I went up to my study. The familiar faces of my books welcomed me. I threw myself in my reading-chair, and gazed around me with pleasure. I felt it so homely here. All my old friends–whom somehow I hoped to see some day–present there in the spirit ready to talk with me any moment when I was in the mood …
( George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish)
Is there a way to get up out of the narrow canyon of our immediate historical situation and command a more sweeping view of the Pilgrim Path? Has some genius been able to perfect a means of time-transport after all?
C. S. Lewis thought so. But the contraption he had in mind didn’t consist of cranks, gears, tubes, diodes, or optical fibers, nor did it have anything to do with traversable wormholes. It was a simple affair: a thing made of ink and sheets of paper bound together between cloth-covered boards. He was thinking of books – old books in particular.
“The only safety,” says Lewis in his essay On the Reading of Old Books, “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.”
Why tie ourselves down to such a troublesome and constrictive rule? Simple: it’s practically the only way to break free of a sweet, seductive, and subconscious slavery to the prejudices of the time in which we live. As Lewis went on to say:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period … None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.
To a significant degree, our investigation of the Pilgrim Path will be centered around things found in old books. “Old” is, of course, a relative term. If you use the phrase “back in the day” to refer to events five years past, you may think an “old” book is one published prior to 1990. We will almost certainly be referring to some of these more recent examples of “ancient” literature in coming installments: to Lewis, for example, and Ellul, and authors such as G. K. Chesterton, A. W. Tozer, Simone Weil, Malcolm Muggeridge, Brennan Manning, and Henri Nouwen.
On other occasions, however, we’ll reach much further back: to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, for instance, or to Pascal, George MacDonald, William Blake, Henry Vaughan, John Owen, the Venerable Bede, and old John Bunyan himself. Sometimes we’ll appeal to writers even more antiquated than that, like the prophets and apostles and early church fathers. There’s no telling how far we may go in our attempts to escape the numbing haze of contemporary thought.
Our goal in so doing will be to get at the heart of the most basic Christian values. Some of these values will bear familiar names: faith and love, hope and vision, meekness and beauty and perspective. Others, like autarkeia and apatheia, have a more foreign ring about them. Still others may shock and dismay – anarchy, for instance, and weakness, and death. But they all have one thing in common: when boiled down to essentials, they stand diametrically opposed to the assumptions and values of the kosmos.
Sound intriguing? Then stay tuned …