Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Lady with the Torn Hair Who Looks on Gladiators in Grapple: G. K. Chesterton's Marian Poems

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Lady with the Torn Hair Who Looks on Gladiators in Grapple: G. K. Chesterton's Marian Poems

Article excerpt

"In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church" declares Karl Barth in the second installment of his massive thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics. It "explains all the rest,' Barth adds. "The 'mother of God' of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and essence of the human creature cooperating servantlike (ministerialiter) in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace, and to that extent, the principle, type and essence of the church" (213). (2) George Lindbeck, a Lutheran and much more irenic theologian, is only slightly more encouraging. He argues that the Marian dogmas will be the most difficult claims to negotiate if there is to be a real union between Catholics and non-Catholics. If the late Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption are the result of problematic understanding of original sin, for example, then the question of their reversibility would have to be dealt with (97). (3)

Hans Urs von Balthasar confesses that, even for Catholics, there is a problem already inherent in a central phrase present in all of the creeds--"born of the Virgin Mary:' These words, yon Balthasar declares, constitute "a great theater of war:' On theological grounds alone, he notes, there is the obvious difficulty that, if the Second Person of the Trinity is to become fully human, then why is there no ordinary human conception? The scriptural difficulties for affirming the Virgin Birth are no less daunting: (1) it's a late doctrine about which Paul and Mark seem to know nothing; (2) Mary herself appears already to be Joseph's wife; (3) there are similarities to Greek legends and Egyptian myths of gods birthing children from maidens; (4) and there are many references to Jesus' "brothers" in the New Testament--even if the Greek adelphoi can refer to distant kinsmen no less than immediate siblings (47).

This is obviously not the occasion to enter into such a huge controversy. Yet it may be an opportune moment to examine the ecumenical challenge implicit in G. K. Chesterton's abiding devotion to Our Lady--a phrase no non-Catholic should be embarrassed to use. As Chesterton himself notes, the Marian title often used by Anglicans--namely, "the Madonna'--quite literally and incongruously means "the my Lady:' GKC'S high regard for the Holy Virgin was not prompted by pious longing for motherly comfort--the usual canard about "sentimental Marianism:' It sprang, instead, from his estimate of her as the Theotokos, the God-bearing mother of Jesus who is also mother of his Body called the Church. To explore this Chestertonian estimate of the her, we will need to glance first at Chesterton's Newmanesque idea of the development of Christian doctrine while also looking briefly at Lumen Gentium as containing the Second Vatican Council's main pronouncements on Marian matters. Then, I believe, we will be better prepared to examine two of Chesterton's most important Marian poems--"The Nativity" plus a little- known work occasioned by Chesterton's visit to Our Lady's University in 1930 and entitled "The Arena"

I. Chesterton, Newman, and Lumen Gentium

In his novel The Ball and the Cross, Chesterton has the protagonist, a Scots Catholic named Evan McIan, exclaim to his antagonist, an English atheist named James Turnbull, that "[T]here are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church" (64). McIan is seeking to convince his atheist friend that the Church is not a retrograde institution wedded to a benighted and superstitious past, but that Christianity and science are both valid, even if alternative, ways of knowing. …

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