View profile

Sleuthing Chesterton + Readers on the Family - Issue #184

MLA: This isn't typical "Path Before Me" fare, which I really do try to keep focused on matters of pr
The Path Before Us
Sleuthing Chesterton + Readers on the Family - Issue #184
By Matthew Lee Anderson • Issue #184 • View online
MLA: This isn’t typical “Path Before Me” fare, which I really do try to keep focused on matters of practical and ethical import. But this response from a reader was too interesting to keep to myself.
A few weeks ago, I wrote this:
Some years ago I was introduced to a diagnosis of our modern world which has never left me. It was attributed to Chesterton, though while it sounds much like him, I have never been able to confirm the source. Still, let’s go with it. “The coming peril,” he wrote, “is the intellectual, educational, psychological and artistic over-production, which, equally with economic overproduction, threatens the well-being of contemporary civilization. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralyzed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.”
The admission that I’d never found the source was apparently “practically a challenge” to one brilliant reader with a bit too much time on his hands, who set about sourcing the quote. What follows is from him:
I believe that the passage in question is (sadly) not a quotation of Chesterton after all but an adaptation of a paraphrase written by Maisie Ward (biography, p. 500) which she herself attributes to a “Basilian Father” in attendance at Chesterton’s 3 Oct 1930 lecture in Toronto.  
I take it that one of the reasons it’s been difficult to confirm the source is that the quotation as you have it alters Ward’s phrasing. I see that in both Earthen Vessels and The New Media Frontier you cited Stratford Caldecott for the quotation. Stratford or (more likely) his intermediate source not only changed past tense verbs to present tense (was to is, threatened to threatens, and were to are) but also added “and” before “artistic overproduction” and a comma after it. The fact that Stratford introduces the quotation by remarking that it’s “not one of his most amusing or memorable passages” leads me to believe he was not aware that the original source was simply Ward’s paraphrase, so he probably got it from an intermediate source.
Given Ward’s identification of the title of the lecture as “Culture and the Coming Peril,” it seems that Chesterton basically read the lecture by that name that he had given at UCL on 28 June 1927, which was published the same year as a 20-page pamphlet. Ward’s references to Bolshevism seem consistent with how they are mentioned in the earlier lecture. I haven’t read this 1927 lecture word for word but based on skimming it and searching for a few words, I’d wager that Ward’s paraphrase of the Brasilian Father’s report is a summary of the lecture’s overall argument and not a paraphrase of a particular sentence or paragraph. I could be wrong about that, though!
Ward was certainly aware of the 1927 lecture (p. 460) and its publication (p. 566) but I can’t tell if Ward had a copy of it in hand or not. Her paraphrase of the 1930 lecture could have been based on her reading of the 1927 lecture, but the direct quotations she does attribute to Chesterton in 1930 don’t appear in the 1927 version, so they probably are from the Brasilian Father’s personal recollection. If so, her later paraphrase could equally be based on his report to her.
I’m unable to access E.J. McCorkell’s “Chesterton in Canada” (The Chesterton Review, vol. 2, no. 1, Winter 1975-76, pp. 39-54) so I got the date of the Toronto lecture from Martin Wendell Jones’ description of McCorkell’s account
That’s a remarkable bit of sleuthing.

Responses to Readers about the Family
Reader: My dad had a great line when Hillary and Santorum has their dueling books It takes a village vs it takes a family. Neither was right, dad said: it takes a clan. Now that I am raising kids, I’m amazed how much that is true. My fridge died on Friday. My father-in-law came over to make out its death certificate. My mother-in-law made room in her fridge to save as much food as we could temporarily. My brother offered to empty his garage fridge of beer but had to stay home and watch my nieces, so my dad drove over with his truck to retrieve it and deliver it here. And my mom came with my dad and brought her own chalk to write a message to my sons our sidewalk, since they were out on a hike at our local park at the time. Within eight hours we were back in business. 
Of course it’s far more than that - one leaves the kids with the grandparents two weekends a year to get away as a married couple to a bed and breakfast. My dad was unavoidably booked one day I had a father-son golf tournament as a kid, and my uncle played for me instead. I hope for all the world my brother has a conflict on just one father-daughter dance date so I can take my niece. Obviously a nuclear family can make it, and there’s nothing to say a tight knit church small group and couple best friend can’t play many of the same roles. But the fact of fictive uncles (and we assign the title aunt and uncle to our adult friends in front of our kids more than probably any other fictive family tie) proves the point: it takes a clan. 
Me: Well said.
A reader: Your thoughts really jive with what I’ve seen these last 5 years, working with students on a commuter college campus. If you’re a student with safe, stable, affluent nuclear family (like with a lake house and boat) and the $$$ to pay for summer, Christmas, and spring break getaways … you’re not usually looking to receive and share in Christ’s ministry in ways that transcend “consumerist” approaches to Christian community.  
But if you’re a person of color, an immigrant, or have struggled with depression or social anxiety, are coming out of generational poverty, identify as LGBT, or have a strained relationship with your parents … it’s a whole different story. We have enjoyed such deep relationships with many of these folks and been able to witness God’s Spirit begin to form “fictive” lines of kinship in our midst. In the last few years, we’ve been encouraged to see a number of student leaders who were raised in stable Christian homes begin to hunger for and practice this expanded notion of “family” with outsiders on campus. Christ-centered hospitality, solidarity, mutuality…I’m not trying to romanticize it because it’s often really hard and messy and progress is halting, but it’s been a joy for our family to be a part of ministry with such a diverse community of people and experiences.  
Highlighting the disparities in how different communities understand ‘family’ is really valuable. For my part, I’ve learned more about the real meaning of 'social capital’ from the lower-class black guys I play basketball with than almost anyone else. I overheard one very memorable conversation a few years ago when one person offered to lend another money if they needed to make rent, because even though they weren’t “blood” they were “family.”
Reader: I finally realized what bugs me about Brooks’ take (other than it is by Brooks), and your missive: The nuclear family is creaking under the weight of expectation set upon it, aided and abetted by American Evangelicalism writ large. The focus on the nuclear family to the exclusion of the extended family and community has been fundamentally driven by individual, autonomous pursuit of economic advantage and personal freedom.
And yet the prescription is not to abandon this selfishness and repent of our individual desires for economic advancement at the cost of the extended family, most often starting with our parents, but instead to reimagine family? 
Well, yes. And doing so necessarily involves abandoning our individual desires for economic advancement, and embracing marriage as a means to our happiness. If I ever get back to reading through 1 Corinthians, I suspect I’ll find myself arguing that the nearest form of desires to sexual desires are not the desire for food, as is often thought–but rather the desire for money.
The reality is that many Americans are turning against marriage and the nuclear family these days, because our idols always disappoint us in the end. But many evangelicals who want to (rightly) denounce such trends and defend the nuclear family want to disclaim any responsibility for helping create this world we live in. But judgment, as they say, begins at the house of God–and the only way forward is by casting down our idols. And that means reimagining how we understand family and the household, in order to save them both.
The Penultimate Word
“I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the order and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe’s ship. That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added. The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck: and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires (they are called so in Milton’s Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one.” – G.K. Chesterton

Did you enjoy this issue?
Become a member for $3 per month
Don’t miss out on the other issues by Matthew Lee Anderson
Matthew Lee Anderson

I'll help you train your powers of discernment, so that you can better discern good and evil in this world.

You can manage your subscription here
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Powered by Revue