Review: Letters from a Skeptic

Rating: ★★★

Author: Gregory (Greg) Boyd is an American pastor and theologian known for promoting relational theology. He is best known for popular theology books like Letters from a Skeptic and Myth of a Christian Nation, but he has also written ambitious theological works like God at War and The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

Overview:

This book is an apologetics crash course, packaged as a correspondence between a theologian and his skeptic father. It is atypical in that the main problem dealt with in this book was theodicy and theology proper. About half of book deals with suffering and the freedom of God in his Creation.

Boyd’s response to these issues is found in the relational theology of open theism, which is a modification of Arminianism. As such, some of the answers are identical to those given by C. S. Lewis:

It is not the will of God which keeps sinners in hell, but the will of sinners. (p. 198)

Where did our longing for something that never existed, and that never could exist, come from? (p. 70)

Other concepts will sound quite novel for those unfamiliar with relational theology:

We tend to become the decisions we make. The more we choose something, the more we become that something. We are all in the process of solidifying our identities by the decisions we make. (p. 51, emphasis his)

I should add, here, that some online reviewers doubt the veracity of the letters because of the overall tone in writing being so similar; my gut feeling is that this could be the result of excessive editing, but I don’t see any reason to doubt the overall story.

Meat:

The strengths of the book include discussions of the problem of evil, free will, Satan, biblical prophecy, the problem of the existence of hell, and problems in the biblical canon. Whereas elsewhere Boyd gets into polemical discussions related to Calvinism and open theism, I liked that this book kept it more to discussing basic objections to faith and didn’t get too bogged down.

If you enjoy the relational theology of writers like George MacDonald, you will probably find the theology of this book compelling and interesting, though liberal on some points. If you hate Arminianism, this book is not for you.

Bones:

I would recommend this book with a few reservations:

1. Accessibility: It was written by a theologian, not your typical pastor. As such it contains a few brief discussions of some things which may not even be relevant: canonization, source criticism, etc. He tries to make it accessible, but a few of the sub-points here are pretty nitty-gritty.

2. Interpretation: Some would consider Greg to be pretty liberal in interpretation, and many Calvinists find him offensive for his free will theology in this book. However, as I stated, I think we get less of his snark in this book than some others!

3. Hell: Near the end both are overly sympathetic (in my opinion) with annihilationism, the belief that souls are destroyed in Hell rather than eternally tortured. This is mentioned only cursorily, and Greg says that he has “exegetical reservations” but nevertheless tells his dad that it is a “viable option.” His father practically accepts this hook-and-sinker with no further discussion.
I’m sure their discussion of this was not over in one letter, but I don’t like the impression that it gives in the book. Most of the book does a good job grappling with such questions, but this answer was pretty dismissive! What about Revelation 14:11?

And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.

I wouldn’t form theological opinions based on this book alone, but I think for anyone, it could help them to think through some of the most basic issues of the faith and suffering, along with outside discussion.

The Glory of the Impossible

This article by I. Lilias Trotter (then of Tunis) was first published in pamphlet form (no date) and reprinted in the Missionary Review of the World in August 1913, the version given here. Samuel M. Zwemer also referenced this article in his 1911 book, Unoccupied Mission Fields of Asia and Africa.


“You do not test the resources of God till you try the impossible.”—F. B. Meyer

“God loves with a great love the man whose heart is bursting with a passion for the impossible.”—William Booth

“We have a God Who delights in impossibilities.”—Andrew Murray

Far up in the Alpine hollows, year by year, God works one of His marvels. The snow-patches lie there, frozen into ice at their edges from the strife of sunny days and frosty nights; and through that ice-crust come, unscathed, flowers in full bloom.
Back in the days of the bygone summer, the little soldanella plant spread its leaves wide and flat on the ground to drink in the sun-rays, and it kept them stored in the root through the winter. Then spring came, and stirred its pulses even below the snow-shroud. And as it sprouted, warmth was given out in such a strange measure that it thawed a little dome in the snow above its head. Higher and higher it grew, and always above it rose the bell of air, till the flower bud formed safely within it; and at last the icy covering of the air-bell gave way, and let the blossom through into the sunshine, the crystalline texture of its mauve petals sparkling like the snow itself, as if it bore the traces of the flight through which it had come.

And the fragile thing rings an echo in our hearts that none of the jewel-like flowers nestled in the warm turf on the slopes below, could waken. We love to see the impossible accomplished. And so does God.

Gazing north, south, east, and west over His world, with the signs of coming spring in one nation after another, two great tracts catch our eye, still frost-bound, as it were, in snow and ice. Hitherto, in the main, they have held out against the gleams of His sunshine, that have come to them, and it looks as if it must be long before we shall see grass and flowers appear. They are the Caste Religions of India, and yet more unbroken in its resistance, the power of Islam throughout the world.

And the watchers there have a fight sometimes, lest the numbness and chill that reign around should creep into their own souls with the hope deferred; and the longer they stay, the more keenly they realize the dead weight, impenetrable, immovable, that shuts down like a tombstone the weak little germs of life that lie buried beneath it.

It may be you have, half unconsciously, avoided looking the situation square in the face, lest faith should be weakened. But faith that has to ignore facts is not real faith.
Think over steadily the position of one of these imprisoned souls as he comes in contact with God’s message. Try to understand the intense prejudice and conservatism, the absolute satisfaction with a creed that fits so well the religious instincts, and leaves him so free to sin. Then, if a stir begins in the rigidity of his mind and the torpor of his conscience, and he wakes out of the paralysis of fatalism, it is only to stumble up against a fresh barrier. His very heartstrings are involved in the matter. Think what it means for him, with his Eastern imagination and his Eastern timidity, to face the havoc that confession of Christ would involve—the dislocation of every social detail, the wrecking of home and prospects, and the breaking of the hearts of those he loves. Everything that has made life to him must go, and possibly life itself, if he moves toward the light.

Behind all this and beyond it, both in this case of Mohammedanism and Caste, is the strange, magnetic hold of the system over every fiber of the nature. It is so strong that even tiny children are under its spell—creatures that with us would be still in the nursery, take a pride and delight in their stern Caste regulations, and their share in the Ramadan fast. And behind that again, and probably the true explanation of the fascination, lies the purpose of the devil, that these his two entrenched positions, shall not be wrested from him. He employs every art of hell to keep the truth from reaching the souls bound there; or, if it reaches, from touching them; or, if it touches, from waking them into life and liberty.

This is a distant sight of these great snowfields; but it can give no sense of the icy coldness and hardness that pervade them. For that you need contact.
Then the Adversary goes a step further. Not content with dealing directly with his captives, he rivets their chains by dealing with God’s people about them. He works on our unbelief and our faint-heartedness, and breathes a half-uttered word—”impossible.”
Ah, but he over-reaches himself when he gets to that word. He means it to sound like a knell, and instead of that it breaks into a ringing chime of hope: for

“Things that are impossible with men are possible with God.” [Luke 18:27]

Yes: face it out to the end: cast away every shadow of hope on the human side as a positive hindrance to the Divine; heap the difficulties together recklessly, and pile on as many more as you can find; you cannot get beyond that blest climax of impossibility. Let faith swing out on Him. He is the God of the impossible.

It is no new pathway, this. “The steps of . . . our father Abraham trod it long ago”; and the sentences at the beginning of this paper bear witness that the footprints of those who “do know their God,” mark it still.

Look in the Revised Version at the description of how Abraham went forth. He considered (there is such a beautiful quietness in the word) the whole extent of the hopelessness, and went straight forward as if it did not exist, “being fully persuaded that what He had promised He was able also to perform.” [Rom. 4:21]

But have we a promise to go on, for these people? Has God spoken anything upon which we can reckon for them?

Do we need more than the following? I think not.

O Lord, my strength . . . the Gentiles shall come unto Thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity and things wherein is no profit.
Shall a man make gods unto himself, and they are no gods?
Therefore, behold, I will this once cause them to know Mine hand and My might, and they shall know that I am the Lord. [Jer. 16:19-21]

From the ends of the earth—the farthest away and the hardest to win—they shall come with the cry of broken hopes that nothing can wring from them yet, sweeping away the idolized prophet and the idols of wood and stone among the “things wherein there is no profit.” And oh the triumph of the words, “I will this once cause them to know, I will cause them to know Mine hand and My might!”

And lifting the veil from the time to come, we have the vision, “I beheld, and lo a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.”

Have the Mohammedans and the Caste races a fair representation there yet? If not, those who shall stand before the throne are still to be found. They will be found by those to whom God gives “a passion for the impossible.”

And if these promises are not enough, there is an infinite horizon out beyond them in God Himself. If it were only a matter of asking Him to repeat the miracles of the past, faith would have plenty of room. But He is not bound to reproduce. He is the Creator: have we ever let our hearts and hopes go out to the glory of that Name? Look at the tiny measure of creative power given to man, in music, poetry, art—where there is a spark of it, how it refuses to be fettered by repeating itself! The history of His wonders in the past is a constant succession of new things, and He is not at the end of His resources yet. Years ago, at Keswick, Dr. Campbell Morgan gave us this rendering of John 15:7: “If yet abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall demand that for which ye are inclined, and it shall be generated for you.” “Generated for you”—oh the depth of the “possible with God” that lies in these words!

Will you ask Him to do a new thing among these fast-bound races: to “generate” a glow of Holy Ghost fire that will melt its way up through all the icy barriers, and set a host free?
Hitherto the work done has been more like trying to break through these barriers from above, in the hopes of finding solitary life-germs imprisoned—how few they have been, and how stunted and weak for the most part, at any rate, among the Moslem races. God has yet to show what can be done if He stirs thus by His Spirit from within.

No matter if for the time it is a hidden process: the sunlight will be storing underground as you pray, and life will be set moving. Nothing is seen of the soldanella under its frozen crust, till the moment comes when the top of the air-bell gives way, and the flower is there. We believe that God is beginning already a mighty work below the surface in these seemingly hopeless fields, and that it may be with the same suddenness that it will be manifested; and the miracle of the snow-hollows will be wrought afresh by the crowding up of human souls who have won through in the hardest of fights.

Let us, then, give ourselves up to believe for this new thing on the earth. Let us dare to test God’s resources on it. Let us ask Him to kindle in us and keep aflame that passion for the impossible that shall make us delight in it with Him, till the day when we shall see it transformed into a fact.

Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh: is there anything too hard for Me?

Review: From Azusa to Africa to the Nations

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Denzil (Denny) R. Miller, missionary to Malawi and director of the Acts in Africa Initiative. Miller saw that evangelism was alive and well in Africa, but very few African pastors were being discipled about the filling and gifts Holy Spirit, so this has been his primary ministry focus for some years. He has many books on the Holy Spirit and on Luke-Acts.

Overview:

From Azusa to Africa to the Nations (2006) is a simple summary of the leading figures and missionary movements that spawned out of the Azusa Street Revival, focusing on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the works that were birthed in Africa.

This little book addresses an important historical idea that began in the early modern Pentecostal movement: the idea that missionaries who spoke in tongues would be able to “preach in tongues” as on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12).

Early leaders like Charles F. Parham and William J. Seymour even believed that those who were baptized in the Holy Spirit would always speak in a known language of the world. They would then be able to supernaturally preach the gospel to that particular people without ever having to study the language. (p. 33)

Some showed up to a mission field, and when their speaking in tongues “didn’t work,” they thought—I must be in the wrong mission field!—and moved on. Eventually, a clear consensus was reached that they had misunderstood the purpose of modern tongues, drawing on Acts 2 when they should have been comparing the passages on “tongues” in 1 Corinthians, which are pretty clearly differentiated in Scripture by the following points:

  1. “Missional tongues” in Acts 2 are directed towards God, but readily understood by hearers; “edification tongues” in 1 Corinthians are directed towards God, and not readily understood by bystanders. (See 1 Cor. 14:1-14.)
  2. “Missional tongues” in Acts 2 edified onlookers; praying in “edification tongues” edifies yourself (1 Cor. 4:4).
  3. “Missional tongues” in Acts 2 require no interpreter; “edification tongues” do require an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:27-28).

One point apparently common to both types of tongues is that they are both used by God as “a sign” for unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22). Early Pentecostals were right in believing that all tongues had an empowering element; they were wrong in believing that all tongues were readily understood without interpretation.

The Azusa Street Outpouring reminds us that missions is at the heart of true Pentecostalism. (p. 66)

While they were mistaken on that point, Miller points out the positive aspects of the story: 1) they left their homeland in outstanding (although perhaps somewhat mistaken) faith; 2)  the modern Pentecostal movement began as a missionary movement, not as a selfish club for boosting self-esteem; 3) their failure to “preach in tongues” led to the refinement of Pentecostal theology, which now differentiates more readily—though this is not always clear from the pulpit—between the “missional” tongues of Acts 2 and the “edification” tongues of 1 Corinthians 12-14. This was a key development in modern Pentecostalism and should not be neglected when an explanation of the purpose of “tongues” is given.

Meat:

Miller treads a fine line in this book: cessationist writers would have you think that the early Pentecostals were crazy for showing up in an overseas mission field expecting to re-live Acts 2; many Pentecostal writers would rather not talk about it. I appreciated his courage in addressing a theme that I have not found other Pentecostal authors writing about at any length.

Miller is also a scholar. All of his books are well-researched and documented, so you know that he is not just making generalizations; he gives numerous names and dates that help us orient our understanding of the early Pentecostal movement.

Bones:

This book is a very brief read, and probably will only require one or two sittings for most readers; unfortunately, I do not know of any other references for those interested in going deeper on this topic.

Read:

At the time of writing, you can read From Azusa to Africa to the Nations for free on Denzil R. Miller’s personal website.

A Bibliography of Louis Albert Banks (Chronological)

In addition to the list of free PDFs for books by Louis Albert Banks, I also compiled the same list chronologically. Banks published his first book, a volume of temperance discourses, around the age of 27, and was astonishingly prolific throughout his thirties and forties, publishing more than fifty books before his fiftieth birthday in 1905.

I’ve omitted from this list several booklets—only one is available online, and it’s a repeated chapter from a book here.

SEE ALSO:
A Bibliography of Louis Albert Banks (by Genre)
Free Books by Louis Albert Banks (50+)

Books by Louis Albert Banks:

  1. Censor Echoes, Or Words that Burned (1882) [unavailable; extremely rare]
  2. The People’s Christ (Boston, 1891)
  3. White Slaves  [also on Gutenberg] (1892)
  4. The Revival Quiver: A Pastor’s Record of Four Revival Campaigns (1893) [unavailable; scarce]
  5. Anecdotes and Morals: A Volume of Illustrations from Current Life (1894) Cleveland
  6. Common Folks’ Religion (Boston,. 1894) [view only]
  7. The Honeycombs of Life: A Volume of Sermons and Addresses (New York, 1895)
  8. The Saloon-Keeper’s Ledger (1895)
  9. Heavenly Trade-Winds (1895)
  10. The Christ Dream (1896)
  11. Christ and His Friends: A Series of Revival Sermons (1896)
  12. Paul and His Friends: A Series of Revival Sermons (1896)
  13. The Saloon-Keeper’s Ledger (1896)
  14. Seven Times around Jericho: A Series of Temperance Revival Discourses (1896) [microfilm]
  15. The Fisherman and His Friends: A Series of Revival Sermons (1897)
  16. Hero Tales from Sacred Story (1897) [unavailable]
  17. The Christ Brotherhood: Heroic Personalities (1897) [US-access]
  18. Sermon Stories for Boys and Girls (1897)
  19. The Unexpected Christ (1898)
  20. Immortal Hymns and Their Story (Cleveland, 1898)
  21. An Oregon Boyhood (1898)
    [Live Boys in Oregon = alternate title of An Oregon Boyhood]
  22. Heroic Personalities (1898)
  23. The Christian Gentleman: A Series of Addresses to Young Men (Cleveland, 1898) [Google Books]
  24. Immortal Songs of Camp and Field: The Story of Their Inspiration Together with Striking Anecdotes Connected with Their History (1899/1898?) [also on Gutenberg]
  25. The Great Sinners of the Bible (New York, 1899)
  26. A Year’s Prayer Meeting Talks (New York, 1899)
  27. John and His Friends (Cleveland, 1899)
  28. My Young Man: A Series of Addresses to Young Men (1899) Cleveland)
  29. Chats with Young Christians (1899) [unavailable]
  30. Twentieth-Century Knighthood: A Series of Addresses to Young Men (1900)
  31. David and His Friends (New York, 1900)
  32. The Lord’s Arrows (1900) [unavailable; scarce]
  33. Fresh Bait for Fishers of Men (Cleveland, 1900)
  34. Poetry and Morals (New York, 1900)
  35. A Manly Boy: A Series of Talks and Tales for Boys (1900) [microfilm]
  36. Hidden Wells of Comfort (1901) [limited access]
  37. The Great Saints of the Bible (1901) [US-only]
  38. Unused Rainbows (Chicago, 1901)
  39. The Motherhood of God (1901)
  40. The King’s Stewards (New York, 1902)
  41. Youth of Famous Americans (1902)
  42. The Healing of Souls (1902)
  43. The Story of the Hall of Fame (1902)
  44. T. DeWitt Talmage: His Life and Work (1902)
  45. Windows for Sermons: A Study of the Art of Sermonic Illustration (1902)
  46. The Great Portraits of the Bible (1903)
  47. Soul-Winning Stories (1903)
  48. Great Archers and Their Weapons and Fresh Arrows from Many Quivers: A Study of Illustrative Powers of Pulpit Orators (1903)
  49. The Lincoln Legion: The Story of Its Founder and Forerunners (1903)
  50. On the Trail of Moses: A Series of Revival Sermons (1903)
  51. Thirty-one Revival Sermons (1904) [rare; unavailable]
  52. The Religious Life of Famous Americans (1904)
  53. The Great Promises of the Bible (1905)
  54. The Sinner and His Friends: A Volume of Evangelistic Sermons (1907) [US-only] Denver
  55. Sermons Which Have Won Souls (1908) Denver
  56. The Problems of Youth: A Series of Discourses for Young People on Themes from the Book of Proverbs (1909)
  57. The World’s Childhood (1910)
  58. The Great Themes of the Bible (1911)
  59. A Summer in Peter’s Garden (1913) [extremely scarce; no copies for sale or in library catalogues]
  60. Ammunition for Final Drive on Booze (1917)
  61. The Winds of God (1920)
  62. The New Ten Commandments (1922)
  63. Wonderful Bible Conversions (1923)
  64. Bible Soul Winners (1924) [US only]
  65. Dramatic Stories of Jesus (1924) [rare; unavailable]
  66. Christ’s Soul-Searching Parables: Evangelistic Sermons on the Parables of Jesus (1925) [search only]
  67. Sermons for Reviving, on the Table Talk of the Master (1928) [rare; unavailable]

Books compiled or translated by Louis Albert Banks:

  1. The Parables of Jesus: A Methodical Exposition (1883; tr. by Louis Albert Banks)
  2. The Child’s World [scarce; c. 1902]
  3. Capital Stories about Famous Americans (1905; ed. by Louis Albert Banks)
  4. Spurgeon’s Illustrative Anecdotes (1906)

Review: Robert Browning (GKC)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Subject: Robert Browning (1812-1899) was an eminent English poet of the Victorian era, known for his ambitious and dramatic lyrics and monologues. He had an evangelical upbringing, and had a home-grown love for learning. His wife of many years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was an equally revered poet (some say better!), though her career was much shorter due to a chronic illness.

Genre: Biography, criticism.

Overview:

Chesterton’s biography is quite accessible in its length and content, even for someone knowing little about Browning or his poetry. He also addresses his criticism to the novice. For that reason, I gave this book a high rating. Both Brownings were greatly admired by Chesterton, F. W. Boreham, and many other Christian writers and thinkers. Beware: If you sail into this biography, you will definitely find yourself longing to read more of both Brownings, and they were quite prolific poets.

Browning was regarded by critics as a pretentious intellectual, but Chesterton defends him on this point.

His work has the mystery which belongs to the complex; his life the much greater mystery which belongs to the simple. (p. 1)


Browning’s Family and Upbringing

Browning was not allowed to be educated at a Cambridge or Oxford because of his evangelicalism. (They were only open to Anglicans at the time.) He did not receive a first-rate education. But he did imbibe the atmosphere of his father’s expansive library, which held about 6,000 books—not too shabby for a middle-class family.

His father, Robert Browning, Sr., was something of a maverick. He had been sent to Jamaica to work. When a slave revolt happened, he was sent back to England. But, because he expressed sympathy with the slaves, Robert Browning, Sr. was disinherited by his father, and in cutting ties, he chose to leave Anglicanism as well, and became an evangelical. His father even sent him a bill for his entire education.

As Chesterton tells it, Robert Browning’s parents were clearly people of great conviction. His father’s literary taste was rather traditional; Robert was deeply moved by Keats and Shelley. Thus his own poetry falls somewhat towards the Romantics in its style, but more confessional and personal. Chesterton has a stirring passage in which he defends Browning’s so-called intellectualism, calling it not vanity but humility:

The more fixed and solid and sensible the idea appeared to him, the more dark and fantastic it would have appeared to the world. Most of us indeed, if we ever say anything valuable, say it when we are giving expression to that part of us which has become as familiar and invisible as the pattern on our wall paper. It is only when an idea has become a matter of course to the thinker that it becomes startling to the world. (p. 21)

The Great Hour: Browning’s Marriage

The story of Robert Browning’s elopement with Elizabeth Barrett is definitely the turning point of both of their lives and, in my view, almost as stunning an exploit as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The story itself nearly constitutes a screenplay. Here we have two published poets. The lady is six years the man’s senior. She is kept in a sick bed, with heavy curtains keeping out sunlight, and told that if she does not get to a better climate—the doctor says “Italy”—she will hardly last a year. Her selfish father is not only unwilling to take her to Italy, but unwilling to marry her to Robert, who is quite willing to take her to Italy. . . .

Elizabeth had not left the house in many months, and hardly left her dark bedroom. But she came down the stairs, and ordered a carriage to take her to a park. She breathed the fresh air and gazed at the trees for one hour of solitude. Then she returned, fortified, and said yes to Robert’s proposal of elopement.

In the summer of 1846 Elizabeth Barrett was still living under the great family convention which provided her with nothing but an elegant deathbed, forbidden to move, forbidden to see proper daylight, forbidden to receive a friend lest the shock should destroy her suddenly. A year or two later, in Italy, as Mrs. Browning, she was being dragged up hill in a wine hamper, toiling up to the crests of mountains at four o’clock in the morning, riding for five miles on a donkey to what she calls “an inaccessible volcanic ground not far from the stars.” (p. 39)

Robert Browning’s snatching of Elizabeth from her controlling father, whom they never saw again on this earth, was an act highly unusual not only for England, but for Browning himself. As Chesterton would have it, he was a routine-driven and punctual man, leaving the house at the same minute year after year. But there is no doubt that Elizabeth’s family environment was debilitating, perhaps more than any physical ailment, and that Robert’s course of action was utterly in the right.

The story reminds one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conscientious disobedience to the German Reich. Chesterton calls it “virtue not only without the reward, but even without the name of virtue.” (p. 59)

This great moral of Browning, which may be called roughly the doctrine of the great hour, enters, of course, into many poems besides The Ring and the Book, and is indeed the mainspring of a great part of his poetry taken as a whole. (p. 60)

Chesterton writes that such a “great hour,” in which we are called to bury all thought of established convention, and fly in the face of fear for the sake of righteousness, may come to a man only once in his lifetime, and if any man claims it has come twice, we should be immediately skeptical. But there are times when we prove our mettle, not through compliance, but through rebellion.

Browning’s Works

Chesterton hits on many of Browning’s works, especially in Chapters II, VI, VII, and VIII. Chesterton calls Browning

first, the greatest of love poets, and, secondly, the only optimistic philosopher except Whitman. (p. 27)

Chesterton describes Browning’s early poems as primarily confessional, and his later poems as mainly dramatic monologues, which often deal with finding the good in questionable persons. Browning lived to an old age, was productive throughout his lifetime, and wrote in a great variety of forms. Interestingly, even the worst of his characters relate themselves to a higher power, and feel some longing for divine approval and forgiveness. (p. 112)

Browning’s “magnus opus” (Chesterton’s words) occupied five or six years after the death of Elizabeth, and consists of nine perspectives on the same event. The scheme of the poem is based on a case that Browning read in a dingy old book of Italian legal proceedings. Browning imagined a crime

[The Ring and The Book] is the great epic of the enormous importance of small things. (p. 91)

Browning’s Philosophy of Life

In the last chapter, Chesterton summarizes Browning’s philosophy in only two points.

The first point is the hope in the imperfection of man. The analogy given is that an incomplete puzzle implies the existence of the missing piece; so our incomplete longing for eternity justifies confidence in human immortality.

Browning was right in saying that in a cosmos where incompleteness implies completeness, life implies immortality. (p. 99)

Thus a confident assertion of the Fall of Man becomes the very grounds for believing in God’s redemptive act.

Man’s sense of his own imperfection implies a design of perfection. (p. 100)

The second point, Chesterton calls the hope in the “imperfection” of God. Before you burn all your Chesterton and Browning books, I believe that “imperfection” is used only in a hypothetical sense here. The “imperfection” here referred to is the sense in which God is bound in honor to exceed the moral perfections of his creatures. George MacDonald, as well as modern relational theologians, have more ably expressed the same sentiment than Chesterton does here. Thus,

Man’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice implies God’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice. (p. 100)

Overall, the theology expressed in Browning’s life and poetry is compassionate, relational, and intensely personal.

Quotes:

There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.” (p. 1)

Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given. (p. 112)

To the man who sees the marvellousness of all things, the surface of life is fully as strange and magical as its interior; clearness and plainness of life is fully as mysterious as its mysteries. (p. 61)

Charity was his basic philosophy; but it was, as it were, a fierce charity, a charity that went man-hunting. He was a kind of cosmic detective who walked into the foulest of thieves’ kitchens and accused men publicly of virtue. (p. 28)

A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. (p. 46)

This was what happened to Browning; like every one else, he had to discover first the universe, and then humanity, and at last himself. With him, as with all others, the great paradox and the great definition of life was this, that the ambition narrows as the mind expands. (p. 26)

I am not prepared to admit that there is or can be, properly speaking, in the world anything that is too sacred to be known. That spiritual beauty and spiritual truth are in their nature communicable, and that they should be communicated, is a principle which lies at the root of every conceivable religion. Christ was crucified upon a hill, and not in a cavern, and the word Gospel itself involves the same idea as the ordinary name of a daily paper. Whenever, therefore, a poet or any similar type of man can, or conceives that he can, make all men partakers in some splendid secret of his own heart, I can imagine nothing saner and nothing manlier than his course in doing so. (p. 35)

On relativism and seeing all sides:

He held that it is necessary to listen to all sides of a question in order to discover the truth of it. But he held that there was a truth to discover. . . . He held, in other words, the true Browning doctrine, that in a dispute every one was to a certain extent right; not the decadent doctrine that in so mad a place as the world, every one must be by the nature of things wrong. . . . [Here follows the “blind men and the elephant” analogy.] . . . Although the blind men found out very little about the elephant, the elephant was an elephant, and was there all the time. The blind men formed mistaken theories because an elephant is a thing with a very curious shape. And Browning firmly believed that the Universe was a thing with a very curious shape indeed. . . . To the impressionist artist of our time we are not blind men groping after an elephant and naming it a tree or a serpent. We are maniacs, isolated in separate cells, and dreaming of trees and serpents without reason and without result. (p. 98)

Review: Tennyson

Rating: ★★★

Authors:

G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Richard Garnett (1835-1906) was an accomplished linguist and writer. He wrote biographies of many famous European writers; he also translated books from at least five languages, and held a position at the British Library.

Series:

Tennyson is one of a series of eight brief biographies of writers (“The Bookman Biographies”), which were produced by Chesterton and other writers in 1902 and 1903. Chesterton co-wrote six of them:

  1. Thomas Carlyle (with J. E. Hodder Williams)
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson (with W. Robertson Nicoll)
  3. Charles Dickens (with F. G. Kitton, J. E. Hodder Williams)
  4. Leo Tolstoy (with Edward Garnett, G. H. Perris)
  5. Tennyson (with Richard Garnett)
  6. Thackeray (with Lewis Melville)

They are a mere 40 pages each, focusing on basic overviews of the works of these five writers (five of them being novelists, and Tennyson the only poet).

These six books are too short for proper biographies, but they have some redeeming qualities—especially if you are interested in eminent writers, and Chesterton’s view of them. In each book, Chesterton dives right into an essay about the author’s thought-life for many pages before giving you the facts about his birth, schooling, and accomplishments. He does this, I believe, lest we get “the facts right and the truth wrong” (Thackeray, ch. 1).

Overview:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1850, after William Wordsworth’s death, and held it until his own death in 1892—the longest tenure of any British poet laureate.

His writings show a deep interest in science and nature alongside a profound respect for spirituality; even so, his thoughts on religion were unconventional. He considered his magnum opus to be The Idylls of the King (last volume published in 1885), an cycle of poems set in Arthurian narrative; but today, his most famous work is “In Memoriam A.H.H” (1849), a long poem published at the death of Arthur Hallam, whom Tennyson regarded very highly.

“In Memoriam” is a most perfect expression of the average theological temper of England in the nineteenth century. (Garnett)

Many of his other poems are still highly regarded, such as “Locksley Hall,” “Crossing the Bar,” “The Lady of Shalott,” and “The Lotos-Eaters.”

Although Tennyson was meticulous in revising his own poetry, he mostly wrote in blank verse, and was not obsessed with form (as Browning). His works are a fresh start from both the metaphysical poets (seventeenth century) and the Romantic movement that preceded him. Rather, he is great not mainly because of any novel design or content in his poetry, but because he was a story-teller.

Meat:

The book at hand, Tennyson (1903), is one of the less ambitious of the Bookman Biographies. The opening essay (by G. K. Chesterton) is not nearly as thrilling as the others in the series. Chesterton connects Tennyson’s writing on nature to the advent of Darwinism (beginning in 1859) and its relation to religion:

It has been constantly supposed that they were angry with Darwinism because it appeared to do something or other to the Book of Genesis; but this was a pretext or a fancy. They fundamentally rebelled against Darwinism, not because they had a fear that it would affect Scripture, but because they had a fear, not altogether unreasonable or ill-founded, that it would affect morality. . . . The first honour, surely, is to those who did not faint in the face of that confounding cosmic betrayal . . . Of these was Tennyson. (Chesterton)

In the second essay, “Tennyson as an Intellectual Force,” Dr. Garnett paints Tennyson as memorable, not so much because he was a great poet, as because he was an English poet. Both Chesterton and Garnett regard Tennyson as closely identified the times in which he wrote (namely, the late Victorian era):

In the main the great Broad Church philosophy which Tennyson uttered has been adopted by everyone. This will make against his fame. For a man may vanish as Chaos vanished in the face of creation, or he may vanish as God vanished in filling all things with that created life. (Chesterton)

[Tennyson] reveals, not new truth to the age, but the age to itself. . . . In truth, Tennyson’s fame rests upon a securer basis than that of some greater poets, for acquaintance with him will always be indispensable to the history of thought and culture in England. (Garnett)

Bones:

At first, I was inclined to rate this book lowly because it did not make me want to read Tennyson; having read (and loved) Enoch Arden and a few of his other short works, I felt discouraged by Garnett’s emphatic statement that Tennyson was “not quite” worthy of the greats who preceded him.

Tennyson’s writings have all the advantages and all the disadvantages of the golden mean. (Garnett)

However, having looked at the statements of some other critics, I believe that Garnett was astute in saying so. Tennyson’s popular appeal does not come from being at the apex of his art; rather, it comes from being a signal representative of the time in which he lived—which is by no means a poor reflection on a nation’s poet laureate.

He is the interpreter of the Victorian era—firstly to itself, secondly to the ages to come. (Garnett)

Read: Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html/rtf), Internet Archive (pdf).

Review: Thoughts upon Slavery

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: John Wesley (1703-1791) was an English preacher best known as the leader of a revival movement that came to be known as Methodism, which began within the Church of England. John and his brother Charles also revolutionized church music by writing and disseminating thousands of hymns. It is believed that John preached 40,000 times in his lifetime, and rode 250,000 miles on horseback in doing so. He was extremely prolific as a author, hymnwriter, publisher, and preacher, and quite lived up to his own motto:

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

Overview:

William Wilberforce, the political champion of British abolitionism, was only 15 when Wesley wrote this pamphlet (1774), which shows how far ahead of his time Wesley was. This little booklet is written for a broad audience—that is to say, Wesley did not just write it for Christians.

The booklet includes:

  • Facts and dates about Europe’s slave trade to the Americas
  • Personal accounts about life in Africa before and after slavery
  • Personal accounts from those involved in trafficking slaves
  • Figures and estimates of slaves killed aboard ship and upon arrival

That is just the historical research. Topics addressed for the people of his day also include:

  • Alleged “stupidity” or inferiority of African slaves
  • Arguments alleged to justify slavery
  • Every man and woman’s right to liberty
  • Your involvement in the slave trade

This book would be relevant today for history education, a study of early European abolitionism, or anyone that wants to know more about human trafficking, its roots and results.

Bones:

Wesley deals here with the modern slave trade and does not deal with a wide-lens view of slavery that can help enlighten the biblical texts related to slavery. As such, there are some arguments missing from this book, which are worth mentioning. There are times and cultures (such as the Pentateuch) in which a “slave” is a person bound to work to pay a debt, as opposed to be cast into a debtor’s prison. There are also those peculiar stories of slaves bound in love to their masters as benefactors, among which we can group the story of Philemon in the New Testament. Until all social classes are abolished, there will be poverty and systems of “serfdom”, and people are even today shackled by poverty, even in the richest nations on earth. I think that we can hone Wesley’s argument to make it clear that what we are talking about is owning human beings as chattel:

I would now inquire, whether these things can be defended, on the principles of even heathen honesty; whether they can be reconciled (setting the Bible out of the question) with any degree of either justice or mercy. (loc. 233)

What modern writers on this topic have to realize is how dangerously close to slavery are many of the world’s economic systems. Take for instance the migration of Asian laborers to the Arab Gulf, where they often go into debt to obtain a work contract, their passports are routinely held by their employers, and they are not free to come and go as they please. And yet the stern reality is that millions of South Asians continue to flood into that region for the opportunity to feed their families—while this is, for them, a boon, for those who perpetrate this horribly racist labor system, it is a wretched and deplorable evil. Like a beautifully decorated tomb, it is not so far removed from the European slave trade, and we should keep in mind that many Arab nations only prohibited slavery after 1950—Mauritania officially criminalized slavery in 2006, and Chad followed in 2017.

Quotes:

The Christians, landing upon their coasts, seized as many as they found, men, women, and children, and transported them to America. It was about 1551 that the English began trading to Guinea; at first, for gold and elephants’ teeth; but soon after, for men. (loc. 135)

No circumstances can make it necessary for a man to burst in sunder all the ties of humanity. (loc. 284)

Indeed you say, “I pay honestly for my goods; and I am not concerned to know how they are come by.” Nay, but you are; you are deeply concerned to know they are honestly come by. Otherwise you are a partaker with a thief, and are not a jot honester than him. Now, it is your money that pays the merchant, and through him the captain and the African butchers. You therefore are guilty, yea, principally guilty, of all these frauds, robberies, and murders. (loc. 394-399)

The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson

This article is taken from the 1902 book that G. K. Chesterton wrote with the Scottish minister W. Robertson Nicoll. The book was one of a series of eight books called “The Bookman Biographies,” six of which Chesterton co-wrote in 1902 and 1903 in collaboration other men of letters. The “Bookman Biography” on Robert Louis Stevenson was his second or third book of non-fiction.

This article is re-posted here because it epitomizes Chesterton’s philosophy of life, and the book is difficult to obtain; it is also easy to confuse with Chesterton’s much longer solo-authored book on Robert Louis Stevenson, which was published 25 years later, in 1927.


All things and all men are underrated, much by others, especially by themselves; and men grow tired of men just as they do of green grass, so that they have to seek for green carnations. All great men possess in themselves the qualities which will certainly lay them open to censure and diminishment; but these inevitable deficiencies in the greatness of great men vary in the widest degree of variety. Stevenson is open to a particularly subtle, a particularly effective and a particularly unjust disparagement.

The advantage of great men like Blake or Browning or Walt Whitman is that they did not observe the niceties of technical literature. The far greater disadvantage of Stevenson is that he did. Because he had a conscience about small matters in art, he is conceived not to have had an imagination about big ones. It is assumed by some that he must have been a bad architect, and the only reason that they can assign is that he was a good workman.

The mistake which has given rise to this conception is one that has much to answer for in numerous departments of modern art, literature, religion, philosophy, and politics. The supreme and splendid characteristic of Stevenson, was his levity; and his levity was the flower of a hundred grave philosophies. The strong man is always light: the weak man is always heavy. A swift and casual agility is the mark of bodily strength: a humane levity is the mark of spiritual strength. A thoroughly strong man swinging a sledge-hammer can tap the top of an eggshell. A weaker man swinging a sledge-hammer will break the table on which it stands into pieces. Also, if he is a very weak man, he will be proud of having broken the table, and call himself a strong man dowered with the destructive power of an Imperial race.

This is, superficially speaking, the peculiar interest of Stevenson. He had what may be called a perfect mental athleticism, which enabled him to leap from crag to crag, and to trust himself anywhere and upon any question. His splendid quality as an essayist and controversialist was that he could always recover his weapon.

He was not like the average swashbuckler of the current parties, tugged at the tail of his own sword. This is what tends, for example, to make him stand out so well beside his unhappy friend Mr. Henley, whose true and unquestionable affection has lately taken so bitter and feminine a form. Mr. Henley, an admirable poet and critic, is, nevertheless, the man par excellence who breaks the table instead of tapping the egg. In his recent article on Stevenson he entirely misses this peculiar and supreme point about his subject.

He there indulged in a very emotional remonstrance against the reverence almost universally paid to the physical misfortunes of his celebrated friend. “If Stevenson was a stricken man,” he said, “are we not all stricken men?” And he proceeded to call up the images of the poor and sick, and of their stoicism under their misfortunes. If sentimentalism be definable as the permitting of an emotional movement to cloud a clear intellectual distinction, this most assuredly is sentimentalism, for it would be impossible more completely to misunderstand the real nature of the cult of the courage of Stevenson. The reason that Stevenson has been selected out of the whole of suffering humanity as the type of this more modern and occult martyrdom is a very simple one.

It is not that he merely contrived, like any other man of reasonable manliness, to support pain and limitation without whimpering or committing suicide or taking to drink. In that sense of course we are all stricken men and we are all stoics. The ground of Stevenson’s particular fascination in this matter was that he was the exponent, and the successful exponent, not merely of negative manliness, but of a positive and lyric gaiety.

This wounded soldier did not merely refrain from groans, he gave forth instead a war song, so juvenile and inspiriting that thousands of men without a scratch went back into the battle. This cripple did not merely bear his own burdens, but those of thousands of contemporary men. No one can feel anything but the most inexpressible kind of reverence for the patience of the asthmatic charwoman or the consumptive tailor’s assistant. Still the charwoman does not write “Aes Triplex,” nor the tailor “The Child’s Garden of Verses.”

Their stoicism is magnificent, but it is stoicism. But Stevenson did not face his troubles as a stoic, he faced them as an Epicurean. He practised with an austere triumph that terrible asceticism of frivolity which is so much more difficult than the asceticism of gloom. His resignation can only be called an active and uproarious resignation. It was not merely self-sufficing, it was infectious. His triumph was, not that he went through his misfortunes without becoming a cynic or a poltroon, but that he went through his misfortunes and emerged quite exceptionally cheerful and reasonable and courteous, quite exceptionally light-hearted and liberal-minded. His triumph was, in other words, that he went through his misfortunes and did not become like Mr. Henley.

There is one aspect of this matter in particular, which it is as well to put somewhat more clearly before ourselves. This triumph of Stevenson’s over his physical disadvantages is commonly spoken of with reference only to the elements of joy and faith, and what may be called the new and essential virtue of cosmic courage. But as a matter of fact the peculiarly interesting detachment of Stevenson from his own body, is exhibited in a quite equally striking way in its purely intellectual aspect.

Apart from any moral qualities, Stevenson was characterised by a certain airy wisdom, a certain light and cool rationality, which is very rare and very difficult indeed to those who are greatly thwarted or tormented in life. It is possible to find an invalid capable of the work of a strong man, but it is very rare to find an invalid capable of the idleness of a strong man.

It is possible to find an invalid who has the faith which removes mountains, but not easy to find an invalid who has the faith that puts up with pessimists. It may not be impossible or even unusual for a man to lie on his back on a sick bed in a dark room and be an optimist. But it is very unusual indeed for a man to lie on his back on a sick bed in a dark room and be a reasonable optimist: and that is what Stevenson, almost alone of modern optimists, succeeded in being.

The faith of Stevenson, like that of a great number of very sane men, was founded on what is called a paradox—the paradox that existence was splendid because it was, to all outward appearance, desperate. Paradox, so far from being a modern and fanciful matter, is inherent in all the great hypotheses of humanity. The Athanasian Creed, for example, the supreme testimony of Catholic Christianity, sparkles with paradox like a modern society comedy. Thus, in the same manner, scientific philosophy tells us that finite space is unthinkable and infinite space is unthinkable. Thus the most influential modern metaphysician, Hegel, declares without hesitation, when the last rag of theology is abandoned, and the last point of philosophy passed, that existence is the same as non-existence.

Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously. Thus Tertullian, in the first ages of faith, said “Credo quia impossibile.”

We must not, therefore, be immediately repelled by this paradoxical character of Stevenson’s optimism, or imagine for a moment that it was merely a part of that artistic foppery or “fuddling hedonism” with which he has been ridiculously credited. His optimism was one which, so far from dwelling upon those flowers and sunbeams which form the stock-in-trade of conventional optimism, took a peculiar pleasure in the contemplation of skulls, and cudgels, and gallows.

It is one thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert his mind from personal suffering by dreaming of the face of an angel, and quite another thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert it by dreaming of the face of an angel, and quite another thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert it by dreaming of the foul fat face of Long John Silver. And this faith of his had a very definite and a very original philosophical purport. Other men have justified existence because it was a harmony.

He justified it because it was a battle, because it was an inspiring and melodious discord. He appealed to a certain set of facts which lie far deeper than any logic—the great paradoxes of the soul. For the singular fact is that the spirit of man is in reality depressed by all the things which, logically speaking, should encourage it, and encouraged by all the things which, logically speaking, should depress it.

Nothing, for example, can be conceived more really dispiriting than that rationalistic explanation of pain which conceives it as a thing laid by Providence upon the worst people. Nothing, on the other hand, can be conceived as more exalting and reassuring than that great mystical doctrine which teaches that pain is a thing laid by Providence upon the best. We can accept the agony of heroes, while we revolt against the agony of culprits. We can all endure to regard pain when it is mysterious; our deepest nature protests against it the moment that it is rational.

This doctrine that the best man suffers most is, of course, the supreme doctrine of Christianity; millions have found not merely an elevating but a soothing story in the undeserved sufferings of Christ; had the sufferings been deserved we should all have been pessimists.

Stevenson’s great ethical and philosophical value lies in the fact that he realised this great paradox that life becomes more fascinating the darker it grows, that life is worth living only so far as it is difficult to live. The more steadfastly and gloomily men clung to their sinister visions of duty, the more, in his eyes, they swelled the chorus of the praise of things. He was an optimist because to him everything was heroic, and nothing more heroic than the pessimist.

To Stevenson, the optimist, belong the most frightful epigrams of pessimism. It was he who said that this planet on which we live was more drenched with blood, animal and vegetable, than a pirate ship. It was he who said that man was a disease of the agglutinated dust. And his supreme position and his supreme difference from all common optimists is merely this, that all common optimists say that life is glorious in spite of these things, but he said that all life was glorious because of them. He discovered that a battle is more comforting than a truce. He discovered the same great fact which was discovered by a man so fantastically different from him that the mere name of him may raise a legitimate laugh—General Booth.

He discovered, that is to say, that religious evolution might tend at last to the discovery, that the peace given in the churches was less attractive to the religious spirit than the war promised outside; that for one man who wanted to be comforted a hundred wanted to be stirred; that men, even ordinary men, wanted in the last resort, not life or death, but drums.

It may reasonably be said that of all outrageous comparisons one of the most curious must be this between the old evangelical despot and enthusiast and the elegant and almost hedonistic man of letters. But these far-fetched comparisons are infinitely the sanest, for they remind us of the sanest of all conceptions, the unity of things.

A splendid and pathetic prince of India, living in far-off aeons, came to many of the same conceptions as a rather dingy German professor in the nineteenth century; for there are many essential resemblances between Buddha and Schopenhauer. And if any one should urge that lapse of time might produce mere imitation, it is easy to point out that the same great theory of evolution was pronounced simultaneously by Darwin, who became so grim a rationalist that he ceased even to care for the arts, and by Wallace, who has become so fiery a spiritualist that he yearns after astrology and table-rapping.

Men of the most widely divergent types are connected by these invisible cords across the world, and Stevenson was essentially a Colonel in the Salvation Army. He believed, that is to say, in making religion a military affair. His militarism, of course, needs to be carefully understood. It was considered entirely from the point of view of the person righting.

It had none of that evil pleasure in contemplating the killed and wounded, in realising the agonies of the vanquished, which has been turned by some modern writers into an art, a literary sin, which, though only painted in black ink on white paper, is far worse than the mere sin of murder. Stevenson’s militarism was as free from all the mere poetry of conquest and dominion as the militarism of an actual common soldier. It was mainly, that is to say, a poetry of watches and parades and camp-fires. He knew he was in the hosts of the Lord: he did not trouble much about the enemy. Here is his resemblance to that Church Militant, which, secure only in its own rectitude, wages war upon the nameless thing which has tormented and bewildered us from the beginning of the world.

Of course, this Stevensonian view of war suggests in itself that other question, touching which so much has been written about him, the subject of childishness and the child. It is true, of course, that the splendidly infantile character of Stevenson’s mind saved him from any evil arising from his militarism. A child can hit his nurse hard with a wooden sword without being an aesthete of violence. He may enjoy a hard whack, but he need not enjoy the colour harmonies of black and blue as they are presented in a bruise. It is undoubtedly the truth, of course, that Stevenson’s interest in this fighting side of human nature was mainly childish, that is to say, mainly subjective.

He thought of the whole matter in the primary colours of poetic simplicity. He said with splendid gusto in one of his finest letters:

“Shall we never taste blood?” But he did not really want blood. He wanted crimson-lake.

But of course, in the case of so light and elusive a figure as Stevenson, even the terms which have been most definitely attached to him tend to become misleading and inadequate, and the terms “childlike” or “childish,” true as they are down to a very fundamental truth, are yet the origin of a certain confusion. One of the greatest errors in existing literary philosophy is that of confusing the child with the boy.

Many great moral teachers, beginning with Jesus Christ, have perceived the profound philosophical importance of the child. The child sees everything freshly and fully; as we advance in life it is true that we see things in some degree less and less, that we are afflicted, spiritually and morally, with the myopia of the student. But the problem of the boy is essentially different from that of the child.

The boy represents the earliest growth of the earthly, unmanageable qualities, poetic still, but not so simple or so universal. The child enjoys the plain picture of the world: the boy wants the secret, the end of the story. The child wishes to dance in the sun; but the boy wishes to sail after buried treasure. The child enjoys a flower, and the boy a mechanical engine. And the finest and most peculiar work of Stevenson is rather that he was the first writer to treat seriously and poetically the aesthetic instincts of the boy.

He celebrated the toy gun rather than the rattle. Around the child and his rattle there has gathered a splendid service of literature and art; Hans Andersen and Charles Kingsley and George Macdonald and Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway and a list of celebrities a mile long bring their splendid gifts to the christening. But the tragedy of the helpless infant (if it be a male infant—girls are quite a different matter) is simply this, that, having been fed on literature and art, as fine in its way as Shelley and Turner up to the age of seven, he feels within him new impulses and interests growing, a hunger for action and knowledge, for fighting and discovery, for the witchery of facts and the wild poetry of geography. And then he is suddenly dropped with a crash out of literature, and can read nothing but “Jack Valiant among the Indians.” For in the whole scene there is only one book which is at once literature, like Hans Andersen, and yet a book for boys and not for children, and its name is “Treasure Island.”

G.K. Chesterton.

Review: The Club of Queer Trades

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Detective fiction, humor, short stories.

Overview:

The Club of Queer Trades is a collection of six related mystery stories published in 1905.  All six stories involve “the Club of Queer Trades” in one way or another:

“What on earth is ‘C.Q.T.’?” asked Rupert Grant, looking over the Major’s shoulder.

“Don’t you know?” returned Northover. “Haven’t you ever heard of the Club of Queer Trades? The Club of Queer Trades is a society consisting exclusively of people who have invented some new and curious way of making money.” (p. 22)

Each story involves a mystery or “case,” but not necessarily related to any violence or crime. Couched in eccentric and explosive literary style, these short stories are sure to make you both ponder and laugh—sometimes at the same time—as you imagine the strange scenarios the author conjures up.

Meat:

As other reviewers have pointed out, these stories could be called anti-mysteries, since Chesterton toys with the genre so much. There are no murder suspects or smoking guns. Most of the plots revolve around two brothers, Rupert and Basil Grant. While Basil searches out “facts” à la Sherlock Holmes, his brother takes the long way round in solving mysteries, and may come out the better by the end of the book.

His brother Basil said of him: “His reasoning is particularly cold and clear, and invariably leads him wrong. But his poetry comes in abruptly and leads him right.” (p.91)

For much of the book, we are not sure if Rupert is a foil for Basil, or if Basil is a foil for Rupert. The solutions turn out to be anything but typical. The joy of the book is to try and solve the cases yourself.

These predate the advent of “Father Brown” by a few years, and in many ways they must be the predecessor of the “Father Brown” stories, scoffing as they do at “deduction” and choosing instead a more imaginative view of life. The biggest difference is that the “Father Brown” stories are much more serious, and they read more in the way that one expects detective stories to read.

Bones:

Although any Chesterton book is aphoristic on almost every page—whether through the narrator or his chosen surrogate—this book doesn’t have much of enduring wisdom in its pages. The book must have been a product of the author’s sheer joy for life, and while his fertile mind kept me laughing and thinking (reflected in my high rating), I couldn’t help but think that all the best fiction, like his Man Who Was Thursday, leaves you with some powerful and unforgettable impression that you will carry with you. This book, while it was a fantastic “light” read, does not have that. The “Father Brown” stories are in general longer, and more thought-out.

Quotes:

Being good is an adventure far more violent and daring than sailing round the world. (p. 24)

“Oh, the mere facts,” he cried out in a kind of despair. “The mere facts! Do you really admit—are you still so sunk in superstitions, so clinging to dim and prehistoric altars, that you believe in facts? Do you not trust an immediate impression?” (p. 26)

“Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” said Basil placidly. “For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.” (p. 56)

“I know of nothing that is safe,” said Basil composedly, “except, possibly—death.” (p. 96)

Review: Robert Louis Stevenson (1902)

Rating: ★★★★½

Authors:

G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Sir William Robertson Nicoll was a Scottish Free Church minister as well as a prolific man of letters.

Series:

This little book is one of a series of six brief biographies of writers (“Bookman Biographies”), which were produced by Chesterton in 1902 and 1903:

  1. Thomas Carlyle (with J. E. Hodder Williams)
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson (with W. Robertson Nicoll)
  3. Charles Dickens (with F. G. Kitton)
  4. Tennyson (with Richard Garnett)
  5. Thackeray (with Lewis Melville)
  6. Leo Tolstoy (with Edward Garnett, G. H. Perris)

They are a mere 40 pages each, focusing on basic overviews of the works of these five writers (four of them being novelists, and Tennyson the only poet).

These six books are too short for proper biographies, but they have some redeeming qualities—especially if you are interested in eminent writers, and Chesterton’s view of them. In each book, Chesterton dives right into an essay about the author’s thought-life for many pages before giving you the facts about his birth, schooling, and accomplishments. He does this, I believe, lest we get “the facts right and the truth wrong” (Thackeray, ch. 1).

Overview:

Robert Louis Stevenson (1902), called in the title page of one edition The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson, is probably the best of the six Bookman Biographies in which Chesterton took part. (Chesterton also published a different book by the same title in 1927!) This is one of Chesterton’s earliest books, and contains some of the clearest explanations of his philosophy of life, and especially suffering:

Stevenson’s great ethical and philosophical value lies in the fact that he realised this great paradox that life becomes more fascinating the darker it grows, that life is worth living only so far as it is difficult to live. The more steadfastly and gloomily men clung to their sinister visions of duty, the more, in his eyes, they swelled the chorus of the praise of things. He was an optimist because to him everything was heroic, and nothing more heroic than the pessimist.

Robert Louis Stevenson is known in our time mainly as the writer of two thrilling novels: Treasure Island (1883) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), but in his lifetime, he was known for much more. His novels Kidnapped (1886) and The Black Arrow (1888) are every bit as well produced as Treasure Island. The Master of Ballantrae (1889) was likewise spoken of highly by critics.  But he wrote much more than novels. His travel writings (An Inland Voyage, In the South Seas) were well known. His Child’s Garden of Verses went through numerous editions.

But that is not what made Stevenson so fascinating. Readers in Chesterton’s day would have known that Stevenson suffered from lifelong breathing problems, and died at 44 after relocating to Samoa for health. He was also the grandson of a minister, of whom he wrote:

Now I often wonder what I inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them. (Memories and Portraits)

It not merely his books, but his life as a lens to see them through, that makes Stevenson worth reading about.

Meat:

Stevenson had an interesting relationship with the church and with the missionaries he met in the Pacific. Numerous ministers and lay theologians were enchanted by his philosophy of life; among them we have here two devout authors, but I can also add the eminent names of A. J. Gossip, Oswald Chambers, and F. W. Boreham. They pored over even his lesser known works like Virginibus Puerisque and the volumes of his Vailima Letters.

The secret of Stevenson’s appeal is uncovered by Chesterton more clearly than other critics. That secret, Chesterton says, is his triumphant suffering. He suffered not merely in resignation, but in triumph. That is why Christians find him so interesting; he is himself emblematic of the Christian understanding of “cosmic courage,” to use Chesterton’s phrase.

Bones:

The one annoying thing, as a twenty-first-century reader, in reading about Robert Louis Stevenson, is that we are always told how much he suffered and never told how or why. This is a weak point in Chesterton’s approach, in talking about Stevenson’s life but assuming that the reader already knows his life story. As far as I know, this is mainly a problem of audience; the audience of 1902 would have known the man; the audience of the 2020s knows only the books.

Read for Free: The Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg Australia (html).

Related: Robert Louis Stevenson (GKC, 1927).