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G.K. Chesterton walks us through the ABCs

“He saw things we don’t see,” Peter Kreeft writes in the foreword of ABCs of the Christian Life by G. K. Chesterton, a book recently released by Ave Maria Press. “[T]hat is why we desperately need him here in the country of the blind.”

“He seems crazy,” Kreeft continues, “only because he is the sanest inhabitant in our global insane asylum. In an age where common sense is the uncommonest of commodities, he is the Uncommon Man. His works are the Uncommonest Manifesto.”

“He has the reputation of tying us up in knots,” Kreeft says:

but this is exactly wrong, for he is only untying the knots we have tied ourselves into. He has the reputation of being a paradox-mongerer, but this is exactly wrong, for he is only showing us the simple truth, like the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” He shows us that what seems to us outrageously paradoxical is in fact simple truth, and what we see as simple truth is in fact outrageously paradoxical. That’s the real paradox.

Jon M. Sweeney, executive editor for trade books at Ave Maria Press, and author of several books including When Saint Francis Saved the Church, talks about Chesterton and the ABCs.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How can Chesterton help us see clearer and help Christians be better Christians?

Jon M. Sweeney: Gilbert Keith Chesterton thinks so clearly and speaks simply. That’s what many of us love about him. We find so appealing the way that he speaks plainly, and often hiliariously, on complex subjects. His gift is also to refocus us on what’s most important, and this is how he helps us be better Christians: refocusing us on the essentials of being faithful to Christ, to Church, to each other.

Lopez: What is paradoxical about Chesterton? What made him the “Prince of Paradox”?

Sweeney: He shows us that life is full of paradoxes — but then, he demonstrates how those paradoxes that easily trip us up, actually reveal the deepest truths.

Lopez: You yourself have written about St. Francis. What’s Chesterton’s insight on him that can help all of us be more Christian?

Sweeney: GKC has the uncanny ability to get right to the heart of things, and he does this in his beautiful little book about St. Francis. Again and again he shows the reader that Francis was a faithful son of the Church, a rebel against the ways of the world, and a friend to others first and foremost.

Lopez: Why would you include a chapter on heretics?

Sweeney: GKC wrote and spoke often about heretics. This is an example of his use of paradox to communicate deep truths about what it means to be faithful. GKC found in the heretic those paradoxes, often simple mistakes, and he encourages readers of any time or age to avoid the same sort of paradoxical mistakes.

Lopez: What can Chesterton possibly convey about sex to bring some clarity or help to the world today?

Sweeney: Well, you’ll have to read that chapter! ABCs of the Christian Life offers a short essay by GKC for every letter of the alphabet, and “X” is given to Sex. Here, I’ll tease you with what he has to say with this sentence: “The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant.” There’s that prince of paradox again!

Lopez: Why include chapters on insanity and suicidal thinking?

Sweeney: The reason for this was because both topics were “hot button” issues, often discussed, during GKC’s day. Philosophers, clergy, and broadcasters (as they call radio and television people in England) discussed these things frequently and openly. I think it was World War I that brought both subjects to the forefront of everyday life and discussion. Well, we at Ave Maria thought that such subjects are still important today.

Lopez: What’s your favorite letter of the ABCs according to Chesterton?

Sweeney: How could I not say “F” for St. Francis? I love how GKC characterizes Francis’ responses to the Spirit in his life. I like that GKC puts a proper value, for instance, on this: “About everything St. Francis did there was something that was in a good sense childish, and even in a good sense willful. He threw himself into things abruptly, as if they had just occurred to him.” Chesterton had no patience for ruminating philosophers or theologians who make things too complicated. The response of faith is, ultimately, rather simple.

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