Dale Ahlquist Interviews Mark Shea for Gilbert Magazine
GM: Mark, you have been described as “A hero of Blogdom” and “The closest thing we have to a modern Chesterton.” Why would anyone say such things?
MS: Beats me. I guess it’s because I’m a big blogger. Or at least I was until I took a break from my blog to write a book. I’m still big, though. Of the speakers at your recent Chesterton conference, I noticed I was the fattest one there. But I think that’s where my resemblance to Chesterton begins and ends.
GM: But you’re also funny. Or so I’m told. I have no actual proof of this. Is there a connection between largeness and funniness?
MS: Chesterton said “To be fat is to be laughed at.” One of the few funny stories in the Old Testament concerns a fat man. When Ehud, the Judge of Israel, went to confront Eglon, the King of the Midianites, he stabbed Eglon with his sword, and Eglon was so fat that the fat closed over the hilt of the sword, and his servants didn’t even know he’d been stabbed. And Ehud made a clean get away.
GM: You can’t get much funnier than that. We’ll talk some more about your blogging later, but I should warn you: Do you realize that the last time we interviewed a prominent blogger it led to her being fired?
MS: Well, I don’t think that will happen in my case because I’d have to fire myself. And that’s the essence of hell.
GM: Since this is an interview for a magazine that has something to do with Chesterton and Chesterton wrote about everything, what would you like to say about everything?
MS: I’m in favor of it.
GM: The magazine?
MS: No, everything.
GM: Why is that?
MS: Because God is in favor of everything. He has more nuanced opinions when it comes to demons and such, but at some fundamental level, He is in favor of everything. Otherwise it wouldn’t be there.
GM: Any particular aspects of everything that you particularly favor?
MS: Swimming in lakes in summertime. I think God is particularly in favor of that, too. There is even a connection with baptism, which God has gone on record as being particularly in favor of.
GM: Would you like to say anything about Chesterton?
MS: I’m definitely in favor of Chesterton. I think he’s one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Sadly it was not reserved to him to write The Lord of the Rings, so I cannot call him the greatest novelist of the 20th century. But my debt to him is colossal.
GM: Tell us about that colossal debt.
MS: Chesterton, more than anybody else, helped me to learn to think with the mind of Christ. That is to say, he taught me how to think like a Catholic. He taught me how to have that sense of balance where the Church is balanced and that sense of emphasis where the Church is emphatic. He taught me that at the heart of the faith is joy. I think that Catholics who forget that really are forgetting what it means to be Catholic. I see so many Catholics who get lost on peripheral stuff, whether it is “social justice” or the Latin Mass. They forget the God Who is Joyful, the God Who likes stuff, which is why He made it, and the God Who is confident enough to run the universe He created. Chesterton knew that joy, that confidence. He knew that the faith is a fighting faith, but he also knew it is a joyful fight. He recognized that anger is medicine and not food. I think a lot of Catholics have forgotten that and have begun to treat anger as a kind of food–which is the quickest way to turn it into addictive drug.
GM: When Chesterton became Catholic, he said that he read something in the Catechism that summed up everything in his was trying to write about; it was that the two sins against hope are presumption and despair. Would you say the problem with many Catholics is that they have gotten “lost” by losing their hope, either by presumption or despair?
MS: Exactly. Chesterton never errs towards one or the other, which allows him, among other things, to have a lot of fun. He really does recognize that a holy day is a holiday. Joy, of course, is something different from fun. Fun is an inconsequential thing. But at the same time, he was capable of having a lot of fun because he was joyful. I owe a great many ideas to Chesterton, but more than anything else he gave me that sense of balance and that rootedness in the joy of God. He has a way of seeing that almost precedes anything he has to say. I have tried to adopt that same posture, if you will.
GM: Of course, if you’re large and funny, you must have that keen sense of balance.
MS: It’s true! Otherwise you’re falling down a lot.
GM: What’s your favorite Chesterton quotation?
MS: “When the modern critical intellectual says he can no longer accept the doctrine of the Trinity and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, it usually means, ‘I’m sleeping with my neighbor’s wife.'”
GM: Are you aware that Chesterton said no such thing?
MS: I don’t believe it.
GM: It’s a good line, though. By all means, keep quoting it.
MS: I might have paraphrased it.
GM: You see, I get emails all the time from people who want to know the source of that quotation because they’ve heard you say it.
MS: I’m pretty sure I read it…somewhere in a… thing.
GM: Good enough for me.
MS: If he didn’t say it, he would have said it.
GM: Then it’s just as good as authentic.
MS: It’s certainly as good as “When a man stops believing in God…”
GM: Not to interrupt or anything, but … well, speaking of interruptions … you said you have interrupted your blogging to finish a book. Tell us about the book.
MS: It’s a book on Mary. You could say it’s the book on Mary that I wish I had read when I was entering the Church. It deals particularly with the issues that Protestant converts coming into the Church have to deal with: Where does the Church get all this stuff about Mary? The Theotokos, the perpetual virginity, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption. We talk about how doctrine develops and how it becomes dogma. We talk about the things that Catholics must believe about Mary and may believe about Mary, such as Marian devotion, Marian titles, apparitions and private revelations.
GM: Wait a minute, are we talking about Mary Magdalene, the woman who married Jesus and was the first pope? Or some other Mary?
MS: The other Mary. Not the one with the red hair.
GM: So when are you going to finish this book, so you can resume your popular blog?
MS: Soon. I hope.
GM: Let’s talk about blogging. What can you tell us about it in general?
MS: It is an interesting phenomenon. Basically, it fulfills a lifelong dream that anybody who has ever thrown their tennis shoe at the television has felt. It allows you for the very first time, when you see a piece of twaddle or read a piece of tripe, to link to it — through the miracle of the internet — and provide a line-by-line refutation of it. Which is what someone did with Dan Rather and directly hastened his retirement. That’s a new thing. And a good thing, I think. It has given a voice to the common man that he never had before.
GM: Blog is short “Web Log.” It’s an online diary. It’s almost an online scrapbook. Chesterton said that when he started G.K.’s Weekly, his own newspaper, it was like a public scrapbook, into which he could put anything he wanted, and he thought that everybody should have one. Well now, everybody can.
MS: Yes, it’s given everybody a chance to basically start their own newspaper. Or magazine. One of the reasons I got started, besides the fact that I just like to talk a lot, is that I wanted to give a layperson’s perspective of the sex abuse scandal in the Church. A lot of stupid things were being said — like “This never would have happened if women were priests,” or “This never would have happened if priests didn’t have to be celibate,” — and I simply pointed out the facts which contradict those ridiculous statements. There are plenty of cases of women teachers in the public schools taking advantage of students. And as for the celibacy argument, the fact that more than 80% of the victims were teenage boys tells you that something else is going on. So I wanted to point these things out, and I had a forum in which to do it. The other reason I got involved in it is that a blog allows you to interact with other people. Since I’m a writer and an extrovert, I’m cursed with a job that keeps me sitting in a room by myself all day, and so this is an opportunity for me to stick my nose outside my window and chat with passing neighbors about what’s going on. Which I suspect is what drove Chesterton to do a lot of what he did, because a lot of his writing seems to be a way of socializing with other people.
GM: Yes, it is a sort of conversation that Chesterton is still having. We’ve been lucky enough to get in on it. Now that Chesterton’s wish has come true, that everybody can in effect have his own newspaper, we’ve seen an explosion in blogging, and now there is more to read than anybody can possibly read. What now? Or what next?
MS: It’s hard to say. It is still a very young technology. One of the things I have noted is that the basic culture of the internet is Libertarian. Among other things that means it’s not Catholic. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to the internet. What you find is a whole culture of individuals, who tend not to care what other people think. That makes for very interesting reading. You often see very eccentric opinions about all sorts of things.
GM: Eccentric and well-expressed.
MS: Of course. If you’re a lousy writer, nobody reads your blog. There are good writers with bad ideas. Evil ideas. And one of the things you discover, for good or ill, is that the internet is not controllable. I’m ambiguous about that because it’s nice to be able to speak your mind without some editor saying, “You can’t say that!” On the other hand, unfortunately, the internet makes it possible for white supremacists to get in contact with each other and network, and for every form of evil to find a forum.
GM: But as St. Thomas Aquinas said, “There are no bad things, only bad uses of things.”
MS: Yes, the internet is only a technology, and it’s up to us to use it wisely. I look at my own role on the internet, as a Catholic, to act as a little bit of leaven, and spread some good, a little here, a little there.
GM: The internet has made this sort of global backyard fence, but in the meantime, our actual backyard fences have become drastically deserted. The internet has allowed us to travel great distances easily so we can stand around and talk with people who agree with us. But Chesterton favored localism, saying that the great thing about a family or a small community, is that we have to put up with people who do not always think the way we do, who are “uncongenial.” Do you see a danger in the internet causing, in fact, less interaction among people who think differently because everyone is seeking like-minded individuals in cyberspace?
MS: Yes and no. I try on my own blog to be pretty lenient about different comments coming in. My rule is: Think of my blog as my living room. If I invite someone into my home, I generally don’t appreciate it if they spit on the carpet and punch out the other guests. I’d probably ask them to leave. But apart from that, arguing is welcome. I get a lot of readers who disagree with me, who think I’m nuts, who question my patriotism, and my relationship with God and everything else. That’s okay. On the other hand, what often tends to happen in cyberspace is a very disembodied way of approaching other people. That does odd things to the human voice. People will say things in cyberspace that they would never say in person. But even this isn’t new, I don’t think. I begin to wonder, having witnessed this phenomenon, if something similar happened at the time of the Reformation. You had people speaking to each other then they way they do now over cyberspace, but then they had this cool new technology called the printing press that allowed them to write these broadsides against people in other countries that they’d never met, and call them all sorts of colorful names. Pig-faced pawns of Satan. 16th century polemics is full of that.
GM: One of Chesterton’s many gifts was his ability to argue with a huge range of people and enjoy them (and they him) as he did it. Do you think Chesterton would have enjoyed the internet?
MS: Actually, I do. Of course, he would have been helpless in figuring out how to make the damned computer work and would have needed his wife to boot it up every time he wanted to go on-line. But then, one can only expect a certain natural cyber-superiority from a woman named Frances Blogg.