Chesterton and Christian (Counter-)Culture

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Evangelical Christians have long used this verse, and many others, to set the foundation for Christian counter-culturalism. And that not without reason. After all, we “are not of the world” (John 17:16), even though we are in the world. When mainstream culture worships the self, Christianity stands as a bulwark for the family. When we are told “you do you,” to follow our heart, we seek instead to align our path with God’s path. The “word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18); and when slapped on one cheek for this perceived foolishness, we must turn the other cheek. And this is just in America, a country blessed with religious freedom. Christianophobia looks much uglier outside of the U.S. How could it be possible for Christians to support the very same culture that persecutes them?

Enter G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton might be called the paragon of counter-culturalism: he argued tooth and nail against the absurdities of modernism.* At a time of “an insane dread of insanity,”1 Chesterton urged for simple sanity in his own topsy-turvy manner. Chesterton himself was under no delusion that the prevailing culture of his time was largely anti-Christian.

Yet he can only be called counter-cultural if one forgets the fact that he constantly claimed his beliefs were orthodoxy. In his opening to Heretics, Chesterton displayed distaste for the practice of taking pride in straying from orthodoxy: “Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than… [the man who] says, with a conscious laugh, ‘I suppose I am very heretical.’” It is following this same strand that Ross Douthat, with no conscious laugh, calls America a post-Christian nation, a Nation of Heretics.

How did Chesterton stand as a bastion against the modernism of his time whilst taking pride in his own orthodoxy? In Chesterton’s mind, orthodoxy did not have to be mainstream. It simply meant “being right.” As such, any sane man should be “proud of being orthodox… proud of being right.” The heretic of the past, whom Chesterton respects, considered all others heretics, and himself he considered orthodox: “If he stood in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church.”2

And just as orthodoxy is “being right,” Chesterton would have considered culture as a fundamentally Christian thing. The highest form of culture is Christian culture, and in this sense Chesterton considered himself by no means counter-culture, even if he spoke against the attitudes of his time. God’s way is the way, if narrow; Christian culture is the culture, even when unpopular. A well-aligned Christian should follow his heart, because God’s law is written there (Jeremiah 31:33). His Christian culture was the right culture, even if it “stood in a howling wilderness” of deviant cultures. As Philip Yancey said, “Evangelicals often say that Christianity is a ‘counter-culture.’ I think Chesterton would probably say, ‘No, Christianity is the culture. Heretics are the counter-culture.’” The modernists, though prevalent, were still the counter-culture, because they tore down that which culture should be; Chesterton, on the other hand, was one of the few defending Christian culture.

Now, if you have followed this discombobulating slew of ideas thus far, you might astutely point out that evangelical counter-culturalism and Chesterton’s thoughts on culture do not fundamentally contradict each other. Evangelicals simply define culture as mainstream or prevalent culture, while Chesterton might have defined culture as the culture God meant for us. Although the difference might be in definitions, the evangelical outlook and Chesterton’s outlook produce two different perspectives. Counter-cultural Christianity calls for separation from mainstream culture, whereas Chesterton calls for us to work with culture, to build it up into Christian culture. Both of these approaches are important to keep in mind. Christians should not fall for the ungodly obsessions of their time, but they must engage in current cultural dialogue to affect it for good.

One of the issues Jesus took with the Pharisees was the fact that they let their own laws keep them from living the way God meant them to live. They tried to build a fence around the law to keep themselves from the faintest possibility of breaking specific Biblical commandments, to make it easier for themselves to follow the law. And while this was well-intentioned, they ended up fencing themselves off from others. What’s worse, they took pride in their own fences. Jesus followed every jot and tittle of the law, but He ate with sinners. We must live lives of righteousness and purity, but all this is vanity if we fail to engage with those who don’t.

*I should note that this article is not a critique of modernism. Rather, it uses Chesterton’s own struggle against prominent modernists of his time as a case study.

[1] Chesterton, G. K. “On the Negative Spirit.” Heretics.

[2] Chesterton, G. K. “Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy.” Heretics.


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