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Book review: Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton by Kevin Belmonte

I’ve been fascinated with Gilbert Keith Chesterton for quite a while. But the most I’d known of him before now had been his memorable quotations. So when I signed up to review books through BookSneeze.com, I jumped at the chance to review Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton by Kevin Belmonte.

Kevin does a good job of providing a high-level overview of GK Chesterton though a survey of his works. The book begins with a telescopic view of Chesterton’s family and early life and quickly moves into G.K.’s literary career.

Kevin uses the timeline of Chesterton’s life to introduce us to Chesterton’s work which he quotes from at length. And his contemporaries, which he also quotes from at length. Kevin also paints a compelling portrait of a devout Christian who thoughtfully and respectfully engaged some of Christianity’s most ardent critics like George Bernard Shaw and H.L. Mencken.

Kevin describes how Gilbert Keith Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were at once close friends and bitter ideological opponents. We are given a glimpse of this complex relationship through Kevin’s liberal use of primary sources like letters between the two over the course of Chesterton’s life.

Kevin does a good job of introducing us to some of Chesterton’s more influential works. This is achieved, though, through copious use of block quotations which make the book a chore to read. By the end of the book I was inspired to read some of Chesterton’s works in full on my own, and felt as though I already had read much of them from the number and size of quotations Kevin uses. I was also inspired to find additional resources featuring Chesterton’s work, like the Orson Welles production of The Man Who Was Thursday.

Overall I wouldn’t consider this book to be the easiest in the world to read. Or the best when it comes to depth of research. At best it is a Frankenstein of other works. I’m not sure if I would recommend this book to anyone, even a Chesterton novice like myself.

 

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G.K. Chesterton on progressivism

In Heretics pg. 16-17 G.K. Chesterton writes:

Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

I believe Mr Chesterton’s words are just as true today as they were nearly a century ago.

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