7.11.2008

Gopnik on Chesterton, "Conversion Sickness"

There's a great essay (not available online, sadly) in the current issue of the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on G.K. Chesterton entitled "The Back of the World: The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton." It has a fabulous paragraph on conversion that I felt the need to reproduce in toto:

"In these books [his later Catholic non-fiction works] Chesterton becomes a Pangloss of the parish; anything Roman is right. It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strongly about St. Francis's intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas's pedantic religiosity, as Chesterton seems to. His writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts to Catholicism are relieved not to have to defend Henry VIII's divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under the weight of all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adopted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the Church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and, overglamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts timeservers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you're new to mail."

1 comment:

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