Of all the Christian authors and apologists to emerge in the 20th century, few have been as influential as G.K. Chesterton. Blessed with a sharp mind (and even sharper wit), Chesterton penned dozens of articles and books, mastered the art of literary criticism, breathed new popularity into Charles Dickens’ writing and even wrote a play because George Bernard Shaw cajoled him into doing so. So it’s no wonder that Kevin Belmonte would choose Chesterton as the subject of a new biography, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton.
Those looking for a traditional biography of Chesterton will likely be disappointed with this book. Stylistically, Defiant Joy is less a biography than an extended literary critique following key points of Chesterton’s life and publishing career. The strength of this approach is that it allows the readers to interact with Chesterton’s own writing. As I’ve only had the opportunity to read Orthodoxy prior to this book (and that was about 5 years ago), I really appreciated having the chance to become a little more familiar with his other works. A notably insightful quote is this one from Heretics:
When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so important that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating. Never has there been so little discussion about the nature of men as now, when, for the first time, any one can discuss it. The old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it. (p. 84)
Belmonte’s inclusion of this quote served s a powerful reminder once again of the truth that there are no new heresies; there are no new problems within the church—they might just go by a different name or have cooler hair.
Most impressive, though, was Belmonte’s depiction of Chesterton’s friendships with men like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Philosophically and ideologically, the latter men were often vehemently opposed to Chesterton’s insistence on the validity of the Christian worldview, yet there was a genuine affection between them. In sharing this, Belmonte does an excellent job reminding us that an amiable Christian witness is important.
Positives aside, I found this book at many points to be hard slogging as its pace is rather sluggish. The format of each chapter—question, summary of Chesterton’s work, quote from Chesterton’s work, praise from reviewers and authors influenced by Chesterton—becomes a bit repetitive. Additionally, lengthy critiques of critiques (yes, you read that right) of Chesterton’s work collectively fill dozens of pages of this book and unfortunately don’t add a great deal of value. These issues detracted greatly from my enjoyment of the book, to the point that it took me starting and stopping three times before I could actually finish the book.
Defiant Joy is decidedly a mixed bag; it’s in many ways an encouraging read, but I didn’t find it to be a terribly joyful one, which is a shame given that Chesterton’s life was characterized by such uncommon optimism. If you choose to read it, I hope your experience will be more positive than mine.
Title: Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton
Author: Kevin Belmonte
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2011)
A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher.