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The Bible isn’t the only old book you should read

Margaret Marcuson

May 7, 2019

We read the Bible every week in worship, and many people read the Bible daily devotionally and for study. The newest parts of it are close to 2,000 years old. That’s an old book. However, we still find it relevant and powerful.

The Bible is not the only old book that’s worth reading. Other old books may not be divinely inspired, but they can be treasure houses of wisdom. It’s worth looking back—sometimes way back—to glean valuable insights. You see that people haven’t changed all that much. You learn about trends in our culture that are influenced by old books.

The Bible is not the only old book that’s worth reading. Other old books may not be divinely inspired, but they can be treasure houses of wisdom.

Here are some additional reasons to read old books.

  1. You can’t skim them, so you have to slow down and pay attention.
  2. They improve your writing.
  3. They help you step back and give you a wider perspective that is beyond our time and place.

I’m in a classics book group. We read books almost exclusively published more than 50 years ago. We’ve been going for more than a decade, so the time limit has moved later, and we’re into the 1960s now. We’ve read 114 books together in those years. (That’s nothing: I recently read about a Portland, Oregon book group that’s been together for 50 years!) I’ve always loved classic books but as I’ve gotten older, I find I need a deadline to read harder books.

Here are is a sampling of books we’ve read:

Homer’s epic “The Iliad” vividly shows the violence of war is nothing new. It highlights the ambition and interpersonal struggle that lead to it.

Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is not a great novel. “Message” fiction rarely is great literature. However, I was glad to have read the book, because her “gospel” of selfishness is still extremely influential, and people are still reading her books and being influenced by her philosophy.

Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” published in 1943 and set in New York in the early 20th century, shows the struggle of poverty-stricken immigrants who want to make their way in America, and the bigotry they experience. It’s startlingly relevant today.

C.S. Lewis recommended regularly reading old books. He saw in his youthful self the “chronological snobbery” which assumed we were so much more enlightened in the modern world. (“Surprised by Joy,” HarperOne reissue edition, 2017, p. 254) He put it this way: “It’s 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 three new ones…Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially 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…The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books.” (quoted by Art Lindsley, “Lewis on Chronological Snobbery,” C.S. Lewis Institute, “Knowing and Doing,” Spring 2003).

I wouldn’t want to go back 50 or 500 years to the world of the past. Some of the books we read display racial and sexual discrimination I deplore. However, it’s a mistake to assume the past has nothing to teach us. As novelist William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (“Requiem for a Nun,” Vintage reprint edition, 2012, p. 73) What happened in the past still has a deep ability the shape the present (for good or ill).

If you want to try it out, let me recommend a few short classic reads:

“The Prince” by Machiavelli (1532, 82 pages). I was shocked when I read “The Prince” at how relevant it is for pastoral ministry. Machiavelli teaches is that being loved as a leader is overrated. You have to be able to take a stand sometimes, and it’s not easy. (Of course, you have to set aside his advice to have your enemies executed.)

“Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Victor Frankl (1946, 188 pages). Frankl gives an account of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp and what enabled people to survive. He offers a profound perspective for ministry to those who are suffering (and for our own struggles in life).

“Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe, (1958, 212 pages). It’s a compelling novel about pre-colonial life in Nigeria and the arrival of the Europeans in the 19th century.

“The Tao te Ching,” (earliest portions date to 4th century BCE). I like the translation/interpretation by Stephen Mitchell (2006, 144 pages). I often quote this ancient advice for leaders that is still powerful and relevant.

Pick one (free from your local public library), and try it out.

The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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