Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Report from the Chesterton Conference

By Judith

So this is what people used to do before television. Listen to interesting people talk on interesting subjects.

To be sure, some speakers present better than others. Whether one has a gift for public speaking or not, it's absolutely essential that the talk is well researched and well written. After that, presentation is a matter of practice. A few of the presenters needed more research and writing skill. Even a volunteer presentation at a free conference deserves the best one can do.

An example of a truly gifted speaker is Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society and author of a number of books and articles on Chesterton. His speech opened the proceedings on Thursday night. He knows his subject inside and out and his presentations contain intelligence, warmth and a biting wit. His talk "Abandon all hopelessness Ye who enter here," provided an overview of Chesterton and Dickens (it was the 100th anniversary of the publication of Chesterton's book on Dickens). As Mr. Ahlquist stated, "Dickens preserved the past; Chesteron preserved Dickens; we're preserving Chesterton."

He went on to explain that pessimism (which is really despair) isn't the opposite of optimisim (which is really presumption). Their opposites are sorrow and joy, both of which can lead to hope.

On Friday Fr. Stanley Jaki spoke on Dickens and Darwin: The Two Who Never Met. I wish I could say that I got a lot out of this talk, but the truth is that between Fr. Jaki's accent and his drifting away from the microphone, I picked up very little. For an interesting account of Fr. Jaki's small seminar on Intelligent Design, check out Ray's post at Stella Borealis.

"Trials and Triumphs of a Chesterton Bibliographer" sounds as though it could have been a dull, academic presentation of a listing of Chesterton's miles of published works. In reality, it was one of the best sessions. Geir Hasnes has been working on pulling together the ultimate list of Chesterton's writings. And what a task it is. Mr. Hasnes' talk was delightfully entertaining, explaining why it was important to do the job, how it was being accomplished and what was left to do.

Christopher Check, Executive Vice President of the Rockford Institute, presented "Chesterton Unplugged," a talk about Chesterton's skepticism about unchecked progress and how technology might not always be our friend. And of course, this was well before computers, television, iPods and cell phones. (Mr. Check suggested we all gather at the river and throw them in.) I agree that technology can be used for ill as well as good and there are great temptations to overuse it instead of following other pursuits such as praying, spending time with family and friends, playing a musical instrument or reading. However, I can't help but think that the ever-populist Chesterton would have been intrigued by the bloggisphere and the opportunity for opinions and ideas to be explored beyond the constrains of the main-stream-media.

The final talk on Friday night was by Joseph Pearce, author of a number of biographies of Catholic writers and editor of the St. Austin Review. He spoke on Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Mr. Pearce is also a speaker who has had much experience in giving talks and knows how to blend humor and seriousness to bring his subject alive. Of course, having the topic of Chesterton and Lewis helps.

On Saturday morning Adam Schwartz, professor of history at Christendom College, spoke on Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge. He spent a good deal of time going over ground with Chesterton that his audience probably already knew and too little time on Muggeridge. Muggeridge was, like Chesterton, a convert to Catholicism. Probably the overriding reason for Catholicism to appeal to Muggeridge was that it was the only religious institution in the world that was solidly, uncompromisingly pro-life. He believed that the sanctity of life was more important than the quality of life; that we cannot pass judgment on what a life is worth, whether in the womb or for the sick and old. His was an all-or-nothing view: either every life is worth living or no life is worth living. And here we also get into Catholic thought on pain and suffering and what a pleasing - and useful - sacrifice the offering of these can be.

We were not able to attend the smaller group discussions in the afternoon, so I'd be interested in hearing how they went.

I think that the conference was what I was expecting. And not. A lot of sitting and listening. A lot of time wandering around the booths of the booksellers. Running into a few people we know. Trying to take in so much information that my brain hurts.

So, give it a try next year. It will be June 14 - 16, 2007. The theme: "The Man Who Was Thursday Through Saturday."

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