A friend recently showed me something C. S. Lewis wrote about modern books. I’d never read it. I’d never even heard of it. It’s great. (Thank you Sarah!) He wrote an introduction to a then new translation of St. Athanasius’s The Word of God Incarnate.
His introduction is in the public domain. I include most of it below, though I shortened it for this blog. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.
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 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.
If the student 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.
This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. 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, but M. Berdyaev or M M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.
Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. 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 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.
The biases of an age
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.
All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming—without question—a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.
They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions.
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.
But not the same mistakes
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.
We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth.
The present book [the translation for which he writes this introduction] is something of an experiment. Translations of the Imitation, the Scale of Perfection, and the Revelations of Lady Julian of Norwich, are already on the market, and are very valuable. But it will be noticed that these are all books of devotion rather than of doctrine.
Devotion or doctrine?
Now the layman or amateur needs to be instructed as well as to be exhorted. In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing. And I do not admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.
I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.
I saw. I read. I was convicted. My old-book to new-book reading ratio is something like one in ten, maybe one in twenty. And now I’m curious. I’m off to find an old copy of Pilgrim’s Progress.
For a Kindle version of this book, click here: On The Incarnation of The Word of God
For a paperback version of this book, click here: On The Incarnation of The Word of God
Amy @ Wildflower Ramblings
Sam, I especially love: “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.”
Thanks for sharing, I am becoming increasingly challenged (thanks, Priscilla!) to read more of the classics.
PS: I have an original edition of Pilgrim’s Progress if you need a good, old, non-modern copy 😉
For those who don’t know where to begin… I started reading “The Quotable Lewis” when it first came out 20 years ago.
Debbie and I still have two copies of this close at hand in our home. There are used and new copies on Amazon.
The work was compiled / edited by a man we met in Oxford, England… Dr. Jerry Root (info: http://www.wheaton.edu/Academics/Faculty/R/Jerry-Root). A truly warm-hearted man with whom we later spent a few hours at his home in Wheaton, Illinois.
What a great follow-up to your last post!
I particularly love Lewis’ observation about ecumenism across time (a point which you made in a response to one of my comments last time–I bet you got it from this piece!). He makes a point that is dear to my heart and holds true in both kinds of ecumenical relating (i.e. reaching back to historical Christians and reaching out toward the variety of contemporary Christians), namely that a varied diet makes for a healthier body.
The direction of my prayer life over the last few years has piqued my interest in the early Christian mystics. I’ve recently read selections from Meister Eckhardt (which I did not find very useful); The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous 14th century mystic (which I got a great deal out of); the autobiography of Marjory Kempe, an early 15th century housewife and the oldest known autobiography in English (which I adored); The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila (which I thought profound, endearing, practical and challenging); A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly, a 20th century Quaker (which I now keep by my bed because any random paragraph will always cut straight to my heart), and selected writings of John Woolman, an 18th century American Quaker (exemplifying an astonishing integrity of life and convincing me to find and read his entire journal).
Each book I read suggests others, and I’m keeping a list to buy or borrow.
I’d love to hear from your other readers what “old” books they have read, what drew them to those books, and what they thought of them.
What a can of worms you have opened…or maybe mayhem…or perhaps enlightenment.
I am currently reading a revised edition of Pagan Christianity. (I know it is a modern work…hear me out.) That alone might cause murmurs of dissention or rebellion if I were to discuss the contents in my Evangelical/Anglican world where I worship publicly. Although it is a modern work, the references offer a lifetime of footnotes and citations to explore, in regard to our heritage, in both modern and ancient texts.
I have sat in many “churches” were people are encouraged to stick to the Bible (with the notion that, like knowing counterfeit tender, you can only know truth by handling the “real thing.” The underlying messages is that churchgoers are not as enlightened or scholarly as clergy who are trained to sort things out for what is truth on their own.
One question remains: Does a sovereign and loving God give us the latitude to explore his creation in all its complexity without adding his personal two cents as we walk with Him?
I don’t think so.
Sam, Sarah, et al,
Lewis’s introduction to “De Incarnatione” was republished in “God in the Dock,” Eerdmans, 1970. The advent of the Internet has made it easier to at least approximate his suggested one-to-one ratio of old-to-new. For Timm and your other readers I would pass along the advice of one of my mentors and recommend using one of the theological classics as a “warm-up” to time in the Bible. “Some of my most influential spiritual mentors have been dead for hundreds of years.”