Posted by: Billy Marsh | January 15, 2008

Reading the Classics

This year I resolve to read as many Christian classics as I can including classic fiction in general (Christian or secular).” ~ Those are the exact words that I have written in my 2007 day-timer on January 1st. It was my “New Year’s Resolution” for last year, one that I actually thought was doable and just as profitable.

The more that I continue to grow in my spiritual walk as well as in my own educational studies, the more I realize the value of primary sources and ancient works. Although there is little that I regret from my childhood, the one thing that does cause me to rub my forehead and shake my head in disappointment was my failure growing up to partake in any reading whatsoever, besides the Bible of course (disclaimer: Dad always tried to get me to read). In fact, I’m going to expose much of my ignorance for you right now: I probably didn’t read a full book from cover to cover until my last couple years of college, fiction or non-fiction, Christian or non-Christian. Therefore, I am forever playing “catch-up” with my peers and probably with most of the church at large. And let me just confess, it is doubly-hard to try and keep up with the current theological streams of today and also the foundational and “must-read” texts of Christian and church history.

Furthermore, as stated in my resolution above, my list to read grew broader as I exposed myself to Francis Schaeffer’s writings in terms of his encouragement to read beyond Christian circles. Developing a Christian worldview, thanks to shepherds such as Schaeffer, Colson, and Pearcey, I gathered an appetite for all classical literature. As a human, a part of mankind and world history, I constantly feel more and more left out as I have neglected to appreciate works such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Fydor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

At the outset of 2007, I knew that I would have plenty of other reading assignments, but was determined to make room for the classics whenever possible. For instance, in the spring semester of ’07, I took Dr. Jason Lee’s “Theological Interpretation” class. One of the assignments was to pick a book from the bibliography that he supplied for the class, and write a brief summary. I chose to read Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching which proved to be one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

As the year continued, I tried to acquaint myself with the classics, whether ancient (Irenaeus) or relatively old (C. S. Lewis; Spurgeon), and came up greatly rewarded and forever changed every time. Thus, I would commend all of you to broaden your reading repertoire in 2008. Now, my resolution has become part of my lifestyle, one which I could not imagine living without.

God in the Dock ~ C. S. Lewis

In his essay entitled, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock, C. S. Lewis writes, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones (201).” Lewis’ practical counsel is well-worth heeding. Negligence of the classics, especially in theology, and only showing attention to newer works places the Christian in dangerous territory. For example, Lewis posits, “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light (201).”

Interestingly, this particular article by Lewis was penned as an introduction to St. Athanasius’ The Incarnation of the Word of God. Later in the article, Lewis becomes more specific concerning the necessity and benefit of reading the classics of Christianity, but listen to some of his opening words. I hope this year you will find yourself immersed in the works that have paved the way and laid the foundation for today’s books.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor of English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. . . . The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosphers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. . . . It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire (200).

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Responses

  1. Billy,
    Amen and Amen! This posting was a big encouragement and a challenge for me. I grew up feasting on the classics, I read Robinson Crusoe when I was about 12. In the last couple of years I just haven’t been up to reading much. But I think maybe I can pick back up this year. Hmmm, which classic should I read…I started the Iliad by Homer in the summer but haven’t gotten very far, maybe I should return to ancient Troy?

    I have done Sproul’s TableTalk for about ten years or so, Love It!

    Thanks for the good word!

    BW


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