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old books

Topsy-Turvy (Part 1)

By Matthew Barrett –

[photo by Keitha McCall]

I love to read books, good books that is. But the truth is, there are so many books to read, old and new. If you are a habitual reader as I am then you know what I am talking about. The combination of your zeal to read and learn along with the enormous amount of reading material to cover can be a recipe for feeling as though you will never conquer those “Great” books.

One author I return to again and again for advice on these matters is C. S. Lewis. His writing style is amusing, he uses words not usually adopted today, and most importantly he is full of wisdom and insight. I am particularly fond of his “Introduction” to On the Incarnation, by Athanasius. Lewis, in this essay, is spilling over with wisdom on how to go about reading books. But that is not all. He also has something important to say about doctrine and devotion (which we will get to in Part 2). So what wisdom does Lewis have for us today?

Read the Primary Sources

Even the best scholars fall into the terrible temptation of reading only secondary sources rather than the primary sources. If this is you, then be warned: you are seriously missing out. It is like choosing to listen to a friend talk about the most delicious cheesecake in the world when all along you can go and taste the cheesecake for yourself. Surely your friend’s words are no match for the cheesecake once your taste buds have a chance at it.

To make matters worse, secondary sources tend to be boring (not always, but in comparison to the real thing). Lewis explains,

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 in 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. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

So put down Steven Ozment or Owen Chadwick and pick up Martin Luther’s 95 Theses or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Put aside Justo L. González and read St. Augustine.

Don’t Let Fear Keep You From Meeting the Greats Face to Face

Why is it that we prefer to read or limit ourselves to the secondary sources rather than reading the original authors themselves? Lewis answers,

The error [of reading the dreary modern books rather than the original author] is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers 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. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

To be certain, I am sure it is the case that for some the reason they turn to the modern commentator rather than reading the greats for themselves is because they are just plain lazy. They never kicked the bad habit of using Cliffs Notes in high school. But for others, the fear is real. I remember the first time I truly tried to tackle Calvin. Before I began I sensed fear, knowing this was one of the greatest theologians of all time. But when I broke into the first page I soon realized that Lewis was right. The greats are often times much easier to read than the modern commentators. My sense of inadequacy quickly disappeared. This is not a fixed golden rule, for it is the case that there are some Greats that truly are difficult to read, especially if they are using a dated style of English, for example. In cases like these, a modern commentator can be helpful. But much of the time you will be delightfully surprised to discover how easy it is to understand Athanasius, for example. And you will be better off, for as Lewis underscores, firsthand knowledge is far more valuable.

Theologians, Shame on You!

Unfortunately, Lewis is right: Theologians are the worst. “Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.” Let me rephrase Lewis to get the point across:

“Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, but Karl Barth, D. A. Carson, or N. T. Wright.”

To qualify, yes, it is good to read what today’s (and yesterday’s) scholars are saying (especially Carson!). But, as Lewis says, this can never be to the neglect of the biblical authors. When was the last time you read all of Paul’s epistles or all of the gospels within a week’s time? And when preparing a sermon, do you first turn to what the newest commentator has to say or do you first open the Scriptures to let the author brand his words on your heart and mind? If you are doing the former, then, as Lewis quips, you are doing things “topsy-turvy.”

Read the Old Books

We are all busy. Between work, family, church, and everything else that vies for our time, our time to read is limited. Therefore, we all have choices to make. Which books will we read and which books will we neglect? If Lewis were here he would say to you: Read the old books!

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new books 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.

The old books have stood the test of time. The new books have not. I wish I could tell you how often I have seen a book hit the press, climb the bestseller charts, and then one year later see the book forgotten and neglected on a Goodwill bookshelf, sold for 25 cents. But the old books are harder to find because they are the ones fathers pass on to their sons and sons pass on to their sons.

Also, notice what Lewis says about the new books and the amateur reader. The amateur is less protected than the experienced reader to an “exclusive contemporary diet.” There are many, many bad new books. And while they are new they tend to be all the rave. It is so very easy for the amateur to be influenced in the midst of the hype. But the old books, well, they have been tested (unlike the new books). In some ways, they are safe, a sure guide to the immature. Just to give one contemporary example, I wonder how many Christians would have seen T. D. Jakes’ modalism for what it truly was if they had already been acquainted with the works of the early church fathers.

That said, Lewis leaves us with his famous words, “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.”

To be continued . . .

Matthew Barrett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett has contributed book reviews and articles to various academic journals, and he is the author of several forthcoming books. He is married to Elizabeth and they have two daughters, Cassandra and Georgia. He is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

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