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The Ball and the Cross by G. K. Chesterton


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#1 Ryan H.

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Posted 02 August 2010 - 06:50 PM

Chesterton's fiction doesn't get talked about much, but when it does, the conversation seems to be focused on his Father Brown stories and THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. And as fine as those are--the latter made quite an impression on me in my youth--it seems to me that little attention is given to his other works. If THE BALL AND THE CROSS, which I just recently finished, is any indication, that's unfortunate. In fact, I'd never heard of the book. Not that I've ever seriously invested in Chesterton as a literary figure, mind you.

I actually found THE BALL AND THE CROSS to be the most enjoyable bit of Chesterton literature I've yet encountered. It's not a perfect novel--for one thing, it has some structural issues--but it's such a delight. Chesterton's robust sense of humor carries it through, even when the story gets a bit clunky. It's also astonishingly relevant in its suggestion that those who take the question of God quite seriously--for or against--have ultimately something more of a kinship than the masses who aren't really too bothered one way or the other.

Of course, in the battle of ideologies present at the heart of THE BALL AND THE CROSS, Chesterton overtly sides with Roman Catholicism. Chesterton is to be credited, though, for giving the atheist some room to speak, though (and indeed, some of the atheist's difficult questions never receive full answers).

Does anyone else have affection for this novel? And do you recommend THE FLYING INN and/or THE RETURN OF DON QUIXOTE?

#2 Tyler

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Posted 02 August 2010 - 07:04 PM

Link to the LibriVox recording of the book.

I haven't read the others you mentioned, but I listened to Manalive (link to the thread about the movie adaptation) a while back and liked it quite a bit.

Is The Club of Queer Trades a Father Brown thing? I don't remember him in the part of it I listened to.

#3 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 03 August 2010 - 04:06 PM

Chesterton's fiction doesn't get talked about much, but when it does, the conversation seems to be focused on his Father Brown stories and THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. And as fine as those are--the latter made quite an impression on me in my youth--it seems to me that little attention is given to his other works. If THE BALL AND THE CROSS, which I just recently finished, is any indication, that's unfortunate. In fact, I'd never heard of the book ... Does anyone else have affection for this novel? And do you recommend THE FLYING INN and/or THE RETURN OF DON QUIXOTE?


Is The Club of Queer Trades a Father Brown thing? I don't remember him in the part of it I listened to.

Yes, I love The Ball and the Cross. And no, Father Brown is not in The Club of Queer Trades. It sounds like most people at Arts & Faith would agree that there is a problem with modern day "Christian" fiction. G.K. Chesterton wrote his own version of "Christian fiction" with all these books, and yet, it wasn't fiction designed solely for church attending audiences. All these books, some of which are very explicitly engaged with Christianity, are written for a general audience of believers and nonbelievers. They are all also written to be thought-provoking, regardless of whether you'd claim to be Christian or not. Also different from the modern day fiction you find in Christian bookstores, Chesterton's fictional stories are written well. His combative, joyful, and almost bombastic style of writing will grow on you the more you read. Here's all of his non-Father Brown books, at least to my knowledge.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill - 1904 - novel - a story about a head of state who takes nothing seriously who ends up fighting a war against a local patriot who takes everything seriously. As far as I remember, Britain is divided up into a bunch of local regions with their own standing armies. This in a sort of Orwellian future totalitarian society where local patriotism is pretty much unheard of. The introduction to my copy of the book said that Michael Collins was an admirer of it.

The Club of Queer Trades - 1905 - short stories - basically a series of mysteries that all have to do with very imaginative and creative ways of making a living. There's a company who's sole purpose is to create adventures for it's clients (think Bill Murray's experience in The Man Who Knew Too Little). Another entrepreneur is a guy who makes a living out of saying very stupid things at ... well, I suppose describing all this much further would just be a bunch of spoilers so I'll stop. Think of the book as an exposition on the entrepreneurial and creative spirit of man.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare - 1908 - novel - I've always thought of this one as a fairy tale mystery. It's probably one of Chesterton's most popular novels, and all you need to do is read the very first chapter which consists of a hotly contested debate in a public square between a poet and an anarchist on whether order or chaos is to be preferred, ultimately leading to whether absolute truth or relativism is to be preferred.

The Ball and the Cross - 1910 - novel - another that's probably top five. For those who haven't read it, it is the story of a Christian and an atheist who are trying to fight a duel, and everyone single other person in society is doing everything they can to stop them. This is a book of almost nothing but argument and debates. Monk Micheal and Professor Lucifer argue over whether a ball or a cross is a better symbol for rationality. McIan and Turnball argue over the existence of God, among other things. Each character who tries to stop them seems to represent a different philosophy. Other arguments with different characters involve whether a difference of opinion on truth really matters, whether religious fanaticism could be said to be a disease, when killing another person is considered right according to Christianity, atheism, and paganism, etc. I can't remember them all, except I'm pretty sure they both get stuck with a pantheist somewhere too. Great book.

Manalive - 1912 - novel - This is my personal favorite. It could be said to be Chesterton's courtroom drama. The number of philosophical ideas argued in the courtroom (and it's a courtroom pretty much specifically constructed for the debate of philosophical ideas) are too many for me to count. The main character is divine fool. I'd say the main theme of this one would be C.S. Lewis' "Sehnsucht" or "stab of joy." It's a short, read in one night, book that I believe Chesterton expressly wrote to give the reader a sense of wonder about the created world around him (think of the same themes in Joe Versus the Volcano).

The Flying Inn - 1914 - novel - This is an adventure story that would not be allowed in any Christian bookstore. It reflects Chesterton's feelings on the temperance movement by creating a future totalitarian society that bans alcohol - a "Prohibition" in England. Funny, but the "Prohibition" in this story is motivated in this book from legalistic teachings in Islam (surprisingly identical to legalistic teachings in the modern church). The story is about a bartender and army man who set up a Pub in a wagon with one incredibly large barrell of rum, and then get chased all over the country-side by the bad guys, moralistic religious leaders, teetotalers, and Big Brother government types. They drink and sing and make merry all for the sake of their patriotic duty to drink when the government tells them not to.

And I just ran out of time for this post, otherwise I'd try and summarize, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Tales of the Long Bow, The Return of Don Quixote, The Sword of the Wood, The Poet and the Lunatics, Four Faultless Felons, and The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (maybe I'll be able to sum them up later). Every single one of these books is a joy to read. All of them are thought-provoking. All of them somehow combine a theology discussion with a fairy tale and with passionate debates in the public square. Every single one of them convey the idea that believing in Christianity is an adventure.

What's also nice, is that Chesterton's syle of writing in fiction is really not that different from his style of writing in nonfiction. His writing is almost all apologetics for Christianity, or for specific doctrines in Christianity, and all intended for a secular audience. Remember, it was an athiest C.S. Lewis who picked up some of Chesterton's books. And it was Chesterton's writing (along with George MacDonald's) that Lewis credited for the "baptism" of his imagination that led to his conversion.

Books like these are rare (especially if you are ever unfortunate enough to walk into the Christian fiction section of a Christian bookstore). They are works to be treasured. Read every one you can get your hands on.

#4 CherylR

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Posted 03 August 2010 - 05:18 PM

If you don't mind the electronic version, Amazon has a lot of Chesterton's books for free. I downloaded several the other day--including The Ball and The Cross.

I've mixed emotions reading off my computer, but downloading does give me access to books I couldn't get otherwise.

#5 CherylR

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Posted 04 August 2010 - 07:05 AM

Cheryl, re. reading on a computer screen- it's very hard for me, because it's backlit. (And for other reasons as well.) The e-ink display on the Kindle isn't, however, and it's very easy on the eyes.


I'm not a fan of reading on the computer screen either--I'm not sure which will give out first, my eyes or my neck. :).

Nice to know the screen on the Kindle is much easier on the eyes--it's one of the things I've wondered about. I just can't justify the cost/reasons for buying one--yet. ;)

Edited by CherylR, 04 August 2010 - 07:06 AM.


#6 Tyler

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Posted 04 August 2010 - 08:58 PM

I listened to "The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown" from The Club of Queer Trades tonight, and I now know where David Fincher got the ideas for The Game and Fight Club.

#7 LibrarianDeb

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Posted 11 February 2011 - 05:16 PM

Everyman's Library has a 900 page "Everyman Chesterton" collection coming out in April.

From Kirkus:

"
An edifying but still incomplete sampling from the work of the great British novelist, moralist and philosopher.

Though he died 75 years ago, Gilbert Keith Chesterton's (1874–1936) influence is still strong, particularly among Catholic intellectuals of a moderately conservative bent—the same audience, say, that reads Garry Wills and Cardinal Newman for fun. Ker, whose biography of Chesterton will appear later this year, does a good job of selecting material that readily illustrates why this influence should continue. It also shows what a fluent, often entertaining writer Chesterton was. The selections from the fiction, apart from the beloved Father Brown stories, are lighter than some might wish; particularly noticeable is the absence of what many hold to be Chesterton's best novel,The Man Who Was Thursday. Ker explains that the absence owes to the fact that it andThe Napoleon of Notting Hillare readily available—but so are the Father Brown yarns. The editor does help reestablish Chesterton as a literary critic with a particularly extensive knowledge of the Victorian era in which he came of age; the selections from Chesterton's studies of Victorian literature, from the novels of Dickens to the poetry of Browning and the essays of Ruskin, are extensive and satisfying. Welcome, if also too brief, are selections from Chesterton's autobiography, in which he confesses, "I look back to that landscape of my first days with a pleasure that should doubtless be reserved for the Utopias of the Futurist." Was he a happy writer? Yes, and even when Chesterton was locking horns with Marxists and reactionaries on either side, he tended to be gently civil—even if he dismissed his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche for harboring "a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil." Of particular interest are Chesterton's thoughtful notes on Christianity ("In a word, St Thomas was making Christendom more Christian in making it more Aristotelian"), which are of a piece and lineage with the better-known writings of C.S. Lewis.

A welcome taste of Chesterton, who remains most readable today. Now for a second volume to fill in the gaps."



#8 NBooth

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Posted 30 June 2011 - 09:08 AM

Bernard Manzo discusses a new biography of--and new book of essays about--Chesterton.

Ian Ker provides an account of the thought of Chesterton that surpasses, in its comprehensiveness, anything that has been previously written about him. He does not offer a picture of the character of Chesterton that differs markedly from that presented by the earlier biographer Maisie Ward (who had the advantage of being able to speak to people who knew Chesterton well, and of having access to personal papers now lost), but he gives a sympathetic and exhaustive presentation of his subject’s ideas. Ker contends that Chesterton should be appreciated as a thinker and controversialist, a sage in the tradition of the Victorian sages, whose achievement should be measured by a half dozen or so of his works of philosophy, biography and criticism. Chesterton wrote much more than half a dozen books, of course, and most of what he wrote was avowedly ephemeral, but he considered the ephemeral to be highly important – of one of his books he remarked that “it may last just twenty minutes longer than most of the philosophies that it attacks” but that “in the end it will not matter to us whether we wrote well or ill . . . it will matter to us greatly on which side we fought”.


One of the problems I've encountered in trying to read about Chesterton is that everyone who comments on him seems to fall under his spell and render a hagiography rather than a biography (it's what I'm finding maddening in the book I'm currently reading). Actually, one of the books discussed in this review is an open exercise in hagiography--a fact that I can't help but regard with incredulity. Chesterton's solid, but when people go around calling him an "apostle of common sense" and suchlike he becomes impossible to take seriously (probably because such talk takes him entirely too seriously, which is a kind of solemn over appreciation which the man himself would have mocked mercilessly). There's no denying that Chesterton is an immense character, but surely it's possible to talk about him without assuming that everything he said is brilliant and ground-breaking.

Anyway, from the looks of this review, Ian Ker's new biography is pretty balanced--admiring, but open-eyed about Chesterton's faults. If I get a spare sixty dollars, I may have to check it out.

Edited by NBooth, 30 June 2011 - 09:14 AM.


#9 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 30 June 2011 - 12:55 PM

Bernard Manzo discusses a new biography of--and new book of essays about--Chesterton.

Great book review. I want to read this very very much.

One of the problems I've encountered in trying to read about Chesterton is that everyone who comments on him seems to fall under his spell and render a hagiography rather than a biography (it's what I'm finding maddening in the book I'm currently reading). Actually, one of the books discussed in this review is an open exercise in hagiography--a fact that I can't help but regard with incredulity. Chesterton's solid, but when people go around calling him an "apostle of common sense" and suchlike he becomes impossible to take seriously (probably because such talk takes him entirely too seriously, which is a kind of solemn over appreciation which the man himself would have mocked mercilessly). There's no denying that Chesterton is an immense character, but surely it's possible to talk about him without assuming that everything he said is brilliant and ground-breaking.

The thing about reading Chesterton is that he's so very different. Most of my reading friends have still never read him before, and I still haven't figured out how exactly to describe to them what reading his writing is like. It's easy to just dissolve into rapturous praise without explaining anything much of substance. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have any substance - he voraciously writes and argues about everything under the sun - literature, philosophy, theology, economics, culture - any controversial issue of his day was bound to get 10-20 essays on the subject at least. It's still hard to find a topic of conversation in religion or politics today that Chesterton hasn't written something on. One of the reasons it's hard to sum up his writing is because he goes into so many little details on practical little everyday bits of life - from chasing your hat blowing in the wind to economic distribution to the poor without turning socialistic, from going on a day-long hike to an old tavern just to drink their uniquely brewed virtually unobtainable ale to how Christianity distinguishes between a martyr and a suicide.

But, I could see how it could be difficult to write a biography on the guy. So this looks fantastic.

Edited by Persiflage, 30 June 2011 - 12:55 PM.


#10 NBooth

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Posted 30 June 2011 - 06:10 PM

The thing about reading Chesterton is that he's so very different. Most of my reading friends have still never read him before, and I still haven't figured out how exactly to describe to them what reading his writing is like. It's easy to just dissolve into rapturous praise without explaining anything much of substance. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have any substance - he voraciously writes and argues about everything under the sun - literature, philosophy, theology, economics, culture - any controversial issue of his day was bound to get 10-20 essays on the subject at least. It's still hard to find a topic of conversation in religion or politics today that Chesterton hasn't written something on. One of the reasons it's hard to sum up his writing is because he goes into so many little details on practical little everyday bits of life - from chasing your hat blowing in the wind to economic distribution to the poor without turning socialistic, from going on a day-long hike to an old tavern just to drink their uniquely brewed virtually unobtainable ale to how Christianity distinguishes between a martyr and a suicide.

But, I could see how it could be difficult to write a biography on the guy. So this looks fantastic.


You've put your finger on exactly what I enjoy about Chesterton's stuff; he's doubtlessly influenced my viewpoint on many things (his book on Dickens worked a small revolution in my mid-teens). And, gosh, I wish I could write like he could. But for me the most valuable thing about Chesterton is the turn of mind he encourages. I don't read Orthodoxy to find out what Orthodoxy is, and I didn't really read Charles Dickens (if only I knew) to find out what Dickens was like. The purported subject of each book is just a little beside the point, which is to spend several evenings in the company of a rousingly good conversationalist. Chesterton's use of paradox and his buoyant view of things makes him impossible to dismiss even when one disagrees with him. He's just too engaging.

Oddly enough, I've been reading quite a bit by Terry Eagleton lately, and he strikes me as a very Chestertonian writer--ironic, perhaps, given Eagleton's own political commitments, but I defy anyone to read Reason, Faith, and Revolution without thinking of Chesterton at least once. And Eagleton, too, is wont to wander into every corner of his mind on his way to the end of a chapter.

Edited by NBooth, 30 June 2011 - 06:12 PM.


#11 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 08 August 2011 - 11:18 AM

But for me the most valuable thing about Chesterton is the turn of mind he encourages. I don't read Orthodoxy to find out what Orthodoxy is, and I didn't really read Charles Dickens (if only I knew) to find out what Dickens was like. The purported subject of each book is just a little beside the point, which is to spend several evenings in the company of a rousingly good conversationalist. Chesterton's use of paradox and his buoyant view of things makes him impossible to dismiss even when one disagrees with him. He's just too engaging.

It's valuable because of how rare it is today. Rousingly good conversationalists who you can spend evenings drinking with are hard to find. Spending an evening with a good stout or porter and a Chesterton book is occasionally a decent replacement for such an evening. But reading him also encourages you to cultivate these qualities in your own social life. I'm working on it, but it's taking time and the learning of acquired skills.

#12 NBooth

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Posted 15 August 2011 - 04:08 PM


But for me the most valuable thing about Chesterton is the turn of mind he encourages. I don't read Orthodoxy to find out what Orthodoxy is, and I didn't really read Charles Dickens (if only I knew) to find out what Dickens was like. The purported subject of each book is just a little beside the point, which is to spend several evenings in the company of a rousingly good conversationalist. Chesterton's use of paradox and his buoyant view of things makes him impossible to dismiss even when one disagrees with him. He's just too engaging.

It's valuable because of how rare it is today. Rousingly good conversationalists who you can spend evenings drinking with are hard to find. Spending an evening with a good stout or porter and a Chesterton book is occasionally a decent replacement for such an evening. But reading him also encourages you to cultivate these qualities in your own social life. I'm working on it, but it's taking time and the learning of acquired skills.


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Edited by NBooth, 15 August 2011 - 04:10 PM.


#13 NBooth

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Posted 09 September 2012 - 05:31 PM

I thought we had a dedicated Chesterton thread, but I must have been remembering this one, so I'll put my question here:

Does anyone have an idea whether Chesterton read/commented on Thoreau? They weren't contemporaries, of course, but I've been reading a lot of old Henry David lately for a seminar, and I find his style--and even some of his rhetorical sallies--similar (see: "Homer. Ossian. Chaucer"). Of course, Thoreau's assertion that a Great Poet must not be a humorist would be the opposite of Chesterton's, but that's the other thing that intrigues me: they're like opposite sides of a coin. While reading "Walking" I kept wanting to shout, "But civilization is the maddest and most romantic of rebellions!"

Googling renders nothing substantial. Searching on Amazon inside two Chesterton biographies and the autobiography renders nothing. So perhaps it's just an accident of similar style. Perhaps this is just one of those links that exist only in my head. It's got lots of company.

EDIT: After looking over "Walking to Wachusett," I think I have the connecting link here: Samuel Johnson. Sound about right? I know Thoreau read Johnson, and I suspect (though I can't recall reading anywhere directly) that Chesterton read Johnson.

Edited by NBooth, 10 September 2012 - 06:13 PM.


#14 winter shaker

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Posted 07 February 2013 - 02:42 PM

It's my last semester of undergrad and my last sociology class is Society and Religion. Instead of writing a traditional research paper, the professor is having us read a novel that deals with religion and how it affects the characters (the only book I heard of that she recommended was The Poisonwood Bible). I had some ideas in mind; one friend recommended Gilead and I have also wanted to read Johnny Cash's The Man In White but I love GKC too much not to read one of his novels.

I read The Man Who Was Thursday and Manalive fairly fast. I did not enjoy them as much as his other works, but part of that may be because I rushed through them. I'm reading The Ball And The Cross for this paper. I went to a lecture at Regent last year given by Ralph Wood (who has written a book about GKC entitled Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God .) and he recommended reading The Ball And The Cross before any other GKC piece.

I am being particularly mindful of symbol in the novel because that's what the professor wants to focus on.

Edited by winter shaker, 07 February 2013 - 02:45 PM.