Chesterton Conference 2019
So, I’m going to be doing a bit of traveling for the rest of the summer. I’m leaving for Warsaw on Thursday, and will be there and in Krakow doing research through July 14. In early August, I’ll be in Kansas City, Kansas, from August 1-3 for the 38th Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference, where I’ll be speaking about The Benedict Option.
Here’s a link to the conference website, where you can find out who else is going to be speaking, and sign up to come yourself. Having met the Grand Mystic Royal Panjandrum of the Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist, I can guarantee that you will have a heck of a lot of fun. Plus — let’s not forget this — greater Kansas City (on the Missouri side) is home to one of America’s great beermakers, Boulevard.
I did an interview with Dale about the conference — I mean, Dale interviewed me about it — and I post it here with his permission:
DALE AHLQUIST: You have told me that you don’t really know Chesterton, so do you have any idea why I invited you to speak at our conference?
Because you want to evangelize me for the Gospel of GKC? Because you feel sorry for me? Because you want to stick me with the beer tab? I wasn’t going to come, but when you promised me that I could wear my fez and a caftan all weekend, I felt that I had no choice but to come.
In spite of your disclaimers, you are obviously familiar with Chesterton’s philosophy, as is evident in your books Crunchy Cons and The Benedict Option, and your direct experience with Marco Sermarini of the Italian Chesterton Society, so what GKC books HAVE you read?
Orthodoxy, and his biography of St. Francis. I swear, I don’t know why I struggle so much with Chesterton. Everything I know about him, and read about him, I think, “Ah ha! I want to be like him!” But there’s something about the cleverness of his prose that I find difficult to stay with for long. It seems a bit too aware of its artifice. He’s a fabulous crafter of sentences, don’t get me wrong. But I just haven’t been able to devote myself to him, even though many of the Christians I most admire are diehard Chestertonians. Perhaps this is the thorn in my flesh that the Lord has given me.
What are your other Chesterton sources besides his books?
Journalism about Chesterton, especially in Touchstone magazine. And, of course, the life and wisdom of Marco Sermarini, the Doge of the Benedict Option. He really is the greatest Christian I know, and I’m not even kidding. He would whack me on the head if he heard me say so, but it’s true. I have never met a believer who was as serious about his faith, and as merry and full of life.
You’ve called Marco Sermarini one of your heroes. Tell us why, please. And who are some of your other inspirations?
Since I first met Marco in 2016, I’ve read Chesterton, or more frequently about Chesterton, with fresh eyes. He’s a true disciple who embodies what I think GKC was, and stood for. And I think: if that man, Marco, is what it means to be a Christian, then I want to be a Christian. The community he helps lead, the Tipi Loschi, and their school, the Scuola G.K. Chesterton, are, to my mind, the best embodiment of the Benedict Option I have yet seen. It’s just a joy to be with him, and that community. One feels so much hope among them. Another hero is Pope Benedict XVI. Though I am no longer a Catholic, I admire Benedict as a true prophet of our time. He sees so deeply into the abyss of our post-Christian age, and does not deny the crisis, but also gives us reason to hope right through it. I have also been inspired by the writings of the Kentucky agrarian Wendell Berry, and my fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor. I first encountered her short stories in high school, and it was the first time I had ever seen my people in literature. Her letters are a treasure.
Finally, I must say that the believers I’ve met as I’ve traveled around the US and Europe giving talks about the Benedict Option really do inspire me. I’m thinking in particular about young Catholics I’ve met in Europe. What’s so uplifting about them and their lives is that to be a believing Christian in Europe today, under the age of 50, requires real commitment. So often I see among us American Christians a lack of awareness of the seriousness of the crisis. We somehow believe, because we want to believe, that things aren’t as bad as they really are. European Catholics of the Millennial generation — and perhaps Protestants and Orthodox too, though I haven’t met any yet — are undeceived about the radical challenges we all face as Christians in a post-Christian civilization, but they have not given up hope. There is a realism about them that I find deeply inspiring.
A small group of young Catholic families, in their twenties and early thirties, living around Milan, have just started a formal attempt to build a Ben Op community of families. They call it Cascina San Benedetto. They’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and my book articulated more clearly what they wanted, and why they wanted it. They’ve just started. I admire them so much, and find real hope in their prayer, labor and witness.
There are lots of reasons to be discouraged about our society, but what is something going on right now that is a cause for hope?
Well, the Cascina San Benedetto, for one! The Tipi Loschi, Marco’s community, for another. And the Bruderhof, an international fellowship of Mennonites, whose communities are so welcoming. And the community around the great Eighth Day Books in Wichita. And the Journées Paysannes, a national fellowship of Catholic agrarians in France. You know, if you read the media — and I spend all day doing that, for my job — it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the bad news. In all honesty, I don’t look to the institutional churches as sources of renewal either. It’s nice if they act that way, but I don’t expect it. But when you find yourself around a table — in Wichita, in Prague, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, in rural France — with people who really love Christ, and who are opening their hearts and their homes to you in true hospitality, it’s hard to be gloomy.
I’m working on a new book about the lessons that people today can learn from those who resisted Soviet communism, about how we might resist this soft totalitarianism emerging around us. The most surprising thing I’ve learned so far from my interviews in Eastern Europe is the critical importance of small group fellowship. There is really no substitute for it. I stood in a hidden basement in suburban Bratislava in May, interviewing a historian who, as a college student in the 1980s, worked with the underground Catholic Church in Slovakia to distribute samizdat — catechisms, Christian literature, and so forth, secretly produced in that hidden basement chamber. He told me that what got him through all the fear of persecution and imprisonment was the tight brotherhood of four other young Catholic men, who were equally sold out to Christ, and willing to risk prison to resist. He said that that fellowship was the most crucial source of courage and hope for him. Of course he meant that God was the ultimate source, but the Holy Spirit mediated to him through the fellowship of believers was the chief fount of blessing for him.
This is something that we Americans simply have to rediscover. I think this is a truth that Chesterton would have embodied, and endorsed.