for a little over a year because, though it satisfied him intellectually, something in him was loth to finally give in to Jesus.

It’s a spiritual thing for sure. In academia it can occasionally masquerade as a purely intellectual thing. Here, Chesterton proposes a nice practical joke. You know this could work.

We should admire the subtlety of the Chinese view of life, which perceives that all human imperfection is in very truth of crying imperfection. We should admire the Chinese esoteric and superior wisdom, which said there are higher cosmic laws than the laws we know; we believe every common Indian conjurer who chooses to come to us and talk in the same style. If Christianity were only a new oriental fashion, it would never be reproached with being an old and oriental faith.

I do not propose to work what I believe would be a completely successful practical joke; that of telling the whole story of the Gospel and the whole history of the Church in a setting of pagodas and pigtails [dressing it up in a setting of far east antiquity]; and noting with malignant humour how much it was admired as a heathen story in the very quarters where it is condemned as a Christian story.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.14

This reminds me of a story I heard in music school of a surly music composition professor with a taste for the avant garde. One of his students, no matter how hard he worked, could never achieve approval or a good grade. For a final project, (as a joke) he found a lesser-known piano sonata by Mozart and submitted it as his own composition. The professor ripped it apart and gave him poor marks, only to be found with a lot of egg on his face when the prank was revealed.

In several other places, I’ve written (mostly quoted) about how things like art and beauty can “fly under the radar” of this aversion to Christianity and reach them with the gospel. Evangelists have been trying to get around this thing for years. A note along those lines: Having a Guitar Hero party to tempt kids into coming to youth group likely doesn’t accomplish anything spiritually. But other things may. Perhaps a heavy dose of genuine love can break through it.

You are not impartial. It is not the daylight of men.

Though he doesn’t spend an entire chapter on the illusion of objectivity (like N.T. Wright does), Chesterton certainly brings it up right off the bat:

…it is a stark hypocrisy to pretend that nine-tenths of the higher critics and scientific evolutionists and professors of comparative religion are in the least impartial. Why should they be impartial, what is being impartial, when the whole world is at war about whether one thing is a devouring superstition or a divine hope?

How come this always has to be bought up? Because Man (that’s us) is SO quick to take the high ground and imagine himself as being the first to see things clearly from a stepped-back position of objectivity and clarity. Over and over again we do this and often even have the gall to advertise how good a job we’re doing at it, touting the purity of our scientific method or journalism. It is us wanting to be gods. It spits in the face of humility. It’s such a temptation, it wouldn’t hurt to have it mentioned in the preface of EVERY book.

They are not impartial; they never by any chance hold the historical scales even; and above all they are never impartial upon this point of evolution and transition. They suggest everywhere the grey gradations of twilight, because they believe it is the twilight of the gods. I propose to maintain that whether or no it is the twilight of gods, it is not the daylight of men.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.8