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

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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