I grew up in imbibing white evangelical American theology. It was in the air I breathed. There is much good in that air. But there is also much that is questionable. Like others, there came a time in my life when I began to ask questions. Some questions were small (How come so much contemporary worship music is focused on me and my feelings?) and others were big (Is God just a superman in the sky ready to destroy whomever crosses him?).
It is possible when such questions are asked to reject Christianity as a whole. If all you see is one form of Christianity (white evangelical American in my case) and you notice blindspots and problems, the easiest path is walking away.
I am grateful that I realized that Christianity is far larger, deeper, more complex (though perhaps also more simple) than the white evangelical variety. This realization came to me in numerous ways, one of which was meeting Christians from the past through reading old books. CS Lewis writes about the importance of old books in an essay in God in the Dock:
“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another 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. 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. And that means old books” (219)
We all have blind spots and biases. This is why it is vital to break out of the echo chamber and listen to voices that do not hold yours same background and presuppositions. One way to do this is to read old books that have stood the test of time. As Lewis says in the quote above, books from other eras do not share the biases of our time so they can help us see what we may not see and correct what needs to be corrected. Lewis goes on to say:
“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them” (220).
Again, reading books of the past is not magic. They were written by people as messed up as we are. Not everything in these books is right and true. But they do have much to teach us because, again, they do not share our blindspots. I found loads of beauty and truth in meeting old Christians in their books. Of course, I found some things that were questionable. This helped me realize that there is both beauty and blindspots in all forms of faith, even the form I grew up in.
How to go about reading old books? They are not easy, that’s for sure. Lewis suggests the following:
“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” (218)
Not bad advice. I’d suggest starting with someone like CS Lewis himself.