old books

Throwback Thursday: Reading 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. -C.S. Lewis

Recently someone asked me which books and authors have been most influential in my spiritual development at different stages of my life. I answered Soren Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis, Rob Bell, and Jacques Ellul.

I noticed a few similarities about the people on this list:

  • They are from within the last 200 years.
  • They are men.
  • They are protestant.
  • They are white.

In short, they’re all like me.

I did not conclude from this that modern, white, protestant, males are the best, but that I have a very narrow experience of the great wealth of Christian authors from whom I can learn and grow and gain wisdom.

It is somewhat ironic that I would list C.S. Lewis because his introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius is an amazing defense of reading old books. Given that his first paragraph is about how people don’t feel they can read the masters and so would rather read an explanation of their work, it would be ironic for me to outline it for you. So go read it. Its short and easy to read. I linked it above. And again here, just in case. Then continue on.

Did you read it? Good.

I’m convinced of Lewis’ assertion that each age has its own assumptions that it is not even aware it holds and that books from other ages act as a corrective to that as well as that our different set of assumptions act as a corrective to the assumptions they didn’t realize they held. I think it would be safe to add gender, ethnicity, denomination, and others to that. Reading an upper middle class white American write about liberation theology just isn’t the same as reading Oscar Romero.

So I’ve decided to explore the great cloud of witnesses that are different than me. I’ve resolved to read one book a month written by an author who is different from the list above in at least one way.



Every first last Thursday of the month will be “Throwback Thursday” where I’ll discuss what assumptions of mine were confronted, and which assumptions of the authors our age helps to confront. But I’d love it if you would take Lewis’ advice and read these authors yourself rather than just read my thoughts on them. That way you can correct my own assumptions as well as take part in the discussion.

This month I’ll be reading Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, a Catholic nun (probably, but she may have been a layperson) from the 14th century. So pick up a copy and come back February 21st 28th. And if you don’t read it, you should still come back.

In the meantime, which old books should I read?


edit: I originally intended to do this every third Thursday just for the sake of alliteration. I have since changed my mind and will post on the last Thursday of the month so that months aren’t divided making it easier to remember.

  • I commend the Apostolic Fathers to you. Loeb has a two-volume edition of them (edited an translated by Bart D. Ehrman), and Baker has a one-volume edition (edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes, and available in both a diglot edition and in English translation). There are some slight variations in the Greek texts and versification between the two editions; I usually default to the Loeb, but a lot of people like the Baker edition.

    If you read nothing else from the Apostolic Fathers, read Ignatius of Antioch’s seven epistles. They are both fascinating and, in my opinion, too seldom read.

  • And, for one of the new books Lewis will allow you to read, ignore the fact that it’s written by a white, Protestant man who is still leaving and read _Leading God’s People_ by Christopher Beeley. It is a wonderful, timely book on Patristic pastoral thought (and written by my adviser at Yale, whose scholarship and faith are both an inspiration to me).

  • I will read Ignatius of Antioch’s seven epistles. Thanks for the heads up.

  • To supplement my reading of old (or different books) I was considering reading some modern commentaries on them or history to help me understand the world they were writing in and how to better apply their writing to a modern world. I’m assuming that since it is on patristic thought that this would be beneficial in that regard?

  • Beeley’s book is more of an introduction (with attention given to application for today) to Pastristic thought on the pastoral duty of ministers than a commentary. His goal is to allow the texts to speak for themselves. I think it’s one of the sinle most helpful books on ministry I’ve read, but I won’t necessarily help with your reading of Gregory the Great’s “Book of Pastoral Rule.” It will, however, give you a good idea of other old books you should read.

    If you’re looking for a commentary on Ignatius, by the way, the most recent that I’m aware of is Schoedel’s commentary in the Hermeneia series. It is excellent, but not cheap. There aren’t a lot of commentaries on Ignatius; most of the little that’s out there are general introductions or monographs on some specific issue in his writings.

  • Stephen Hebert

    If you want to stick with the mystic theme, you should definitely check out St. John of the Cross’s “The Long Dark Night of the Soul” and Teresa of Avila’s “The Interior Castle.”

    As for Julian of Norwich, I commend to you Denise Levertov’s poem “On a Theme from Julian’s Chapter XX”…powerful stuff!

  • Stephen Hebert

    BTW: I just requested a copy of Julian from my local library system. I should have it in hand some time next week.