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At dinner during an event I attended last weekend, a young journalistic rising star of decidedly Calvinist conviction acknowledged G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy ranks among the most inspiring books he’s read.
The confession draws surprisingly little surprise from Father Ian Boyd, the world’s leading expert on the great Catholic apologist, and founding editor of The Chesterton Review for 46 years before his retirement in August.
“There’s an ecumenical dimension that allows evangelical Protestants to accept Catholic truth from Chesterton that they wouldn’t accept from anyone else,” he says from Edmonton, where he has just returned after two decades of publishing the Review at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
“They trust Chesterton because of his geniality but also because it’s clear his use of the word ‘orthodoxy’ includes all those who believe in the Apostle’s Creed the way Christians used to accept it,” he adds.
Nor does the Saskatchewan-born Basilian find it unusual that young people born 60 years or more or more after Chesterton’s death in 1936 should find his voluminous writing – it dates from the end of the Victorian era – inspiring in the second decade of the 21st century.
“(George Bernard) Shaw said that the world Chesterton was interested in was in the future rather than the past,” Father Boyd says. He loves Tradition, but he’s far more progressive than reactionary. He loves the ongoing revelation of everyday life.”
The element that’s kept the Review fresh and engaging for the generations who’ve picked it up over five decades is its refusal to turn Chesterton into an ossified cult figure, and its insistence on treating his writing as part of a philosophy for using imagination as a vehicle for perception.
“It’s a philosophy that can be applied to anything, and that makes it inexhaustible. Reading him or writing about him is like being a tourist where you go about the world and discover there’s a Chestertonian aspect of wonder to everything you look at. It is a revelation applied to a changing world that’s constantly giving you fresh insight.”
Father Boyd’s spirit was opened to that insight in childhood by his own father, who in rural Saskatchewan subscribed to the publication G.K.’s Weekly in the 1920s. Copies were passed down through family hands so that in 1974, when Father Boyd was in Scotland working on a doctorate, he was familiar enough with Chesterton to produce a book on his novels. That led to talk of starting the journal that ultimately became The Chesterton Review. After Father Boyd’s adult lifetime of dedication to nurturing the Review, it now has international reach in multiple languages, appearing twice yearly in volumes of about 500 pages each.
The journal started publication in Canada until the move to New Jersey 20 years ago when Father Boyd moved to Seton Hall to teach. He stresses that while Chesterton’s own literary output was enormous – about 80 books from essays to biographies of Dickens, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, apologetics such as Orthodoxy, Heretics, and The Everlasting Man, romances, detective fiction, about 200 short stories, and hundreds of poems – he considered himself a journalist above all.
“He insisted that he be described as a journalist, meaning someone interested in what’s happening now, day-to-day and, like Flannery O’Connor, in discovering the glory of the commonplace.”
In today’s mad ideological whipsawing between cancel culture and uber libertarianism, too, Chesterton offers the quiet refuge of individual judgement in equilibrium with intensely local decision-making. In place of abstraction is the organic.
“He appeals as a kind of philosophical anarchist whose confidence is in the good sense of ordinary people, meaning the only government he trusts is the local. As he puts it, a family doesn’t need to have a constitution: the order comes from within the family itself. That’s where the decisions are made.
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“His model is the village where you find this local wisdom. His attitude to ideologues and ideologies is summed up by his description of the British Library where people like (the Fabian socialist) Shaw and Marx did their writing. He said: ‘It’s warm, it’s quiet, it’s well-lit and has many of the qualities of a private mad house.’”
The sheer volume of Chesterton’s writing, combined with his capacity to spark fresh insight for succeeding generations, leaves Father Boyd confident that the transition of the Review’s editorship to his long-time colleague, historian Dermot Quinn, will be smooth and durable. The journal and the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture have also built up an endowment over the years that will keep them on a solid financial footing despite the vagaries of academic budget cuts.
Plans are being made for a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Review and the Institute in 2024. It means Father Boyd will be shuttling between his priestly duties at St. Andrew’s parish in Edmonton and the small team in New Jersey, which explains the timing of his retirement.
“I’ve been given the high sovereignty, but fairly empty, title of president, so I’ll still be involved. But I’ve been thinking for a while you should (retire) while you’re well rather than hanging on to the bitter end.”
The reasoning is distinctly Chestertonian. It philosophically accepts life’s natural storyline combined with the foresight to sustain harmony and serve the interests of one’s community. Chesterton’s mood might have darkened somewhat between the World Wars, Father Boyd says, but he was almost genetically incapable of beginning, much less ending, anything bitterly.
There is an inspiration for all the rising stars of generations to come.
A print version of this column also appears in the Catholic Register.