Introductory Note:

As we continue to grapple with the ever-unfolding mystery of Jesus this week, G.K. Chesterton joins us to lend his own inimitable voice to the challenge. Here, in this excerpt from his masterwork on the history of mankind, Christ, and Christianity The Everlasting Man, Chesterton contends that our common perception of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” is true, but incomplete. He encourages us to read the New Testament with the eyes of a stranger to earth who comes to the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels with no preconceptions, no filters, no doctrine. Chesterton thinks that we will meet a startling Jesus within those pages—one who, as C.S. Lewis would put it years later, is truly not a tame lion, but one who is very good.

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 2

We have all heard peo­ple say a hun­dred times over, for they seem nev­er to tire of say­ing it, that the Jesus of the New Tes­ta­ment is indeed a most mer­ci­ful and humane lover of human­i­ty, but that the Church has hid­den this human char­ac­ter in repel­lent dog­mas and stiff­ened it with eccle­si­as­ti­cal ter­rors till it has tak­en on an inhu­man char­ac­ter. This is, I ven­ture to repeat, very near­ly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the church­es that is almost entire­ly mild and mer­ci­ful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many oth­er things as well.

The fig­ure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-break­ing beau­ty his pity for our bro­ken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nev­er­the­less they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its pop­u­lar imagery ever rep­re­sents him as utter­ing. That pop­u­lar imagery is inspired by a per­fect­ly sound pop­u­lar instinct. The mass of the poor are bro­ken, and the mass of the peo­ple are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to car­ry the con­vic­tion of the incred­i­ble com­pas­sion of God. 

But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of com­pas­sion that the pop­u­lar machin­ery of the Church does seek to car­ry. The pop­u­lar imagery car­ries a great deal to excess the sen­ti­ment of Gen­tle Jesus, meek and mild.’ It is the first thing that the out­sider feels and crit­i­cizes in a Pieta or a shrine of the Sacred Heart. As I say, while the art may be insuf­fi­cient, I am not sure that the instinct is unsound. In any case there is some­thing appalling, some­thing that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of hav­ing a stat­ue of Christ in wrath. There is some­thing insup­port­able even to the imag­i­na­tion in the idea of turn­ing the cor­ner of a street or com­ing out into the spaces of a mar­ket­place, to meet the pet­ri­fy­ing pet­ri­fac­tion of that fig­ure as it turned upon a gen­er­a­tion of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hyp­ocrite. The Church can rea­son­ably be jus­ti­fied there­fore if she turns the most mer­ci­ful face or aspect towards men; but it is cer­tain­ly the most mer­ci­ful aspect that she does turn. 

And the point is here that it is very much more spe­cial­ly and exclu­sive­ly mer­ci­ful than any impres­sion that could be formed by a man mere­ly read­ing the New Tes­ta­ment for the first time. A man sim­ply tak­ing the words of the sto­ry as they stand would form quite anoth­er impres­sion; an impres­sion full of mys­tery and pos­si­bly of incon­sis­ten­cy; but cer­tain­ly not mere­ly an impres­sion of mild­ness. It would be intense­ly inter­est­ing; but part of the inter­est would con­sist in its leav­ing a good deal to be guessed at or explained.

It is full of sud­den ges­tures evi­dent­ly sig­nif­i­cant except that we hard­ly know what they sig­ni­fy, of enig­mat­ic silences; of iron­i­cal replies. The out­breaks of wrath, like storms above our atmos­phere, do not seem to break out exact­ly where we should expect them, but to fol­low some high­er weath­er-chart of their own. The Peter whom pop­u­lar Church teach­ing presents is very right­ly the Peter to whom Christ said in for­give­ness, Feed my lambs.’ He is not the Peter upon whom Christ turned as if he were the dev­il, cry­ing in that obscure wrath, Get thee behind me, Satan.’ Christ lament­ed with noth­ing but love and pity over Jerusalem which was to mur­der him. We do not know what strange spir­i­tu­al atmos­phere or spir­i­tu­al insight led him to sink Beth­sai­da low­er in the pit than Sodom. 

I am putting aside for the moment all ques­tions of doc­tri­nal infer­ences or expo­si­tions, ortho­dox or oth­er­wise; I am sim­ply imag­in­ing the effect on a man’s mind if he did real­ly do what these crit­ics are always talk­ing about doing; if he did real­ly read the New Tes­ta­ment with­out ref­er­ence to ortho­doxy and even with­out ref­er­ence to doc­trine. He would find a num­ber of things which fit in far less with the cur­rent unortho­doxy than they do with the cur­rent orthodoxy. 

He would find, for instance, that if there are any descrip­tions that deserved to be called real­is­tic, they are pre­cise­ly the descrip­tions of the super­nat­ur­al. If there is one aspect of the New Tes­ta­ment Jesus in which he may be said to present him­self emi­nent­ly as a prac­ti­cal per­son, it is in the aspect of an exor­cist. There is noth­ing meek and mild, there is noth­ing even in the ordi­nary sense mys­ti­cal, about the tone of the voice that says Hold thy peace and come out of him.’ It is much more like the tone of a very busi­ness-like lion-tamer or a strong-mind­ed doc­tor deal­ing with a homi­ci­dal mani­ac. But this is only a side issue for the sake of illus­tra­tion; I am not now rais­ing these con­tro­ver­sies; but con­sid­er­ing the case of the imag­i­nary man from the moon to whom the New Tes­ta­ment is new.

Excerpt­ed from G.K. Chester­ton’s The Ever­last­ing Man (pp. 139 – 140), in the pub­lic domain via Jesus​.org.

📚 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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