Sunday, September 09, 2007

When Old is Good and New Not so Much

After plowing through endless pages of some perfectly dreary “contemporary” books lately, I have been reminded of the advice C.S. Lewis once gave regarding the reading of “old books.”

"We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them” (from his introduction to “Athanasius on the Incarnation”).

The “top ten” Christian books today include titles such as: 1. Forever; 2. Get Out of that Pit; 3. 90 Minutes in Heaven; 4. Facing Your Giants; 5. Ever After; 6. The Five Love Languages; 7. Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World; 8. Sex God; 9. The Purpose-Driven Life; 10: White Chocolate Moments.
All that is missing is Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential by the famously famous Joel Osteen.

I’m no expert, but my guess is that books by Athanasius, Augustine, Calvin, Owen, Warfield, Charnock, Chesterton, Lewis, Denney, Edwards, Luther, Gill, Bunyan, Kierkegaard, Pink, Ryle, Spurgeon, Brother Lawrence, Law, Hodge, Strong, Dabney, and the like might possibly have a chance to bring more spiritual impact to the reader than truckloads of the contemporary stuff.

And, lest you complain that people would not be able to understand such "complex" works, remember that at the time of the Reformation, Luther's books were eagerly snatched up and read by peasants as well as priests. The massive three-volume Institutes of Elenctic Theology by Reformer Francis Turretin, now considered an advanced volume reserved for specialists, was once viewed as an introductory catechetical text.

Baptist Calvinist Tom Ascol recently reminded us that Baptist John Broadus offered similar advice to young preachers when he wrote:

"I think that young men should be specially exhorted to read old books. If you have a friend in the ministry who is growing old, urge him to read mainly new books, that he may freshen his mind and keep in sympathy with his surroundings. 'But must not young men keep abreast of the age?' Certainly, only the first thing is to get abreast of the age, and in order to this, they must go back to where the age came from, and join there the great procession of its moving thought" ( Lectures on the History of Preaching, 230-31).

My next book? John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ of course! After all, it is too good to be new.


Dave Miller said...

Dennis, how true you are. At least there is no "Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul" on that list.

What is perhaps more depressing is not that your list is just for the average Christian reader, but that it also sums up the heft of theological readings for a lot of leaders once they exit seminary.

How about your Top Ten Books to Read Once You Leave Seminary?

J.R. Maz said...

Owen - The "Filet Mignot" of preacher theologians for the robust of heart & brain!