The Ball and the Cross

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Category: Classic
Date Published: November 24, 2012
Number of Pages: 160
Print Price: $7.37
eBook Price: $3.03

“For the world of science and evolution is far more nameless and elusive and like a dream than the world of poetry and religion; since in the latter images and ideas remain themselves eternally, while it is the whole idea of evolution that identities melt into each other as they do in a nightmare.” Spoken by the narrator near the beginning of G. K. Chesterton’s highly allegorical narrative The Ball and the Cross, these words are an excellent synopsis of the major theme of his second novel – belief versus unbelief.

The story begins with a glimpse into a flying ship which is hovering above the earth with two passengers, Professor Lucifer who is an inventor and Father Michael, a monk who is old, happy, intelligent and quite good at defending the Catholic Faith against heresy. The professor has kidnapped the old monk (to improve him) and after an argument drops him over St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Atop the dome of St. Paul’s is a large sculpture of a ball with a cross on top of it.

At nearly the same time, the two main characters are presented to the reader. Evan MacIan, a Roman Catholic, notices an article hanging in the window of The Atheist, a local newspaper. He reads the piece which is extremely disparaging to the Blessed Mother and is outraged. He grabs a rock and breaks the window of the shop which is owned by James Turnbull who also happens to be the editor of the periodical. A disturbance occurs and both Scotsmen are brought before the authorities. Before their release, MacIan swears to duel Turnbull if it is the last thing he ever does. It is their quest to carry out the duel that is the main plot of the novel.

It seems that the two men are the only two people remaining in the world that care about religion one way or the other. Turnbull has longed for many years for his writing to anger someone; no one even pays attention to his publication any more. MacIan, the Highlander as he is called, seems to come from another time and place when honor, dignity, and belief in God actually mattered to someone.

The two spend the rest of the story meeting people who would either not have them fight at all or have them fight for the wrong reasons. One man, a “Tolstoian” – he adheres to the pacifism of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy – suffers with what is ultimately a type of relativism. He doesn’t want the men to fight but will not call the police as he doesn’t believe in any type of force – “only Love.” A young woman they meet doesn’t try to stop them because she is looking for meaning in life and thinks that MacIan and Turnbull may have “got the way out.” She is searching for some way to break the confines of her meaningless, unhappy life. At each instance the men see the importance of continuing to carry out their oath.

Each episode also presents Chesterton with the opportunity to do what he does best – defend the teachings of the Catholic Church. Each occasion touches on some error that has faced and continues to face the Church to this day. Memorable is Chesterton’s treatment of human nature and man’s ability to know Truth. “There is a part of me which is divine,” MacIan says, “a part that can be trusted, but there are also affections which are entirely animal and idle.” There are also several wonderful instances where he defends the constancy of the Church through the ages and its autonomy from worldly matters.

What I enjoy most about Chesterton is his ability in his writings to apply common sense to apologetics. He does this in his novel most effectively in his defense of the true progressiveness of Catholicism. In one of their many conversations about their beliefs, MacIan says to Turnbull, “Free-thought can never be progressive. It can never be progressive because it will accept nothing from the past; it begins every time again from the beginning.” Few writers have the capability to make seemingly complicated matters seem so uncomplicated in such an effortless way.

In the end, both Chesterton’s coherent arguments and his entertaining writing style make this novel one that should be read again and again. It has interesting characters, a quickly-paced plotline, and even a bit of a surprise ending. The apologetic wisdom throughout makes it relevant for readers today, even over 100 years since its original publication. Catholics, maybe now more than ever, are faced with heresies in their daily lives.

The world is in danger of the sin that haunts the inhabitants of London in The Ball and the Cross – the sin of making religious belief (i.e. God) insignificant. This book, like all of Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s work, gives everyday story-lovers the perfect mixture of enjoyable reading and Church doctrine. It will definitely stay in my library.

ISBN-13: 978-1481085021
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.4 inches

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Michelle Sheehan Tholen is a graduate of Catholic Distance University (CDU). She holds a Master's Degree in Theology with a concentration in Catholic Culture from that institution and a BA in English from the University of Maryland University College. She is the mother of two, lives in Bayou Vista, Louisiana with her husband, Paul and teaches English at Hanson Memorial High School. Mrs. Tholen is a writer for the CDU Year of Faith blog at

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