At Renovaré, we believe that great Christian truths are timeless, and that we need the varied perspectives of authors from different eras to correct the myopias of our own. As our president Chris Hall likes to say, “The Holy Spirit has a history”—and we can learn from that history by reading books both old and new.

That’s why, for our Book Club, we weave together readings of newer, modern voices like Trevor Hudson (Beyond Loneliness) and Tish Harrison Warren (Liturgy of the Ordinary) with contemporary classics (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved) and venerable greats (Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation). We’re trying to uphold what G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead” by letting our ancient spiritual ancestors speak to us alongside contemporary pilgrims. We’ve been delighted to discover that these voices of the past are often among the favorite books of our present day Book Club members.

“It is a genuine asset to be soaked in the devotional classics,” write Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith in their introduction to Devotional Classics. “Pure modernity makes us parochial. But these writings have vintage. They are weaned from the fads of the marketplace. They give us perspective and balance.”

C.S. Lewis understood this well. To encourage you on your journey into the Christian classics, whether you have been long on this road or are tentatively starting out, we offer some words of wisdom from our beloved Jack “on the reading of old books,” taken from his introduction to the very Athanasius text we’ll be reading for the 2016-2017 Renovaré Book Club.

On the Reading of Old Books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

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 M. 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 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.

Want to learn more about the 2016-2017 Renovaré Book Club? Ready to join the adventure? Please click HERE.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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C.S. Lewis excerpt is from the Introduction to On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius (reprint: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011).