Archives For Books

On Being Well Read

Mark Beuving —  September 16, 2015 — 2 Comments

 

I got serious about my faith when I entered college, and one fruit of this increased commitment was that I found myself turning into a reader. This newfound passion for reading would end up costing me way more money and time than I could have imagined (and at this point in my life, I’m sure I’m just seeing the tip of the iceberg).

Stack of BooksAt that early stage in my Christian development, I felt the urge to be the kind of person who is “well read.” “Well read” people were so impressive to me: They seemed to know everything about everything, they could make casual references to important books, and they never had to be insecure about books they hadn’t read—because they had read just about everything. Or so I thought.

I’m beginning to realize that “being well read” is far more complex than I thought. Here are some unorganized realizations that I’ve come to as a 33-year-old who reads a lot:

Being “well read” is elusive. Precisely how many books must one read before he or she is “well read”? The more books I read, the more I become aware of a hidden world full of books I never knew I needed to read. You’ll never reach the end of the list of “books you ought to read.” There’s always more to know. And if you’re a true reader, being considered “well read” will never be enough for you: you’ve caught the bug, you have to read because you realize how much you still need to learn.

Being “well read” is a horrible goal. I’m surprised I didn’t see this coming during my college years. A lot of my initial desire to be “well read” was wrapped up in wanting to appear intelligent in front of other people. I’m embarrassed to admit that. I know people who are always trying to demonstrate their intelligence, always making mention of important-sounding works they have read. I don’t want to be that guy. I still crave knowledge; I still love books. But as soon as “well read” becomes a status marker we’re striving to attain, then we’re perverting the wholesome pursuit of knowledge. Read as much as you can, but don’t give a moment’s thought to “being well read.”

Being a reader is a better goal than being “well read.” You should read. It’s important, helpful, edifying. You should read as much as your schedule, temperament, and curiosity will allow. But you shouldn’t be worried about whether or not you’re reading enough. That’s not the point. Let books teach you what they can, but don’t let books determine your value or dignity. Reading is not about gaining respect, it’s about growing. Fame is the pursuit of fools; social status is fleeting. Don’t read books for other people, read them for your own growth.

Reading happens one page at a time. During those times when I felt insecure about all of the important books I hadn’t read, I’d feel this burning motivation to quickly read every significant book ever written. But how do you go about doing that? I’ve come to realize that you’ll never finish a whole group of books if you wait until you have time to read a whole group of books. What you have to do is pick up one book and read one page. When you’ve finished that page, you read the next page. That’s the only way to do it.

Every book takes a certain amount of time to finish. You can dream all you want about how many books you’d like to read, but there’s no way to get to that point without picking up one book and reading it a page at a time. If you hate reading pages, you’re not a reader, so do yourself a favor and give up on “being well read.” If you love reading pages, you’ll spend the rest of your life doing it. And while becoming “well read” will always be elusive, you’ll be the kind of person who continually gleans much from many books. And that’s what you really want to gain from reading.

On a related note: if you want some tips from C. S. Lewis on reading well, click here.

 

 

 

In 2012 I began teaching a course called “Christianity & the Arts,” and in 2014 I published a book on the same subject but directed specifically toward music, entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music. In the process of researching for both the class and the book, I ended up reading almost every book I could find on Christianity and the arts, and I decided to write a brief review on most of those books here. My hope is that anyone looking to find a good book on some subject related to Christianity and the arts can find the best resources more quickly after scanning the list. And as I read others, I’ll keep adding them here to try to keep the list updated. If you have any questions about any of the books, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help you out.

 

Resonate Mark BeuvingResonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music by Mark Beuving (2014, 224 pages)

I’m listing my book first, not because I’m claiming it’s the best, but because it’s the only one on the list I’ve written. I do think, however, that it’s worth your time. My approach was to first highlight the significance of music, then to explore the biblical and theological basis for listening to music. I addressed questions of why music is so meaningful, what it means for music to be “Christian,” what kinds of music Christians should listen to (spoiler alert: it’s all kinds, but we must be discerning), how music works, the missional opportunities that music offers, and just a bit on music and worship. This is not a book about “Christian music” or about “worship music,” though I do discuss both concepts a bit. If you like music and want to dive deeper into this world, this is the best book you could read on the subject, in my hugely biased opinion. For more on this book, click here.

 

ImagineImagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner (2001, 131 pages)

This is my favorite book on the arts overall. Steve Turner is a music journalist, which means that (1) his examples tend to come more from the world of music and (2) he is an excellent writer. Imagine addresses most (perhaps all?) of the pertinent issues related to what art is, what it means for art to be Christian (or not), what it looks like for a Christian to create art, how we can benefit from all types of art (whether created by a Christian or not), etc. His writing style is compelling and he is consistently insightful on this topic. If you’re going to read one book on Christianity and the arts in general, this is where you should start.

 

The Liberated ImaginationThe Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts by Leland Ryken (2005, 284 pages)

This is the most thorough book on arts in general that I’ve found. As I began researching how Christianity should relate to art, I found Ryken’s book addressed every major question I had. As always, Ryken is insightful, compelling, and graceful in his writing. He addresses what art is, how it works, why and how we are affected by it, how we might define “Christian art,” what it means to be a Christian artist, how Christians can be inspired, challenged, and aided by non-Christian artists, and a variety of other important topics. As a professor of literature, the majority of Ryken’s examples come from literature, but he also delves into painting and other art forms. I find this book just as helpful as Imagine (even a bit more so), and the only reason I recommend Imagine over Ryken’s book in some contexts is that Imagine is a bit more concise. If you want to be a bit more thorough, this book is the one you should read.

 

Culture CareCulture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto Fujimura (2015, 124 pages)

This is an important book. Many books focus on understanding the arts or engaging the arts, but Fujimura’s book focuses on caring for the arts and culture around us. Fujimura is a phenomenal and widely respected artist, and he challenges us to see culture and art, not as a battleground to fight over, but as a rich field to be cultivated. This takes us several steps beyond the critical approach and launches us into the world of actively and lovingly participating in the culture being produced around us. I believe this is an essential concept, and anyone interested in how Christians should think about and engage with the arts needs to read this book. For more on this book, click here.

 

On Becoming GenerativeOn Becoming Generative: An Introduction to Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura (2013, 25 pages)

This tiny and inexpensive book was launched by Fujimura in advance of his Culture Care book to introduce the topic. This book is simply the first two chapters of the longer Culture Care.

 

Art and the BibleArt & the Bible by Francis Schaeffer (1973, 95 pages)

This is the book that began my own fascination with the arts. Schaeffer’s insightful approach to Christianity and its relation to the surrounding culture is on display here, as in all of his books. The book is short, but Schaeffer does a masterful job of helping the reader understand what the Bible says about art and to delight in art in the same way that God does. At the same time, Schaeffer offers helpful instructions for being discerning in our approach to art, and aids Christian artists in thinking through their task. I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially those who sense the arts are significant for Christians, but haven’t put their finger on precisely why this is so.

 

Meaning at the MoviesMeaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer by Grant Horner (2010, 224 pages)

This is the best book I’ve read on the intersection of faith and film. The first chapter, which gives a biblical and theological explanation of art and culture, is worth more than the price of the book on its own. Horner uses Romans 1 to explain that all human production is characterized by both a knowledge of God and his truth and also the suppression of that knowledge. For this reason, Horner argues, we must be discerning when we watch movies. We can enjoy them and learn much from them, even when the film has been crafted by a non-Christian. But we also need to be discerning (even when the film has been crafted by a Christian). Horner’s book is well written and his arguments are persuasive. The last half of the book features an insightful look at a handful of important film genres, and in each case Horner gives a wonderful discussion of the genre itself, along with a theological look at why we find that particular genre appealing. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in faith and film, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the arts in general. For more on this book, click here.

 

Mystery and MannersMystery & Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor (1969, 256 pages)

This is one of the most influential books on art that I have read. It has shaped many aspects of my thinking on the arts. The book is a collection of fiction writer Flannery O’Connor’s letters and speeches, published posthumously. There is a fair amount of overlap from essay to essay, but even the repetition is rewarding. She specifically addresses issues of how a person’s faith should affect their art (fiction writing is her focus), and she refuses to validate the view that “Christian art” must focus on Christian subject matter or exposit Christian doctrine. Her craft is more subtle and profound, and she explains how she sees grace operating in even some of her darkest stories. Some readers may be frustrated by wading through a variety of speeches and letters delivered on a variety of occasions, but I would highly recommend this book to anyone.

 

Art for God's SakeArt for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts by Philip Graham Ryken (2006, 64 pages)

This tiny book is an excellent place to get started in learning about how Christianity and the arts relate. Ryken is a wonderful writer, and this brief treatment of the subject is filled with wisdom and inspiration. The book is probably too short to seriously aid those who have already invested a lot of time into studying the topic, but those who are getting started will find this very helpful and accessible.

 

Walking on WaterWalking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art by Madeleine L’Engle (2001, 256 pages)

This book is a classic on the relationship between faith and art. L’Engle does an excellent job of helping the reader to feel the tension in defining art and in clarifying the role that faith plays in one’s art. She cuts through many of the lame definitions of “Christian art,” insisting that if a person is truly Christian, then their art will be Christian, no matter what the subject matter. She weaves through various proposals for the definition of art and gives helpful statements such as: “Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in a such a new light that the old becomes new.” Those wanting a straightforward answer to the question of how faith relates to art may be frustrated with L’Engle’s meandering approach. But she writes as an artist (L’Engle was a fiction writer), and her insights have done much to help my understanding of this subject.

 

The Crowd, the Critic, & the MuseThe Crowd, the Critic, & the Muse: A Book for Creators by Michael Gungor (2012, 230 pages)

This book by the popular Christian musician Michael Gungor is a wonderful read. Gungor is passionate, humorous, and insightful in his approach to the subject of how a person’s faith should affect their art. As a musician, the majority of Gungor’s examples are drawn from the world of music, but the implications are clear for every art form. The book includes several powerful quotes, as well as a very helpful discussion on the frustrations inherent in the “Christian Music Industry.” I would highly recommend this book for artist and every art lover. For more on this book, click here.

 

RefractionsRefractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, & Culture by Makoto Fujimura (2009, 176 pages)

This beautiful book consists of refined blog posts written by Fujimura on a number of topics related to faith, art, and culture. Because these chapters started as blogs, the tone is more reflective, which is perfect for a book on art. Readers wanting strong definitions on what art is and straightforward answers about how Christians should relate to art will be frustrated, but I found Refractions to be very helpful for my own understanding of art and culture. Fujimura is a talented and gracious writer, and the book includes photos of some of his artwork.

 

Echoes of EdenEchoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, & the Arts by Jerram Barrs (2013, 208 pages)

This book is excellent on the world of literature. Actually, Barrs’ book gives an excellent approach to the arts in general, but he focuses his examples and attention on literature. His basic argument is that all art (and literature in particular) carries “echoes of Eden.” This is basically a way of talking about the knowledge of God that is ingrained in us all (see Rom. 1:18-25), the “sense of eternity” that God has placed in our hearts (see Eccl. 3). We will find much to disagree with in the world of literature, but we also consistently find human beings (Christian or not) wrestling with God’s truth, God’s world, and what it means to be truly human. Barrs first lays out the theoretical argument of his book, then he tests this theory with several helpful examples, the best of which (in my opinion) is his chapter on Harry Potter (see my post about that chapter here).

 

For the Beauty of the ChurchFor the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts ed. by W. David O. Taylor (2010, 208 pages)

This book is a collection of chapters from various authors, all based on a conference on Christianity and the arts. It addresses all of the arts and focuses on how Christians (and more specifically, the church) should relate to the arts. As with any compilation, some chapters are better than others, but this is an excellent book overall. The bright spot for me is the first chapter by Andy Crouch, which I consider to be worth more than the price of the entire book. Other chapters cover helpful areas that many Christians will be wrestling with, such as the role of art in the church’s worship, why and how Christians can be patrons of the arts, and how art functions in relation to pastoral ministry.

 

The Mind of the MakerThe Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers (1987, 256 pages)

This book is excellent. Fiction writer Dorothy Sayers is sharp, and her writing is profound. Her arguments are tightly wound and throughout the book I found myself deeply resonating with Sayers’ insights. If every artist would heed Sayers’ wisdom here, the art produced by the church would be deeper and more powerful. As a fiction writer, Sayers primarily focuses on writing and draws her examples from that world. Her practical instruction for writing well is based in and intricately intertwined with Trinitarian theology. And this leads me to a caution: The Mind of the Maker is not for the casual arts tourist. Her arguments are profound, and sometimes tricky to follow. The reader must buckle up and hold on tightly. But any effort you put into understanding this important book will be well rewarded.

 

An Experiment in CriticismAn Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis (1961, 152 pages)

As with everything C. S. Lewis has written, this book is powerful. It is not for the faint of heart, however, as Lewis’ skill as a litterateur and critic is in full effect, his arguments are tightly wound, and his examples are drawn from works of literature that most modern readers will not be familiar with. However, for those willing to invest the energy to follow Lewis’ argument, the book will prove rich. The book is on literature, and Lewis’ basic argument is that we should judge books not according to how they are written (a trend in literary criticism that Lewis found disturbing), but more about how they are read. Lewis proposes that what makes a book good or bad is the type of reading it invites. He begins by stating that he wants to define good literature as “that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading” and bad literature as “that which does the same for bad reading.” He is forced to conclude, however, that adding the word “compels” is only wishful thinking. Ultimately, “what damns a book is not the existence of bad readings but the absence of good ones.” The book is full of wisdom and many memorable (and transformational) quotes. Any serious about literature ought to read this book. For more on this book, click here.

 

Every Good EndeavorEvery Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Tim Keller (2012, 288 pages)

As with everything Tim Keller writes, this book is amazing. Actually, I think this is one of the most important books Tim Keller has written, and I believe it should be required reading for anyone in the work force and anyone pastoring people in the work force (i.e., everybody). Keller’s contention is that everything we do in life matters, and that even our most “secular” activities can be a means of God spreading his grace and provision throughout his earth. The book is not about art—it’s broader than that—but Keller gives a healthy amount of attention to the arts and any artist will find Keller’s insights helpful and inspiring. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing in life, I implore you to read this book for the sake of God’s kingdom.

 

Saving LeonardoSaving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning by Nancy Pearcey (2010, 336 pages)

I found Saving Leonardo to be very helpful in understanding several types of art, and several aspects of art history in particular. Pearcey is a sharp writer, and (in the spirit of her teacher, Francis Schaeffer) she has done much to alert the evangelical world to the dangers of dividing the secular and the sacred. What I love most about this book is its careful discussions on why certain types of art emerged and why styles, themes, and transitions are significant. But I do have one caveat. As the subtitle suggests, Saving Leonardo is a bit defensive: it recognizes an onslaught of secularism, and Pearcey sees that onslaught clearly on many fronts. But I do sense that Pearcey is taking a slightly cynical stance in regards to many works of art, several of which are capable of a more congenial interpretation. I appreciate Pearcey’s concern to induce discernment, but at times one gets the feeling that Pearcey sees all art produced by non-Christians as a massive conspiracy to get Christians to renounce their faith. However, Pearcey ends the book by denying this accusation, and she rightly points out that art—even art made by non-Christians—can be God-glorifying and beneficial to Christians. With that caveat, I would heartily recommend this book.

 

It Was GoodIt Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (2007, 355 pages)

It Was Good is a collection of essays from a lot of great people on a variety of issues surrounding faith and art. As with any compilation, some essays are better than others, but there is a lot of outstanding material here. Some chapters that stood out to me were those written by Tim Keller, Makoto Fujimura, Edward Knippers, Ned Bustard, and Karen Mulder. The collection of essays is impressive, and while some will find specific topics and writing styles more compelling than others, this book has a lot to offer anyone interested in learning more about art and how it relates to faith. If you’re looking for a systematic approach to the subject, however, you’ll want to look elsewhere. If you’ve already started down your journey in exploring Christianity and the arts, however, you’re sure to find this book helpful.

 

Resounding TruthResounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music by Jeremy Begbie (2007, 416 pages)

This is one of the first books I read on Christianity and the arts, and I found it very helpful. Jeremy Begbie explores the world of music and covers a lot of ground. He discusses the power of music and its important role in our daily lives. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the history of music and to the history of music theory. From the ancient Greeks to Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Bach, the book traces the prevailing theories regarding what music is and how it works. This includes both philosophy and theology. Begbie also discusses some intriguing facets of music that can aid us in the way we think about God (and the Trinity in particular). I would caution the average reader that this book is written at the scholarly level, which means that it’s well researched and carefully nuanced, but this will likely be a barrier for most readers.

 

Music, Modernity, and GodMusic, Modernity, & God: Essays in Listening by Jeremy Begbie (2014, 272 pages)

This is another scholarly work by Jeremy Begbie, and it offers a handful of essays that engage the modernist worldview, how it has affected our music, and how music might offer some paths leading beyond the stalemate that modernist philosophy and theology have left us with. Most readers will find this book overly scholarly (too nuanced, too sparse on explanations of philosophers and philosophical concepts, too lacking in passionate appeals), so I would only recommend this book to those deeply interested in both modernity and music. However, Begbie’s collection of essays here are insightful into the nature of music, and he offers some profound analogies from the world of music that can aid our thinking and discussions about several areas of theology and philosophy, not to mention music itself. For more on this book, see my review on Themelios.

 

Beholding the GloryBeholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts ed. by Jeremy Begbie (2000, 159 pages)

This is a compilation, edited by Jeremy Begbie, focusing on how the concept of Incarnation relates to the arts. First, the concept of incarnation (of God taking on flesh in Jesus) is explained and compared to the process of incarnating through the arts—taking a concept and then giving it “flesh” through paint, sound, words, etc. This is an essential concept for the arts, and for the Christian life in general, and Beholding the Glory does an excellent job of explaining its significance. Subsequent chapters explain how incarnation works in specific art forms: poetry, music, dance, sculpture, icons, etc. As with any compilation, some chapters are better than others, but I found this book helpful and insightful overall.

 

God in the GalleryGod in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art by Daniel Siedell (2008, 192 pages)

As the name suggests, Siedell’s focus is visual art in general, and modern art in particular. This is a helpful book for those who have trouble understanding modern art, and especially for those who wonder if there is any point in a Christian engaging modern art. Siedell is knowledgeable (he has worked as a curator) and gracious. This book is part of Baker’s Cultural Exegesis series, which means that it is more on the scholarly side. The average reader will struggle a bit, but I would still recommend this book for those wanting to understand modern art.

 

Visual FaithVisual Faith: Art, Theology, & Worship in Dialogue by William Dyrness (2001, 190 pages)

Dyrness focuses on visual art. The book offers a history of the visual arts, an exploration of what the Bible says about art, and an overview of the contemporary art scene. Dyrness’ book is in Baker’s Engaging Culture series, which means it is a scholarly work and therefore more heavily nuanced and technical than most readers will want. Nevertheless, the book would be very helpful for those hoping to understand the visual arts better, particularly in conjunction with a Christian worldview.

 

Reel SpiritualityReel Spirituality: Theology & Film in Dialogue by Robert Johnston (2006, 352 pages)

Johnston provides a helpful explanation of how film works and how our faith informs our experience with film. Johnston challenges Christians to go beyond the rating system to decide which movies are helpful and/or redemptive. One of Johnston’s key concerns is that many people today go to the theatre as a worshipful experience, as a sort of replacement for church and traditional spirituality. One of his key arguments is that we will often find God in the theatre. I would personally side more with Grant Horner’s contention that what we find in the theatre is humanity, but I would still affirm Johnston’s writing because human beings are made in God’s image, and God is reflected in the things we make, often in surprising ways. Once again, Reel Spirituality is in Baker’s Engaging Culture series, and the scholarly style will make this work more inaccessible to the average reader, but it is worth the time for those who want to learn more about a Christian approach to film and want to go deeper than Horner’s book (Meaning at the Movies).

 

Personal JesusPersonal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls by Clive Marsh & Vaughan Roberts (2013, 256 pages)

Marsh and Roberts examine pop music and the modern person’s listening habits in an attempt to discover how our experience with pop music shapes us. The subject matter is fascinating, and Marsh and Roberts incorporate theology, psychology, and a wonderful knowledge of pop music into their text. I will say, however, that I found this book to be a bit disappointing, mostly because the writing style was so technical and every point so carefully nuanced that I felt an absence of firm conviction (this book is also in Baker’s Engaging Culture series). The scholarly approach gives the book lasting value, and many writers will want to build on what the authors have put together here, but when an author is working so hard to avoid making assertions beyond what their research will allow, the book often becomes tedious. For me personally, the scholarly strength of the book made it fall flat, aside from a few wonderful insights that I took away. I hope other readers will disagree.

 

Outreach and the ArtistOutreach & the Artist: Sharing the Gospel with the Arts by Con Campbell (2013, 128 pages)

As the title of this book suggests, Campbell focuses on the arts as a means of sharing one’s faith. Campbell is a jazz musician, so many of his examples are about music in general, and jazz in particular. Outreach and the Artist provides a fairly robust vision for what it means to incorporate the arts into outreach. At times, I felt as though Campbell was recommending the bait and switch: throw a jazz concert, and once you’ve got people there for the fun event, hit them with the gospel. But in the end Campbell’s approach was much more robust, and he does address how art itself, communicating as art can be an outreach opportunity. The book is more specifically focused than most readers will want, but for those wanting to do outreach, this will be a helpful read.

 

Imagination RedeemedImagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Matthew Ristuccia (2014, 176 pages)

Imagination Redeemed is not primarily about art. As the title suggests, the book is about the imagination in general. Each chapter follows the same structure: Veith writes some on the importance of the imagination for life and art, then Ristuccia writes about some appeal to the imagination in the book of Ezekiel. In one sense, the book is broad because it addresses imagination for all of life, but the book is also oddly narrow in that most of the application focuses on the book of Ezekiel. It’s part encomium to imagination and part commentary on Ezekiel. The strength is that the sections on Ezekiel show how powerfully the Bible makes use of the imagination. The weakness is that those less interested in the background and text of Ezekiel will find the book difficult to finish. The book is full of insights on the imagination, however, and the sections on Ezekiel are also insightful.

 

How to Read SlowlyHow to Read Slowly by James Sire (2000, 192 pages)

This is not a book about art, it’s a book about reading well. But I’m including it here because Sire gives a significant amount of attention to reading poetry and fiction. The book as a whole is helpful and definitely worth reading, and those interested in fiction and poetry will find much help in reading, understanding, and enjoying these art forms. Sire is a great teacher, he uses many excellent examples, and he is always clear in explaining why it matters.

 

Lit!Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke (2011, 202 pages)

Reinke’s book is about reading—all types of reading, including literature. Overall, this book is very helpful. Reinke orients the reader to the challenges and possibilities of reading various genres and provides discussions about important topics such as whether or not a Christian can benefit from reading books written by non-Christians. My only concern with Lit! is that Reinke seems (to me) to view written words as inherently better (or more powerful, or more beneficial) than images, which he says are more ambiguous and more prone to corruption. I disagree with that sentiment, especially when it comes to thinking about art, and especially when considering the massively corrupting purposes to which language has been directed, but I suppose I shouldn’t fault a literary enthusiast for loving his own art form.

 

The Artisan SoulThe Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art by Erwin McManus (2014, 208 pages)

McManus writes as a pastor of a highly artist-saturated congregation. In other words, he knows what it means to be a shepherd to artists. The book includes helpful discussions on the nature of art, the importance of craftsmanship, and the importance of the imagination. While the book continually interacts with the world of art, the book is not about art, strictly speaking. McManus uses art as an analogy for life: you want your life to be a work of art. So while I would recommend this book, if you are looking for a book specifically on art or what it means to be an artist, I’d start elsewhere. If you enjoy art and want to be a better person, this would be a great book for you.

While there are huge benefits to reading old books rather than new ones, we have to be careful. Here are a few reasons why. (Incidentally, the dangers of reading old books overlap somewhat with the dangers of reading biographies.)

1. An older book is not necessarily a better book. Nearly all of the older books I have read have been more difficult to read than newer books on the same topics. Sometimes this has been worth it. Sometimes it has not. Just because the book is old, doesn’t mean it’s better, wiser, or more edifying. And in some subjects, an older book is fighting with serious disadvantages. For example, recent archeological developments have shed light on some aspects of biblical culture and geography. This helps modern scholars be more insightful about certain passages. Also, some important biblical manuscripts have been discovered recently (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls). This too gives modern scholars an advantage. This does not make every older book worthless (see my previous post), but we can’t assume that the older book is the better book.

2. Reading old books can make us arrogant. In some circles, familiarity with dead theologians and their works makes you seem impressive. In discussions about sanctification, the guy who throws in the most Augustines, Luthers, and Lewises wins. But in the real world, having read Jonathan Edwards rather than John Piper doesn’t automatically make you smarter. Nor does the accumulation of data make you better than anyone. Sometimes the pride that comes through reading old books is subtle and unintentional. Other times it is blatant and calculated. So read old books, but watch your pride.

3. Old books can keep us focused on old issues. I have written about the dangers of this preoccupation with historical doctrinal squabbles before. While we do need to gain perspective on the issues we face today, and while we have much to gain from the theological debates of the past, we cannot substitute these for the issues and questions that we face today. When your college roommate tells you he wants to move in with his girlfriend, reciting the Canons of Dort won’t help the situation. As important as the Reformation was, and as significant as its impact remains, we cannot simply memorize the arguments of the Reformers and recite them in their original formulations. Instead, we need to look to the biblical truths those men explored, and ask how those truths should be applied to the questions and issues of our day. If we only read old books, we might end up fighting battles that have long been settled.

So read old books, but do it carefully. We have much to learn from dead theologians. But we must consider their unique historical setting, and we must focus on the biblical truths themselves rather than their specific formulations of those truths. And as we read old books, we should also read new books. And we should read newspapers. And blogs (you’re doing good there). We need to keep our finger on the pulse of what is happening in our God-ordained historical moment. Learn from the past, and apply what you learn to the present.

 

If you had a choice between a good book written this year and a good book on the same topic written over 100 years ago, which would you choose? Here are a few reasons why you might consider choosing the older book.

1. Old books give us perspective. Sometimes we get caught up in our modern world with our modern problems and our modern solutions. When we are isolated within our own historical moment, these issues can seem unique, unbelievable, insurmountable. But when we read old books, we gain perspective. Issues like homosexuality and abortion seem new and progressive, so we get to work developing a Christian response to these things. But Christians have been facing these issues since the days of the Apostle Paul. To neglect the wise words of those who have preceded us is foolish. And arrogant.

2. Old books give us a sense of tradition. We can learn a lot from the way that Christians throughout the ages have worshiped, prayed, evangelized, apostatized, and defended the faith. We can do ourselves great harm by rethinking our theology, worship, and church life as though church history skipped from Acts 28 to 2012. We do need to be biblical, and this will mean patterning our churches after the New Testament model. But the church has learned many lessons in 2,000 years; lessons we ignore at our own peril.

3. Old books force us to check our work. If you suddenly discover that a passage of Scripture means the opposite of what God’s people have believed it to mean for thousands of years, you might be wrong. You might be right, but if I had to put my money somewhere… I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t explore the Scriptures with every interpretive tool available, nor do I believe that the church has ever been interpretively infallible. But if you find yourself disagreeing with all the wise and godly theologians of the past, you’d better look again. And again. And again.

4. Old books keep us humble. In the counseling class I teach, I assign a couple of books by modern counselor/scholars, and a book by the Puritan John Owen. Not only did Owen say what these modern authors are saying, he said it some 350 years before they did. And he often said it better than they are saying it. Reading old books reminds us that we’re not the first ones to understand the Bible. This keeps us humble.

We should always choose our authors wisely. As you do, I encourage you to look not just to the living, but also to the dead. Dead authors are often more difficult to understand, but the extra effort is sometimes (not always) worth it.

Tomorrow: The dangers of reading dead theologians.

 

I’ve developed a weird sort of crush on Flannery O’Connor. If you’ve never read anything she’s written, I would highly recommend it. But be warned: you probably won’t enjoy it.

Her writing is not fun, nor is it entertaining in a lighthearted sense. Pretty much everything she wrote was dark. Her stories are filled with death, murder, doubt, blasphemy, and all sorts of debauchery and violence. This much shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Much of what we read and watch contains all kinds of darkness. But here’s the kicker: Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic.

How can a person with a profoundly Christian worldview write stories that are dark, violent, and depressing?

For O’Connor, the use of exaggerated violence was actually an aid in getting people to see life for what it is, and to see themselves for who they are:

“We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is a bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him…” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 113-114)

In other words, extreme situations force us to look beyond all of the decorum and comfortable habits that adorn our daily lives and see what we are at the core of our selves. As O’Connor says, the violence is not an end in itself, it is a means of cutting through the irrelevancies and showing us who we really are.

I have already written a fair amount about The Hunger Games, but it’s worth pointing out that this is one of the strong points of those stories. When faced with a violent and dehumanizing situation, we find out who these characters really are. Some of the “tributes” from districts 1 and 2 show their predatory nature, while Katniss, Peeta, and Rue find ways to uphold the dignity of humanity. Those commitments were there the whole time, but it took an extreme situation to draw them out.

As we read or watch this type of fiction, we see ourselves in the characters. Our books or tv screens become mirrors and we are forced to ask, What would I do in such a situation? It forces us to wrestle with that deepest part of ourselves that may not see the light of day in the course of our daily routines.

Of course, many people will pursue violence as an end in itself. But violence can be a good thing when it points beyond itself to reveal the “qualities least dispensable” in our souls, “those qualities which are all we will have to take into eternity with us.”

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