C. S. Lewis and the Topsy-Turvy Reading of Christians

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or Mr. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. 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 through the ages, and all its hidden implications have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books.

C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” as reprinted in Richard Gamble’s The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington, De.: ISI Books, 2007) 597. This book just crossed my desk and I am loving it. It contains excerpts from Plato to the Reformers to Dorothy Sayers.

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