On Reading Old Books

One of the greatest things C.S. Lewis ever said is:lewis

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. 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.

Why? Each age, each period of time has its own set of cultural blinders; things that it assumes to be true. There is a certain agreed upon common sense if you will. Take for example, in our modern day there is a common assumption that religious faith should have little to do with politics. Now I realize this may seem strange because you may be one who liked Dr. Ben Carson for president because he is a good Christian man or similarly Marco Rubio. (It does seem many of the Republican Candidates this go around touted their religious credentials.  Apologizes to you who are Democratic, I am not ignoring you, it is just that most of the people I know are Republican so I know their reasons better.) And I will agree that we should take one’s religious beliefs into account. But this is not where the issue lies. Our assumption, our blinder if you will, is found buried beneath our pick for president. It is the assumption that freedom of religion is an inalienable right. What if I were to tell you that the premise that we are free to believe what we wish is completely antithetical to Scripture? When God says things such as the First Commandment “You shall have no other gods.” or “no god but Me.” (Dt 32:39 and others) there are some pretty hefty implications. Namely that we are not free to believe as we will. We either rightly believe in the One God or we believe falsely in dead idols. Take it all in and it boils down freedom of religion is a figment of our imagination. We are required to believe in God. It took me a little while to come to grips with this premise, but we created a secular spiritual divide in ourselves without even realizing it because we adopted the assumptions of our day. It is entirely possible to operate with both premises and not realize the contradiction.  We assumed that both are true. We are bound by God’s Law to accept only one religion and that we have an inalienable right to believe as we wish.  The reality is that if God’s word is true than the second cannot be.  So, what happened I think is that we created a divide between temporal – politics – and eternal – religion – and relegated them to completely separate realms.I bring this up as an illustration not as an advocating of the over turning of the Bill of Rights (I actually really like the 1st Amendment because it leaves us free to believe rightly. Also faith is something that cannot be forced, but that is a topic for another article).  As I read Luther, I realized that even as he spoke about two kingdoms, the earthly realm – government – and the heavenly realm – church – he never saw them as separate entities.  Rather he saw them as related entities with different but overlapping responsibilities.  Over the years we lost this sense as we adopted various philosophical world views and in the end we created this cognitive dissonance without even realizing it.  We just simply assumed both were true because we had a common assumption drawn from our contemporaries who also assumed it is true.  In doing so we created a divide that doesn’t exist. I didn’t realize this until I made a concerted effort to read old books. And it all happened by accident.

Over a year ago, maybe two years ago, I can’t actually remember when I started, I began an effort to improve the quality of my preaching. As a part of that effort, I started listening to some preachers of today that I admired, but I also started reading the sermons and works of preachers of days gone by that I admired – namely Martin Luther. Adding Luther to my studies was an easy step for me. I have a nifty Bible program called Logos that also has an extensive theological library that can be added and it can link that library to the Bible. So that, when I look up a passage a second window will display related passages from Luther’s writings – particularly his lectures on the various books of the Bible. I started reading those for my sermon prep. I would read a bit here and there as I studied and slowly how I was thinking began to change. It was so subtle it wasn’t until I was talking with somebody recently that I noticed I have changed – I used to think one way but now I think in another. Reading an old book, namely Luther broke through my cultural blinders.

C.S. Lewis knew what he was talking about in his article On the Reading of Old Books. We need to be able to examine our world and our thoughts, but to do so we need to look through the eyes of others so that we can see beyond our blinders. It is going to throw you down a rabbit hole though because, to understand the old books you need to read even older books so you can understand the old book’s assumptions. That rabbit hole is worth it. Having my blinders removed brings the world into better perspective and hopefully is helping me do better as a pastor, parent, husband, and citizen. It’s helped me to recapture something that was lost. And I suspect it will continue as I read more old books.



On The Reading of Old Books” by C.S. Lewis