Title: The Everlasting Man
Author: G. K. Chesterton
My Rating: 3/5
The Everlasting Man is second in my series of books to spend my year with G. K. Chesterton. I continue to appreciate Chesterton for his wit, eloquence, and admiration for beauty and joy; while I am beginning to have some hesitation with his overall body of work.
This particular title splits into two parts, divided by Christ’s advent. Chesterton’s first half focuses on the world before Jesus and the way in which its religions developed. He lists and describes many ancient religions, showing how they all paved the way for Christianity. In his words:
the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle till they meet in the sea of Christendom. . . . The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion. There had never before been any such union of the priests and the philosophers (Bk. 1, Ch. V).
Along those lines falls my favorite takeaway from The Everlasting Man: Chesterton’s unique classification system, under which he catalogs the world’s “religions.” As he writes, many of what we call religions would never have been called that by their founders or their followers. For that reason, Chesterton proposes a fourfold classification system: God, gods, demons, and philosophers. Every religion, says Chesterton, is best explained by fitting into one of those categories, based on what its followers worship.
After the book’s halfway point, Chesterton turns to the world after Christ. In Christmas, Chesterton sees the culmination of all the world had been yearning for in its ancient religions. As he puts it, Christianity contains all three elements that humanity has desired in its religion: The first is that heaven should be literal and nearly as local as a home, second that it is a philosophy larger than all others, and third, that it is a fight, that it is set deliberately in opposition to all error.
In this book, Chesterton shows forth as a clear precursor to C. S. Lewis, whose later works like Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man show the same philosophical-poetical approach to religion that Chesterton employs in The Everlasting Man. Chesterton, however, is much more difficult to pin down and understand than Lewis.
Martin Luther once described reading Paul’s epistles as a process of beating them until they leaked out something sensible, and that metaphor seems a good fit for Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. Much of this book was compelling and insightful, but large portions were nearly impenetrable and erudite beyond my expectations.
Chesterton writes with a poetic flair, which at times adds beauty but often leaves the reader befuddled. If a reader is willing to grab hold of this book and force it to give up meaning, the reader will be pleased with Chesterton’s powerful summation of human history as a lead-up to Christ, but if one hopes for an easy look at religious history, you should look elsewhere.