This week The Gospel Coalition welcomes you to join us in an exciting new series called Commending the Classics. We’re thrilled to welcome Wheaton College professor Leland Ryken as a sort of literature scholar in residence to guide us as we read classic books together. Every week he’ll lend us his decades of learning to help us understand why these works have come to be regarded as timeless treasures. Have you ever thought, I’ve heard that book is great, but I’m intimidated to read it myself without any help? Then we’ve designed this series precisely with you in mind. You get the benefits of a reading community who will help you along and a gifted professor who will answer your questions.
We’ve conceived the series with your schedule in mind, so we’re focusing on shorter works you can finish in a matter of weeks or months. Keep on reading God’s Word along with good theology and history and let Commending the Classics whet your appetite for thought-provoking fiction. We’ll start with the much-discussed mid-century classic The Stranger by Albert Camus. Hear from Ryken on “Why Christians Should Read Camus,” grab a copy of The Stranger, and join us in an adventure that promises to challenge, confound, and ultimately cultivate our understanding of and compassion for the world.
If you need even more encouragement to spend at least a little time with us on this series, hear from these Christian leaders about how the classics have shaped them.
John Mark Reynolds, provost of Houston Baptist University and author of The Great Books Reader: Excerpt and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization:
There is pain in old books. It is a easy to fool myself. I break from the snares of the world, but even Bible reading is done through the assumptions of the age. It is not the faults of the age that trap me, but the alleged virtues. My spiritual grandparents stand warning me of the folly of easy assumptions. Our age looks for diversity but forgets how hard it was to produce our present unity.
There is joy in old books. When I read old classics of spirituality different assumptions are thrust on me. The sin of Adam cut me off from my spiritual ancestors and made a chronological loneliness, but old books allow them to speak even though dead. It is lawful necromancy to read old books.
Every year I read That Hideous Strength. Why? C. S. Lewis warns me that no “inner ring” is worth my soul. Jane Eyre teaches me that duty is the best and surest path to a grand passion. Wuthering Heights reminds me that love can be corrupted and do great evil. Lord of the Rings gives me hope that small people can do great things for the Good. Pilgrim’s Progress points me to spiritual adventures and reminds me that the world is not my home. Finally, Crime and Punishment gives me hope that some pain is redemptive and that God will make sure that treatment is available.
John Piper, pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church and Council member for The Gospel Coalition:
Several decades and many funerals beyond the sophomoric desire to sound intelligent, the motive to read great books rises from the ashes of pride, saying, “I love you, O Lord, for you have made a lecher come alive and with Confessions, and shaped the western world; I love you, Lord, for you have lit Pascal with fire at midnight and spread the flame with his Pensées; I love you, Lord, for you have made Erasmus brilliant in the Praise of Folly, and blind to Luther’s treasure; I love you, Lord, for you have opened distant alps for Calvin’s eyes, and made his Institutes a cathedral for your majesty; I love you, Lord, for you have given Pope his couplet-laden Essays dense with wisdom—drink deep or taste not; I love you, Lord, for you have made Shakespeare and caused that peerless poet to create with his few plays a matchless world of words; I love you, Lord, for you have made the Crime and Punishment, the darkness of Dostoevsky, like a shroud where Jesus’ form appears.
“For these strange gifts, these classics (and how many more!), laden with the weight of life, I love you, O my God, whose Word and Son are everything to me.”
Kathleen Nielson, director of women’s initiatives for The Gospel Coalition and a former teacher in the English departments at Vanderbilt, Bethel College (MN), and Wheaton College:
Christians should read classics, because classics tell our story. At the most recognizable level, many Western literary classics tell our Christian story in various ways because they emerge from cultures shaped by Christianity. Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, both offer breathtaking glimpses of sin and judgment and a God who saves. Christians should not miss such works. I remember one of my graduate professors remarking that people can still appreciate Milton’s works in spite of his outdated Christian worldview. Well, we outdated Christians don’t appreciate Milton just because we’re comfortable in his world, but it is a joy and a boon to see into that world with fresh eyes—as if an artist had painted a masterful landscape with our very own house at the center. If you haven’t ever read some lines of Milton out loud, you should read a few before going to bed tonight.
But there’s a deeper level at which classics tell our story—the most basic, human level. For a reason that perhaps only Christians can fully understand, a true classic emerging from any culture or worldview tells a true human story. The reason for this is theological at heart. It’s that we believe there is actually one big true story of the universe, revealed in Scripture, and that any good story connects and resonates in some way with that story. At the deepest level, writers create with words because they are made in the image of the Creator who made the world by speaking words. To say something made with words is good is to echo Genesis, knowingly or not. Any good creation in words echoes in some way the big true biblical story that moves from creation to fall to redemption to final consummation. Maybe it’s just a fleeting or partial echoing. Homer’s Odyssey, for example, is full of longing for restoration and redemption, communicated in the epic tale of a man trying to get home. That beautiful, pagan, fictional tale tells a true story, in a sense, a story every fallen human being understands at a deep level, with or without knowing the whole true story.
If it’s true that the God of the Bible is the source of all truth and beauty and goodness from the beginning, then any work that shows forth truth or beauty or goodness has its source in him and glorifies him in some way. What we call “classics” of literature are works that have been judged in some way to show forth these things. Of course people don’t always agree about how to judge. That’s a topic for another time. Meanwhile, we have a huge store of generally agreed-upon classics to keep us busy reading and seeing more and more of the heights and depths of the story in which we human beings live, the one authored by God.
Philip G. Ryken, president of Wheaton College, Council member for The Gospel Coalition, and co-author of Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature:
I was infected with a love for books early in my childhood. As I look back, I can see how reading C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and other authors shaped my character by teaching me to admire honesty, courage, and other virtues. My appetite for literature intensified in junior high and high school through my encounter with Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Dickens, and other great authors in the English tradition. My taste was broadened in college to include Edmund Spenser, Philip Sydney, and other Renaissance writers.
Since college I have continued to read great books as an important part of life and ministry. When people ask me what I like to read, invariably I tell them that I read more literature than theology. Of course, sometimes I read books that count in both categories, such as the works of world literature covered in Pastors in the Classics, which my father and I recently co-authored with Todd Wilson. Right now I have a copy of The Iliad on my nightstand, and several slim volumes of poetry.
Such reading sanctifies my imagination and nourishes my love for beauty. It also helps me to be more effective in my teaching, preaching, and exercising spiritual leadership. At the most practical level, reading great writers gives me a better feel for the rhythms of written and spoken English. More importantly, it gives me insight into the human condition, including my own soul.
Some of my best experiences with literature have come from reading good books in Christian community. I think back fondly on the book group that Lisa and I joined during seminary, as well as the father-and-son literary society that Josh and I started when he was in the fifth grade. These experiences lead me to hope sincerely that The Gospel Coalition will be highly successful in its efforts to encourage Christians to read great books—not only privately, but also communally.