If you had asked me during my college years where I would end up, Christian writer” would fall last on my list of options. I would have recounted the lies my church had told me about race and other matters, and poked fun at its smothering legalism. I would have described an evangelical as a socially stunted wannabe — a fundamentalist with a better income, a slightly more open mind, and a less furrowed brow. I would have complained about the furloughed missionaries who taught classes in science and philosophy at the Bible college I attended and who knew less about those subjects than my high school teachers. That school tended to punish, rather than reward, intellectual curiosity: one teacher admitted he deliberately lowered my grades in order to teach me humility. The greatest barrier to the Holy Spirit is sophistication,” he used to warn his classes.

At that same Bible college, however, I first encountered the writings of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Although separated from me by a vast expanse of sea and culture, they kindled hope that somewhere Christians existed who loosed rather than restrained their minds, who combined sophisticated taste with a humility that did not demean others and, above all, who experienced life with God as a source of joy and not repression. Ordering tattered used copies through bookshops in England, I devoured everything I could find by these men, one an Oxford don and the other a Fleet Street journalist. As Lewis himself wrote after discovering Chesterton while recovering in a hospital during World War I, A young man who wishes to remain a strong atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”

Their words sustained me as a lifeline of faith in a sea of turmoil and doubt. I became a writer, I have said, in large part because I realized the power of words in my own life, words that could sail across time and an ocean and quietly, gently, work a transformation of healing and hope. More time would pass before I fully returned to faith, but at least I had models of what life-enhancing faith could look like.

In his story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus does not dwell on the prodigal’s motive for return. The younger son feels no sudden remorse or burst of love for the father he insulted. Rather, he tires of a life of squalor and returns out of selfish motives. Apparently, it matters little to God whether we approach him out of desperation or out of longing. Why did I return? I ask myself.

My older brother, who played the role of prodigal more dramatically, demonstrated what could happen if I chose to leave everything behind. In an attempt to break the shackles of a confining upbringing, he went on a grand quest for freedom, trying on worldviews like changes of clothing: Pentecostalism, atheistic existentialism, Buddhism, New Age spirituality, Thomistic rationalism. He joined the flower children of the 1960s, growing his hair long and wearing granny glasses, living communally, experimenting with sex and drugs. For a time he sent me exuberant reports of his new life. Eventually, however, a darker side crept in. I had to bail him out of jail when an LSD trip went bad. He broke relations with every other person in the family and burned through several marriages. I got late-night calls concerning his suicide threats. Watching my brother, I saw up close the destructive power of casting off faith with nothing to take its place.

At the same time, more positively, my career as a journalist gave me the opportunity to investigate people who demonstrate that a connection with God can enlarge, rather than shrink, life. I began the lifelong process of separating church from God. Though I had emerged from childhood churches badly damaged, as I began to scrutinize Jesus through the critical eyes of a journalist, I saw that the qualities that so upset me — legalism, self-righteousness, racism, provincialism, hypocrisy — Jesus had fought against, and were probably the very qualities that led to his crucifixion. Getting to know the God revealed in Jesus, I recognized I needed to change in many ways — yes, even to repent, for I had absorbed the hypocrisy, racism, and self-righteousness of my upbringing and contributed numerous sins of my own. I began to envision God less as a stern judge shaking his finger at my waywardness than as a doctor who prescribes behavior in my best interest in order to safeguard my health.

I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before,” G.K. Chesterton declared triumphantly. I did try to found a heresy of my own, and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” Guided in part by Chesterton, I landed in a similar place after a circuitous journey.

When someone asked Chesterton what one book he would want to have along if stranded on a desert island, he paused only an instant before replying, Why, A Practical Guide to Shipbuilding, of course.” If I were so stranded, and could choose one book apart from the Bible, I may well select Chesterton’s own spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy (1909). Why anyone would pick up a book with that formidable title eludes me, but one day I did so and my faith has never recovered. Orthodoxy brought freshness and a new spirit of adventure to my faith as I found odd parallels between my own odyssey and that traveled by its author, a 300-pound, scatterbrained Victorian journalist.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton has sometimes been called the master who left no masterpiece,” perhaps the curse of his chosen profession. For most of his life (18741936) he served as editor of a weekly newspaper of ideas, in the process writing some 4,000 essays on topics both trivial and important. He straddled the turn of the century, from the 19th to the 20th, when such movements as modernism, communism, fascism, pacifism, determinism, Darwinism, and eugenics were coming to the fore. As he surveyed each one, he found himself pressed further and further toward Christianity, which he saw as the only redoubt against such potent forces. Eventually he accepted the Christian faith not simply as a bulwark of civilization but rather as an expression of the deepest truths about the world. He took the public step of being baptized into the Roman Catholic church in a mostly Protestant nation.

As a thinker, Chesterton started slowly. By the age of 9, he could barely read, and his parents consulted with a brain specialist about his mental capacity. He dropped out of art school and skipped university entirely. As it turned out, however, he had a memory so prodigious that late in life he could recite the plots of all 10,000 novels he had read and reviewed. He wrote five novels of his own, as well as 200 short stories, including a series of detective stories centered on Father Brown; tried his hand at plays, poetry, and ballads; wrote literary biographies of such characters as Robert Browning and Charles Dickens; spun off a history of England; and tackled the lives of Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and Jesus himself. Writing at breakneck speed, getting many facts wrong, he nevertheless approached each of his subjects with such discernment, enthusiasm, and wit that even his harshest critics had to stand and applaud.

Chesterton traveled occasionally out of England, and made it across the Atlantic to visit the United States (prompting the book What I Saw in America), but mostly he stayed at home, read widely, and wrote about everything that crossed his mind. The rollicking adventures took place inside his great, shaggy head. One can hardly overestimate his impact on others, though. Mahatma Gandhi got many of his ideas on Indian independence from Chesterton; one of his novels inspired Michael Collins’s movement for Irish independence; and C.S. Lewis looked to Chesterton as his spiritual father.

Chesterton had been dead more than 30 years when I first discovered him, but he resuscitated my moribund faith. As I look back now, and ask in what way he affected me, I see that he helped awaken in me a sense of long-suppressed joy.

Excerpted from Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 2001 by Philip Yancey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photograph of G.K. Chesterton at the age of 31. Unknown photographer. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Text First Published October 2003 · Last Featured on Renovare.org November 2022