There are two books I read on an annual basis. One is the Bible. The second is “Manalive” by G.K. Chesterton. Most have either never heard of or know very little about Chesterton, and even fewer have heard of this short work of fiction. So, why do I keep coming back to it year after year?
In This Article:
- Who is G.K. Chesterton?
- His Apologetic of Joy
- Goodness Leads to Life and Joy
- Sins Lead to Death and Despair
- Teachings From Chesterton
Who is G.K. Chesterton?
It may be helpful first to get to know the man. Those who have heard of Chesterton are typically familiar with a few quotes as he is — like other towering literary figures such as C.S. Lewis or Mark Twain — supremely quotable. Some are familiar with his apologetic works like “Orthodoxy” or “The Everlasting Man.”
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was born in London and became one of the most prolific writers of the 20th Century, authoring 100 books, contributing to 200 more, penning hundreds of poems and short stories, five plays, 4,000 newspaper essays and even founding his own newspaper. He wrote insightfully, humorously and timelessly on all kinds of topics such as literature, religion, sociology, politics, economics, philosophy and theology. He was also a skilled debater, taking on some of the great intellectuals of his time such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell.1
His Apologetic of Joy
Returning to the question of his influence on me, it comes down to this: joy. Some people influence us because they are like us. Others influence us precisely because they are so different. Chesterton for me is the latter. As a man prone to melancholy and skepticism, Chesterton pushes back on me with his joy, humor and sense of wonder. His intellect is immense, but he is not persuasive because he satisfies my mind alone. It is because he satisfies a deep longing: the longing for joy.
“Manalive” is about an enigmatic figure, Innocent Smith, who seems to blow in with the wind to a boarding house occupied by a group of listless young adults. His strange, childlike antics catch their attention and eventually provoke an investigation, through which his (Smith’s) unconventional way of life reveals fundamental truths.2
One of the characters, the melancholy Michael Moon, is among the first to see Smith’s genius. He summarizes his actions by noting that “he refuses to die while he is still alive.”2 His actions are a way to remind himself he is a man who is alive.
Goodness Leads to Life and Joy
Chesterton’s point here is not simply that Innocent Smith is happy, energetic and a lover of life. It is not simply that he is living life to the fullest. The profound truth of the book, and something that finds its way throughout Chesterton’s thought, is that he is happy because he is innocent. He is joyful because he really is good. Again, the melancholy Moon realizes that he is breaking with conventions and traditions while remaining faithful to the commandments or morality. In fact, he is breaking with conventions precisely in his attempt to be faithful to the commandments.2
While the modern world believes that happiness and joy will come when we can move beyond traditional morality, eliminate taboo and stigma, and follow our passions, Chesterton argued joy came in keeping the commandments and disciplining and directing our passions to love good things. The modern world wants to eliminate shame and be happy by eliminating the rules and follow our desires. Chesterton believes we will be happy when we can keep them and bring our desires in line with them.
In “Manalive,” Innocent Smith engineered practices that helped to discipline his passions. He used his pistol to help him and other melancholy characters to remember that life was good and murder or suicide was bad. He would break into his own home to train his passions to covet his own goods and remember that theft was wrong. He trekked around the world to train his passion to love home and family and remember that desertion was wrong. He staged stunts where he would woo and propose to his wife over and over to train his passion to love and faithfulness for his wife and remember that adultery is wrong.2 He broke convention in order to learn to keep the commandments. His joy came with his goodness.
Sins Lead to Death and Despair
Chesterton attacks the modern atmosphere, which supposed that happiness would come through liberation from traditional religion and morality. The godless and disenchanted world of the scientific enlightenment was supposed to offer a new path to happiness through belief in self and human potential. It is this that he takes on directly.
Liberation, so defined, leads not to clear headed reason and happiness. It leads to mental slavery, insanity, despair and death. In “Orthodoxy,” Chesterton wryly argues that it is insane asylums that are filled with those who believe in themselves most.3
Chesterton’s thought is firmly grounded in the biblical wisdom that there are two ways. There is a way of sin and folly that leads to death, dysfunction and despair. There is also a way of wisdom and righteousness that leads to life, flourishing and joy. It is in imitation of God, where we come to life.
Teachings From Chesterton
Why do I keep coming back to Chesterton’s “Manalive”? It is because I am like the melancholy Michael Moon. It is because I sin and grow weary, and I need regular shocks to my system to renew my sense of wonder and my sense of joy. I need to be reminded that, while I will one day die, I am not dead yet! I am still a man alive walking around on two legs. I must not follow my passions but train them!
If you are interested in exploring Chesterton’s works of fiction, try “Manalive” or “The Man Who Was Thursday.” If you are interested in his apologetic works, try “Orthodoxy” or “The Everlasting Man.”
Read more Theology Thursday and explore theology and ministry programs offered by GCU’s College of Theology today.
1 Ahlquist, D. (2014, February 26). Who is G.K. Chesterton? Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
2 Chesterton, G. K. (2000). Manalive. Dover Publications.
3 Chesterton, G. K. (1993). Orthodoxy. Generic NL Freebook Publisher
Approved by faculty for the College of Theology on June 14, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.