Friday, January 15, 2010

C.S. Lewis's View On Old Books

Note: After yesterday's ridiculous post about spiders, the last thing you probably expect is the following. But here it is. Because it was, ahem, an assignment. And because I kind of like the topic.
I'm currently reading On The Incarnation, by Athanasius himself. I love that guy. He'd be a fascinating person to listen to, I suspect. So would his acquaintances, the early monks who spent long periods of time in the desert. But more on all of them later.

C.S. Lewis wrote an introduction to Athanasius' work which I found to be unlike many lofty (and sometimes just plain condescending) introductions to "scholarly books."
Lewis' introduction is blunt, honest, and humble. Shame on you Robin Seagers out there.

To begin with, Lewis advises that “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.”
Why does Lewis feel it necessary to remind readers of the need for old books?
For one, he explains, new books have not been tested “against the great Body of Christian thought down the ages."

I often make the mistake of thinking that classic books are only good for their literary merit- but wise readers like Lewis realize that a book cannot simply be judged by the words contained in it. It needs to be studied in light of the thoughts, words and actions it inspired in people over a long period of time.

Also, if we will often find ourselves confused if we only read modern books. Lewis points out that sticking to a contemporary diet is like joining at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight. References, jokes, and insults might be missed or misunderstood by the latecomer.
Lewis also mentions that each generation has insights and lessons that can benefit those who come after them- “People were not cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes” (pg. 5). If we only read books written by our contemporaries, who often share our cultural views- how are we growing and challenging our minds?

Another important benefit of reading old books by Christian writers is that we see what Lewis calls the “immensely formidable unity” that is Christianity throughout the ages. Contemporary books may excellently discuss modern debates in the Church- but only reading about present-day situations will leave our culture rather introspective. How encouraging it is to listen to writers who may have lived in a radically different time but still share our faith!
C.S. Lewis warns readers not to neglect Athanasius simply because his book is given the dry label of “theology” instead of “devotional.”
“For my own part,” he says, “I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect the same experience may await many others.”

In the end, Lewis makes a powerful case for reading books like On The Incarnation. Sometimes the "dry," and "scholarly" books in the end prove themselves to be the brightest stars in the literary universe.


Meg said...

Hello Natalie! I haven't dropped by in a long time.
I definitely agree about reading old books... that's why I'm so thankful for Great Books tutorials like Schola :). And of course, I'm always a Lewis fan!

Hannah said...

*claps hands* Bravo! Agreed. :)