There’s a legend about a literature test that consisted of only two questions:
- What was your least favorite book that we read together this semester?
- What personal shortcoming prevented you from enjoying this internationally renowned, time-honored classic?
Does this exam actually exist? I doubt it (real life is rarely that clever), but it’s a brilliant illustration of why the classics matter. The classics are pieces that transcend the time and place they were written in. They’ve nourished thousands upon thousands of people over the years. Whether we happen to enjoy them or not is irrelevant! The vast hordes of people that existed before us say that there’s something special about these works. We have everything to gain by reading them.
Of course, when it comes to theology, there are people out there that think that those sorts of classics are really only intended for seminary professors and pastors with too much time on their hands. That couldn’t be further from the truth! How seriously would you take an actor if they told you that they’d never read Shakespeare? What about a writer that had never read The Great Gatsby? Or a painter that didn’t know about Vincent van Gogh? A director that had never seen Citizen Kane? You’d probably think twice before considering them a serious professional in the field they’d chosen. Why? Because they just don’t seem to be taking it seriously! They say they want to be something, but they’re ignoring the great landmarks in that discipline! If you want to get serious about something, you look to the great names that came before you! Why would Christianity be any different? Want to walk with God? Listen to the advice of people who did it well. They know better than anyone.
There’s also something particularly special about the Christian classics. When you read The Great Gatsby or The Picture of Dorian Gray, you’re reading words that someone wrote. They’re locked in the past! They’re done! In our tradition, the dead aren’t really dead. They’re just people that passed into eternal life. When we read the Christian classics, we’re reading the words of someone who is still around in that great cloud of witnesses, praying for us and cheering us on. It’s a living engagement with a member of the Church that has passed into glory. It’s not just a mental exercise; it’s a spiritual experience.
There is the question of what exactly is “a classic.” Classics are generally expected to have a certain amount of gravitas and recognition, but every individual will end up with a different list of “the classics” if they’re asked. I won’t pretend that I’m some kind of ultimate arbiter of value, or that the list in my head is somehow more definitive than others. I hope the term points to a type of thing that dominates my interest. I like those old, dusty pieces of theology that belong to no single denomination. I like things that are Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, things that are reformed, evangelical, and traditional. The voices I love most are the ones that speak that ancient faith that they received from the tradition before them. Anyone can invent a faith. That’s easy. It takes infinitely more to follow in the footsteps that followed in the footsteps of Christ. Naturally, some history and modern theology will work itself in from time to time, but my passion will remain my passion and inevitably be the focus of what I hope to share.