Start a Local Chesterton Society!

There are five basic reasons why you should start a local Chesterton Society:

1. No one else is going to do it. It is a task left to volunteers and individuals because institutions have dropped the ball. And while there are more than a few people who enjoy Chesterton and lament the fact that he is not being taught in schools or being read on a widespread basis, nothing is going to happen without some sort of concerted effort to make it happen.

2. It’s fun. It’s more than fun. It is a deep and abiding pleasure. There is hardly a better way to spend one’s time than reading Chesterton, unless it is reading Chesterton with other people.

3. It will amaze your friends when you tell them you have started a local Chesterton society. Also, you will find out who your friends are. A great way of separating the sheep from the goats.

4. Local Chesterton Societies are the gardens where we grow speakers for our conferences, writers for Gilbert Magazine, researchers and scholars for the American Chesterton Society, and all kinds of people with all kinds of talents to share with the rest of the world. Because you started a local Chesterton society, you may be the one who discovers the movie producer or director who will finally make the film version of The Man Who Was Thursday, or better yet, Manalive.

5. By making yourself part of the Chesterton revival, you will be part of the slightly larger revival of common sense, laughter, beauty, faith, and other good things.

There are five basic things you need to start a local Chesterton Society:

  1. At least one person who is fanatically devoted to Chesterton.
  2. A core group of people who share an interest in Chesterton and in meeting regularly.
  3. A place to meet regularly.
  4. A time to meet regularly.
  5. Something to drink.

There are five basic obstacles to those five basic things you need to get started:

The Fanatic.
It is possible to start a local Chesterton Society without all five of the things noted above, but this first ingredient is almost essential. Without the Fanatic, the other four things will probably not happen, or there will be no glue to hold them together. If you’re not the Fanatic, that is okay. You can be the sparkplug, but you will still have to find the Fanatic. Having no fanatic is an obstacle, but having a fanatic who is less than a complete fanatic is also an obstacle. In other words, the Fanatic must be a person with a devotion to Chesterton that is not confined to any one aspect of Chesterton; it must be a complete appreciation of the complete Chesterton and a desire to share that appreciation. This will ensure that the group will grow and will draw a variety of people and will not become unbalanced or get stuck in a rut.

The Core Group.
Getting the core group together is the biggest challenge. The problem is not that no one has heard of Chesterton or cares about Chesterton (but don’t worry there are several million who fall into that category), the problem is that there are some natural allies who will not offer any help whatsoever. Among these are the C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien fans who don’t seem to realize that their guys are completely dependent on our guy. But worse still are the closet Chestertonians: the people who know and love Chesterton, who read and collect him, but who keep him all to themselves, like misers. You must find these people and coax them out of their shells. They have much to share and apparently haven’t experienced the pleasure of sharing it.

Place to meet, time to meet, something to drink.
Besides the fact that people are busy (or use the excuse that they are busy), scheduling the meeting can be a problem. It is usually best to meet once a month, same day, same time, same place. The sense of regularity brings a sense of stability. It will make it easier for the folks of casual interest to come as they can and for the core group to adjust the rest of their lives accordingly. The place to meet is a greater challenge than the time to meet. A public place is best because it is neutral ground, it requires no one to have hosting chores, and it is a way of naturally drawing newcomers. Private homes are an option only if nothing else works. (And of course, there is something Distributist and Chestertonian about using a home because “nothing else works.”) Libraries, bookstores, student lounges, or church basements may be good places to meet (and all of them are generally receptive to the idea of a Chesterton society meeting in their space), but it should not be overlooked that Chesterton is a convivial writer, better enjoyed with a glass of something to drink, and best enjoyed if there are “drinks all around,” which, as Chesterton himself pointed out, is the literal meaning of the word, Symposium. But most drinking establishments have loud music blaring or televisions hanging in one’s face and are not at all conducive to discussion, but only to shouting. A private room in a public place is the ideal.

Now here are five basic suggestions for getting a local society started:

  1. A few prayers wouldn’t hurt.
  2. Publicity.
    Start by contacting the American Chesterton Society. We will give your group a free notice on our web page (www.chesterton.org) under local societies. We will also give you whatever names and addresses we have of Chestertonians in your area. Depending on where you live, this list can include up to two or three names. That might not be a core group, but at least it’s a core of a core group. After this easy bit is over, you have to invest a little time and money in getting the word out. You should put some ads in local newspapers. Especially local: some community papers will post the notice of your meetings, especially your first meetings, at no charge. Put up flyers in libraries, bookstores, schools, local colleges or universities, churches, coffeehouses, and community centers. Try to have as impressive as possible a poster at your regular meeting place.
  3. Stage a kick-off event.
    There is one obvious event, which requires real effort, but is usually worth it. Invite Chuck Chalberg to come to your area to do his one-man Chesterton show. This is always a hit and can be done in conjunction with a school or a church (as you will need a stage or an auditorium). It will pay for itself and will generate new interest in Chesterton as well as re-kindling old interest. The closet Chestertonians cannot resist something like this. If Chuck is unavailable or if one-man theatre does not appeal to you, then invite that guy who is the President of the American Chesterton Society to come and give a talk on Chesterton and answer a bunch of questions. Or invite both guys and make a real event out of it. (They work well together.) Or invite someone else. Invite Sophia Loren. Or Neil Armstrong.
  4. Don’t start with Orthodoxy.
    When you hold your first regular meeting at which you will be discussing a book, don’t choose Orthodoxy for the first one. You will knock the wind out of yourself. Neither should you choose The Everlasting Man as the first Chesterton book to discuss. What should start with instead? See the next point.
  5. Here are five suggestions of what to start with:
    1. The Apostle of Common Sense by Dale Ahlquist
    2. Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist (as self-serving as those suggestions may sound, those books are actually designed to introduce people to Chesterton, and have in fact been used successfully to get other local groups going.)
    3. The Father Brown Stories
    4. A book of Chesterton essays (A Miscellany of MenOn Lying in Bed and Other EssaysTremendous Trifles, a volume of Illustrated London News essays)
    5. One great way to have a first meeting is have the core group bring some of their favorite Chesterton quotations and explain how they discovered Chesterton. It will be an easy and delightful way to begin.

Once you get your local Chesterton society started, here are five basic pieces of advice for keeping it going:

  1. Buy your Chesterton books from the American Chesterton Society.
    Now this may also sound a bit self-serving, coming from the President of the American Chesterton Society, but it is even more self-serving than it sounds. Not only will you be supporting the American Chesterton Society, but you will be supporting the publishers of Chesterton books, thereby encouraging them to keep Chesterton in print and to bring out new editions and new titles, which in turn will create more interest in Chesterton. The reason this is self-serving is because I’ve been telling these publishers for years that there is a market for Chesterton, and you can help prove to them that I am right. But the other thing is, if you buy your books from the ACS, you can get them at a 20% discount (if you’ve paid your annual ACS membership).
  2. Besides book discussions, which will probably be the mainstay of the meetings, you should occasionally do something different: stage a reading of one of Chesterton’s plays or poems. Or stage a debate. Debates are good and healthy if they remain respectful and courteous and good-humored at all times (in other words, if they remain Chestertonian.)
  3. As for the book discussions, don’t spend too much time on one book. Better you to leave them wanting more than having more of them wanting to leave. Don’t be worried about running out of material. There are enough Chesterton books to last a long time. Also, encourage all the local members to subscribe to Gilbert Magazine as each issue will provide plenty of fodder for discussion.
  4. Once you are up and running with a steady group of regulars, it is okay to read and discuss Orthodoxy. And it is okay to read it again later. In fact, it is okay to read it once a year for ten years.
  5. Finally, and most importantly, focus on Chesterton.
    Never forget that Chesterton appeals to people for a variety of reasons. Therefore, you can expect a variety of people at your meetings: a mix of Catholics and Protestants and Jews, of Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians, of students and professors and professionals and amateurs and real people who work for a living. The wonder of Chesterton is how complete and consistent he is. If the overall focus narrows to only one aspect of Chesterton – to his Catholicism, his Distributism, his detective fiction, etc. – you will lose or alienate people, especially those who may be just starting to be drawn to his writing. At the same time, nothing of Chesterton should be avoided. Those who avoid any one part of Chesterton – his Catholicism, his Distributism, his detective fiction, etc. – are only cheating themselves. Most importantly, you must always make everyone feel welcome even if they seem interested only in part of Chesterton – his Catholicism or his Distributism or his detective fiction, and so on. Bring them all in and keep them in, so that they discover the rest of Chesterton. Catholics will benefit from hearing why Chesterton appeals to non-Catholics, Protestants will benefit from hearing Chesterton’s lively defense of the Catholic faith, Democrats will benefit from hearing his scathing critique of Big Government, Republicans will benefit from hearing his scathing critique of Big Business, Students will benefit from getting what they have missed in the classroom, Professors, same thing. Everybody wins.

Five Answers to Five Questions

Q: Should we plan a year’s worth of meetings in advance? After all, this gives people a chance to get the books, to prepare for the meeting, and to have a good reason for not coming.
A: Sure.

Q: Is it necessary for us to be directly affiliated with the American Chesterton Society?
A: Nope.

Q: But shouldn’t we at least make reports and keep the American Chesterton Society updated on our activities?
A: Sure.

Q: Would we get a bigger discount on books if we bought a whole bunch at once?
A: Probably. Contact us for more information.

Q: What’s the best way to run a meeting? Should there be a list of questions passed out ahead of time? Or should the discussion leader just have a few questions to get things started? Should it always be the same discussion leader? How do you keep one person from talking too much? What happens if there is a violent disagreement?
A: If the meeting is on the news the next morning, you’re on the right track.

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