C.S. Lewis on the Preference for Old Books
Should we, the denizens of the 21st century, have a preference for old books? The most articulate defender of classic Christian belief in the last century was a layman with no formal theological training. This is probably because C.S. Lewis read so many old books (including for devotional purposes). He makes a case for reading classic texts in the introduction he wrote to a true masterpiece of Christian theology: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word:
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. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. 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.
A pretty doable ratio: 1:1 or no less than 1:3. The trajectory of of modern theology would be quite different if our seminary professors and pastors practiced this kind of reading. The need for “a standard of plain, central Christianity” is why I am a proponent of creeds and catechisms: such are needed to distinguish the massive rivers of Christian truth from negotiable tributaries. “In essentials, unity,” urged Augustine.
There is much liberty in Christian belief if we have agreement on the essentials. But as Athanasius knew so well, there are some non-negotiables. It’s no accident he’s known as Athanasius contra mundum (“against the world”). By introducing homoousious (“of the same being”) into the dialogue at Nicea, Athanasius stood up to the Arian heresy and preserved, against the popular compromise option, the doctrine of Christ’s full divinity.
Old books take us out of the assumptions of our present age – assumptions we often do not notice because we are drowning in them – and invite us to participate in what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”
The cult of the present has enough devotees. Better to pay homage, even if only occasionally, to that great company of women and men who lived and died before our age had dawned. The results will be truly relevant because they are in touch with the timeless.