Why Read Old Books? C. S. Lewis Tells Us Why

“Every age has its own outlook,” C. S. Lewis instructed. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Amen to that. “We all, therefore,” he continued, “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Was Lewis saying that only old books are worthwhile? Was he so anti-modern that he believed nothing written in the last century could conceivably offer us wisdom? After all, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” one of the last specimens of those who live comfortably in their native land of previous epochs.

That’s hardly his intention. What he was doing in this quote was attacking the oh-so-modern fallacy (found in every age, by the way) that we have progressed so far that we understand things much better than previous ages and generations.

I teach historiography. Part of the course delves into different schools of historical interpretation. One common mistake for historians is to believe that progress is inevitable, that each succeeding generation is wiser than the last one.

I ran into this perspective in my doctoral program. One book used in a course on American colonial history was infused with a sneeringly condescending attitude toward those so-called primitive early Americans. They were just so backward, the book implied. Not like the new generation that has come so far.

Of course, in the view of that author, to “come so far” meant that we have set aside all those outmoded ideas about God that seemed to drive many of the early settlers. The hubris in the book was astounding.

All Lewis was saying in this quote is that each era has its truth emphases and each also has its own characteristic mistakes and/or falsehoods that it believes. How do we guard against this arrogance? Return to the thoughts and beliefs of earlier times and keep in mind that whatever faults they had, they also might have contained truths that we, in our pride, have foolishly abandoned.

The “old books” are not error-free, but they do put a check on our runaway love affair with ourselves. They remind us of things we may have forgotten as a society.

There is one old book, though, that is error-free and never leads us astray. If we take it seriously, our pride is leveled and we recognize our true place in the universe.

As I survey the mess our current society has devolved into, I’m reminded of another Lewis quote: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse.” If we are disturbed by what we see happening morally in our day, we must acknowledge the real reason for this development. We have allowed our Christianity to be compromised to the point that it no longer is the salt and light it was intended to be.

We must return to the one Old Book that puts things right again.

The Bible as Literature? Lewis Comments

When I was getting my undergraduate degree and only then solidifying my Christian faith, I took one course called “The Bible as Literature.” I was attending Purdue University, a large public institution with no leanings toward Christian faith, so I naturally was pleased to see such a course offered.

I didn’t go into it completely unaware of what a course like that might entail, given the probability that the professor would be someone who would view the Bible differently than I did. But I wanted to give it a chance and perhaps come out with something worthwhile.

I was disappointed with respect to getting anything worthwhile from the course itself, but it was tantamount to a graduate education on how the world outside my evangelical orbit viewed what I believe to be sacred writings.

C. S. Lewis, in a 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version,” tackled that whole approach of reading/teaching the Bible as literature, and, as usual, his perspective brings a freshness—even an audacity—to the subject.

In light of certain literary tastes, Lewis asks whether those particular tastes will help people appreciate the Bible more. He comes down on the side of what I experienced in that course taught by a professor who saw nothing sacred about the text:

Stripped (for most readers) of its divine authority, stripped of its allegorical senses, denied a romantic welcome for its historical sense, will it none the less return on the wave of some new fashion to literary pre-eminence and be read? . . .

I offer my guess. I think it very unlikely that the Bible will return as a book unless it returns as a sacred book.

Lewis was writing of the version we know of as the King James, which many might appreciate for its Shakespearean-era language. Yet he doubts that, in itself, will be sufficient to entice more readers.

Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only “mouth honour” and that decreasingly. For it is, through and through, a sacred book. Most of its component parts were written, and all of them were brought together, for a purely religious purpose.

People may offer a modicum of “honor” to the Bible as literature, but they are merely going through the motions. They don’t really intend to treat it seriously; after all, it has all those outrageous doctrines that exclude all other religions. It claims to bring the only real truth—and they can’t accept that.

Neither Aeschylus nor even Virgil tacitly prefaces his poetry with the formula “Thus say the gods.” But in most parts of the Bible everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with “Thus saith the Lord.”

It is, if you like to put it that way, not merely a sacred book but a book so remorselessly and continuously sacred that it does not invite, it excludes or repels, the merely aesthetic approach.

No matter which version of the Bible one reads today, Lewis’s point remains:

It demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms: it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different.

It the Bible is not the Word of God, it has no real value, at least not for eternity. If it is the Word of God, it is of the utmost value, and that is how it should be read and taught.

Focusing on the Eternal

Last year’s political season was probably the most divisive in modern American history. The nature of the presidential race was such that I felt compelled to concentrate on it in this blog. However, I always sought to provide thoughts on other topics as well. After all, this blog is not about politics and government only; it’s about life overall.

I have a daily routine of online sites I check for current events and commentary, but I don’t limit my reading to those. That would be unbalanced. I am a voracious reader. It’s not just my profession as a history professor that mandates it; I thrive on reading.

My foundational reading for life is always going to be Scripture. I just completed reading the Bible through again. Whenever I do that, I use a different version to keep the message fresh.

My newest Bible-reading project will be long-term, as I’ve begun to delve into a study Bible that will keep me occupied for at least a couple of years. I’m not going to rush through it. I’ll take my time while I meditate not only on the verses themselves but the commentary within.

As a corollary to Scripture reading, I also have a daily e-mail from Christian History that not only offers a short devotional but also information about various people and movements in the history of the church.

A lot of my reading does have to do with the courses I teach, as I want to stay current with scholarship in my field. Yet that type of reading is not a duty; rather, it’s a joy.

For instance, I am teaching my C. S. Lewis course this spring. In my reading of a book about Lewis over Christmas break, I realized I hadn’t yet read some of his essays on literature. So I got a collection of those and found some I have now incorporated into the course.

Reading Lewis is one of my favorite things, as most of you probably know, since I published a book about him a few months ago. I find endless fascination in his thoughts and in the way he expresses them. He helps keep me balanced.

I’m reading other books now as well (I usually have three or four going at the same time). For my American Revolution course, which I will probably teach again in the fall, I’m previewing a book with an intriguing title: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. The author is a man I know personally, Daniel Dreisbach, who is an excellent scholar. Reading a book like that is a perfect combination of faith and history.

A course I’ve not yet taught, American history from 1877 to 1917, is another one I may teach in the fall, so I’m focusing right now on a key period in that history, trying to find just the right book to fill in the gap.

I’ve found a very readable book on the pivotal 1912 election that may be the one. It’s an interesting character study of the four candidates in that key campaign: Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs. I can say I’ve learned quite a bit; it has deepened my knowledge of the era, which is something I always seek to do with any historical period.

I also read fiction, mostly from evangelical authors who know how to tell a good story. Some of my staples in that area are Ted Dekker, Stephen Lawhead, and Joel Rosenberg, but I broaden my search all the time, wanting to find others who know how to combine fine storytelling with the faith.

I’m also working my way slowly through Paradise Lost, which is going to take a while, to be sure. Catching up on some of the classics that I’ve never read is another goal.

So, you can see I’m not just narrowly focused on politics. My life is so much more than just a matter of who won the last election. In fact, with an election like the one that has just occurred, I am truly grateful that life is bigger than that.

Memes created from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, can sometimes capture how I feel:

I hope we can all keep our sense of humor in times like these. Faith in God and a sense of humor should go together to remind us that current events are just that—current, not eternal.

That reminds me of another of my favorite Scripture passages, found in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lost heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.

For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

May our focus always be on the eternal.

Chambers: Death of a Nation?

Those who have read this blog long enough know my affinity for Whittaker Chambers, a man I consider one of the true heroes in American history. That’s why he is one of the subjects of my new book The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom.

He had joined the Communist Party in the 1920s, thinking it was the answer to all the world’s crises. Only later did he come to grips with his error, but when he did, a whole new understanding opened to him.

As he notes in his masterful autobiography Witness, his mind had to be renewed completely:

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

As he stepped out into his new reality, he found faith in God, and that gave him insight that is well worth sharing with our generation:

External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. … Hence every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience.

There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

That last line is haunting. How indifferent are we as a nation right now? How close are we to death?

Helping the Poor the Biblical Way

Even in an age that denigrates Christian faith when it comes to basic morality, we have politicians (and others) who fall back on it for whatever expansion of government they want to see.

The whole Religious Left is like this. They point to Scriptures that tell us to help the poor and disadvantaged, but with a twist—we are to use the power of government to carry out Jesus’ commands.

The problem becomes more complex when it shows up in those who claim to be conservatives. Take Ohio governor John Kasich, for example. As he runs for president, he hits conservatives over the head with his version of the Bible:

Medicaid Expansion

The Biblical admonitions to help the poor are real; the method whereby that should happen are real as well. In every case, the command is to individuals, as God wants to work on our hearts. And in the Old Testament, it is clear that the poor are not to receive mere handouts, but they are to do some work toward what they receive. We’re told when we reap the harvest of our field, we are to leave the corners for the poor so they can come in and glean for themselves.

That’s the principle.

Yet today we’ve set up a system that mechanically hands out checks without any regard to the character of those who get the checks. The government is a huge dispenser of funds that people, over time, become accustomed to receiving, and if the dispenser slows down at all, they become enraged.

We have created a culture of dependency, which is the opposite of what God wants to develop in the hearts of both givers and recipients.

Those on the Religious Left are doing a disservice to the Gospel with their constant demands for more government aid. They are helping lead people away from the Truth and are erecting an idol of government power.

You know what else I see? Sometimes, those who yell the loudest at conservatives for being hardhearted toward the poor are hardhearted themselves toward the most deserving of our care—those innocent children in the womb. They rail on about helping the poor, yet turn a blind eye and a deaf ear toward the atrocity of abortion.

Take the log out of your own eyes, please. Not only will you then see who deserves help, but, hopefully, the best way to offer that help. The true Christian spirit is that of giving from the heart, not depending on a government bureaucracy.

Eric Metaxas’s Trump Bible

Eric MetaxasChristian author, speaker, and radio talk show host Eric Metaxas has become a leading evangelical voice in our day. He entered the national consciousness with a direct message a couple years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast.

I was deeply impressed by his book Amazing Grace, which painted an inspiring portrait of British statesman William Wilberforce, the man who successfully led the fight against slavery in the British empire.

Mextaxas also gave a stirring and insightful message to the Oxbridge Conference a year ago, an event sponsored by the C. S. Lewis Foundation. I was not there in person, but the YouTube video is available, and I highly recommend it.

When Mextaxas speaks, he mixes serious commentary with a wry sense of humor that carries his points well. That sense of humor has surfaced lately in his responses to Donald Trump.

When Trump declared the Bible was his favorite book but then wouldn’t (or couldn’t) come up with a single verse that had impacted his life, Metaxas developed what he calls “The Trump Bible.” He has been posting an ongoing series of verses in the way that Trump might want them to appear in Scripture.

Keep in mind that humor only really works if it is close enough to the truth to make you see the connection. Metaxas has mimicked Trump’s language so superbly that it’s not hard to hear him saying these things. Here is a sampling of what Metaxas offers as portions of “The Trump Bible.”

And Jesus went out into the desert. But he should’ve invested in hotels there. I mean, I’m killing it in Vegas. A LOT of money.

Love covers a multitude of sins. Sure. But you’d be nuts not to get a prenup. I mean, c’mon.

Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” And David said, “No, YOU are the man!” And they high-fived each other. It was fabulous.

Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old, but even young she was nothing to look at, so you can just imagine.

You’ve heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say unto you, that’s lousy negotiating. Why break even?

Moses saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed, because, face it, the bush was low-energy.

I know a man who was caught up into the third heaven… Who’m I kidding? You knew it was me, right?

Paul? He’s ok…but I like missionaries who don’t get shipwrecked and jailed!

Nebuchadnezzar was the best. I mean, he built a giant golden statue of himself. He is an inspiration to me.

“Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replied, “Again with the gotcha questions?”

On the other hand what did John the Baptist really do? Announced one Messiah? One? Are we serious?

I’m also glad to see at least one cartoonist has caught on:

Trump Bible

Humor. Sometimes it makes the case better than a serious critique.

In Honor of John Eliot

In my previous American history posts about the Puritans we’ve seen the good (city on a hill, establishment of Christian education, the first American bill of rights and constitution) and the not-so-good (treatment of Quakers, the Halfway Covenant that watered down the message of salvation).

What about their relationship with the natives? It was mixed. The Puritans weren’t as missions-oriented as later evangelicals. Yet there were attempts to reach out to the surrounding tribes.

John EliotI want to give credit in particular to one man who devoted his life to spreading the Gospel to the natives. His name was John Eliot, and he spent his entire time in the New World seeking to bring them the Word of God.

Born in 1604, he lived until 1690. His arrival in Massachusetts in 1631 was one year after John Winthrop’s initial voyage. He was the pastor at the church in Roxbury, and remained so for the rest of his life. Yet, while pastoring that church, he extended his ministry voluntarily to the native communities.

By all accounts, Eliot’s kindness won him many friends among the natives, who were then open to listening to his message. He undertook this mission from a heart of genuine concern for those who needed to hear about the love of Christ.

John Eliot's BibleEliot was the first to learn the native language, develop an alphabet for it, teach it to the natives, and then create a translation of the Bible for them in their own language, which was published in stages from 1661-1663. Modern scholars consider this practically a modern marvel, for one man to accomplish this pretty much on his own.

As natives converted to the Christian faith, they also sought to change their tribal ways. They organized themselves into fourteen self-governing towns, and they were given the name “The Praying Indians.”

Eliot’s work among the natives would then go through a severe trial in the event known as King Philip’s War, during which many of the colonists treated these new converts disgracefully. But that’s a story for the next American history post.

For today, let’s pause and honor John Eliot for his exemplary Christian life and witness. This “Apostle to the Indians” fulfilled his calling from God.