If you’re not familiar with Dave’s work, you need to get up to speed. He’s simply one of the best Catholic apologists writing today. Do yourself and your faith a big favor by reading one of his books during this Lenten season. You may browse Dave’s books at the end of this interview.
This new book is a bit different from your previous books, tell us about your motivation to write this one.
I wanted to put together a collection that would show the depth and breadth of Chesterton’s writings, and introduce new readers to him. He’s been one of my favorite writers for years. It’s like finding a huge cave filled with gold, diamonds and silver: you don’t know where to look first. But anywhere and everywhere you look it is glorious. Human beings like to share with others the things they love. That was largely my motivation with this book: if we love a writer, we want others to be more aware of them, too.
There is renewed interest in G. K. Chesterton. As a well-known Catholic apologist yourself, what do you think is behind this trend?
He has extraordinary wisdom and insight combined with a certain innocence, playful wit, and joviality. He had common sense, and a very deep faith. But he wasn’t a cynic. In dashing the pretentiousness of the cynical and the prideful, he was being an idealistic and optimistic Christian. He was realistic while remaining joyful: always a very rare combination. All of this appeals to people, and we need this sort of sunny optimism in these times.
What can Chesterton tell us, or teach us, today?
Chesterton’s time and place (England: early 20th century) was a lot like our own: moral relativism, agnosticism and atheism, over-emphasis on science and naturalism and the separation of faith and reason, occult and spiritualism, contraception, euthanasia, divorce, and laxity in sexual morals. So people today can relate to his observations. They’re timeless anyway- since Christian truth has a way of being like that.
What will readers take away from your new book?
Besides lots of pithy quotations for use in many ways, hopefully, an appreciation for great writing, style, disagreement without hostility, the rationale for the Christian worldview, and the reasonable objections to non-Christian belief-systems. The reader will learn to think more Christianly.
Can you tell us about the process you went through to write your new book?
I love to organize and categorize, so it was easy to collect these since virtually all of his books are online. I just cut-and-paste from the Internet versions (a lot less typing!). Basically I heavily skimmed about 50 of his books, and kept an eye out for catchy sentences and thoughts. Every citation in the book is one-sentence long. That’s how I decided to do it. It’s amazing how easy it is to “find quotations” (with a great writer like Chesterton, anyway) if you put your mind to it. I’m actually a fairly slow reader, but when looking for something in this manner, I seem to be able to read much faster (probably sort of like speed reading).
How was it different than your previous efforts?
The unique process of combing through an author’s many books in order to glean the most quotable material out of them. It’s all editing. That’s how it was different. I did a book on the Church fathers, where I cited a lot of their statements (which is most similar to this one), but in that book I also had a lot of my own argumentation, whereas in this one I have nothing of my own except the categories and introduction.
Chesterton was such a prolific writer. What was it like combing through such a vast array of writings to put together your new book?
It was like being a kid in a candy store with a $100 gift certificate! Riches everywhere, and what a joy to find them! It was a wonderful time for me.
Many people might think that Chesterton is too intellectual, or even inaccessible, for them. Can you speak to that issue, in general, and also as it relates to your new book?
That seems to be an impression that a lot of folks have. I don’t feel that way about Chesterton, myself. I think he had a gift of expressing profound truth and wisdom, yet in a manner that can be grasped by the average person. He wrote for the masses, which is what I try to do myself, as an apologist, and non-academic. He tends to write in short, concise, catchy sentences (which is why it was easy to collect a lot of fabulous quotations). It’s not like reading “heavy theology” from one like, say, St. Thomas Aquinas, or Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman.
Chesterton never graduated from college. He never obtained a college degree. Yet when he wrote his book St. Thomas Aquinas in 1933 the academic Thomists (Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson and others) ecstatically praised it, and more than one of them (especially Gilson) said that Chesterton understood Aquinas better than they had, after 40-50 years of study. That is because Chesterton gets right down to heart of the matter or essence of any given topic: the first principles or premises. I think I love that about him more than anything else.
In doing all your research for the book, did you learn anything new about Chesterton that you can share with us? Do you have a different opinion of him and his work now?
I think the main thing I came away with from the project was a deeper appreciation of just how flat-out, exceedingly wise the man was. I think he is one of the wisest men who ever lived: on the level of a Socrates or a Confucius or Solomon or Blaise Pascal. It’s extraordinary. That is what struck me the most, as opposed to some specific subject matter or facts. It’s quite striking, the more of his work one reads.
How do you think knowledge of Chesterton’s work can impact one’s Catholic faith?
It can bring a confidence that we are right square in the middle of truth, and that we have insights as Christians, and Catholic Christians, that are not able to be attained in their fullness anywhere else. And he fosters a happy, joyous, optimistic faith and walk with God. You see that the most, perhaps, when he writes about children. He never lost his wonder at creation and life and God and His universe. He was literally like an overgrown child: but a very thoughtful one. May we all be struck with such a “limitation”!
If someone wants to read a specific work by Chesterton, what would you recommend and why?
For a first book, I always suggest Orthodoxy, because it is one of the “quintessential” Chesterton books. It presents his outlook in a concise, more-or-less introductory way, and is about the topic of tradition, and why it is important and crucial. Chesterton was Anglican when he wrote it (around 1908), not yet Catholic (he was received in 1922), so that may help to give it a very wide appeal. Yet nothing in it (that I am a ware of) could be said to be contrary to the Catholic faith.
What new books can we look forward to from you in the future?
I’m just about to finish (perhaps this very day) a book about John Calvin (in honor of his 500th birthday in 2009), entitled, Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin. It is mostly a set of replies to Book IV of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It has a lot about the doctrine of the Church, the papacy, and the sacraments. I feel that Calvin has had considerably more influence on the historical course of Protestantism than Martin Luther did, and so his arguments (and errors) need to be directly dealt with.
But there is also a lengthy section at the end of the book (as in my book about Luther) that details exactly what Catholics and Calvinists can agree on. There is quite a bit, when it is all collected in one place. So one can see my usual combination of apologetics and ecumenism there. I am always happy to find as much agreement with our non-Catholic Christian brethren as possible. We need to rejoice about that, too, and not just fret about the differences and divisions (as recent popes have been stressing). There is good news as well as bad news along those lines.
In the near future, I hope to put together two books about the Blessed Virgin Mary, and salvation and justification, from existing writings.
I’d like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to Mike Davis, the good folks at Aquinas and More bookstore and all my readers. I appreciate all of you very much, and encourage you to keep living and sharing the gospel and the fullness of faith. God bless.
A big thank you from all of us here at Aquinas and More – you do great work for the Church, Dave, and we love your books.
Browse Dave Armstrong’s books.
Browse the works of G. K. Chesterton.
Be sure to visit Dave Armstrong’s superb Catholic apologetics blog.