Two and a half years ago I read an article that become a pivot on which my life swung. No, perhaps it was a lever that catapulted me into history. The article's argument goes something like this: read old books.
I thought about the idea for a long time and narrowed it down to something practical and do-able. To my mind such a broad statement needed some qualifying.
Read old literature
Literature is made up of more than just books. Better therefore to read literature: poems, articles, essays and sermons and so on.
Each literary type has something different to offer. Poetry is a choice vehicle for emotion. It can also help us to make unusual connections. Consider the beginning of John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14 (c.1610):
'Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.'
Rhythm and rhyme reinforce the plea that God break the author to make him new.
Articles provide pure information, sometimes opinion; essays formulate logical arguments and sermons are rich in Gospel truth. Books may contain some of these forms but not always and not all in one so we should read a range of literature.
Read old Christian literature
There is nothing more important in the whole of life than knowing and following God. He is the one who made everything that exists. He has revealed Himself to us and we must respond. There can be and is no neutrality.
As we stand naturally we are in rebellion to God, hopelessly bound for the just punishment of hell, but if we turn from our sin and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ we will be saved for eternal, perfect life. It is an either/or situation. The Bible—God's word to man—teaches us this. It teaches us we can know God!
How wonderful to consider such a thing! As we read good, old Christian literature we can learn to know the Ruler of the Universe. We can understand ourselves and reality better in light of God and we can learn how to practically understand and live out what He teaches us in the Bible.
Read old, old Christian literature
'Old' here doesn't just mean from the time your parents were kids. It means old old. Something written two-, five-, eight-hundred years ago or even a thousand or more years before us.
Christian literature of this time-honoured, tried and true, Christ-centred kind is startling. If you find old things boring then try again because such literature richly and lavishly expresses the experiences and thoughts of people who believed the same, eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ. These authors are our brothers and sisters though they have not walked the earth in generations!
Our connection to them is profound. They experienced the same sinful tendencies, trials, joys, emotions and longings that we do—they believed the same everlasting Truth. The difference in the outworking and expression of these things however can be great enough to help us to step outside of our own age.
Old writers weren't infallible, much like contemporary ones. However, the contrast of language, depth of piety, willingness to suffer and other fruitful things conveyed do enable us to see more clearly the constraints and faults of the thinking and conduct of our own time and culture.
In particular, the protestant Puritans and Reformers left treasure troves of literature helping us to better learn about true, biblical Christianity. Their times were years of wonderful growth and return to sound biblical exposition and teaching. As such their literature is brimming with helpful advice and meaty insights—a meal of choice for any student of the Lord, alongside His word, the Bible (which must come first).
Motivation for kick-starting
When we are so saturated with information, and things to do and be, it can be easy to think 'I don't have time' or 'I just can't be bothered'. We feel overwhelmed, overworked, and are encouraged towards mindless entertainment—so reading looks really unattractive.
But looks are deceiving and you can't (necessarily) judge a book by its cover. One of the best books I've read has a modern cover that makes me hesitant to read it at work, an 11 word title and was written in the mid-1800s!
The first old book I read has a daunting name—A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life—but it shook me to the core. The book, written by William Law, was first published in 1728! It introduced me to an important theme that runs through many an old God-fearer's writings: holiness of daily life.
If a theological text seems like too much, pick up a collection of Frances Ridley Havergal's hymns or an anthology of George Herbert's poetry. Find a biography of someone's life: John G. Patton, Richard and Margaret Baxter, Anne Steel, John Bunyan or William Cowper. The stories of seemingly ordinary people can turn out to be quite remarkable.
Unattractive reading is exactly what 'itching ears' need. We must not spend our lives only paying attention to what satisfies our desire for entertainment but we must continually seek the Lord. What better way than to read and pray? There is nothing quite like a solid piece of old Christian literature to lead back to the ancient way of the Lord (Jeremiah chapter 6, verse 16).
Reading such Christ-centred literature, even 10-minutes a day, is mind-expanding. It frees us from contemporary ruts in thinking, taking us onward to Christ and into God's Word. Count it a privilege to be so led and get cracking! I haven't looked back since William Law.
May the great God of Heaven grant you wisdom to know and love Him more through such reading and study, both now and forevermore.
Irenie How is young yet, by the grace of God, was saved while she was running away from and fighting against Him. God showed her that He is the Lord and she wants you to know this too. After becoming a Christian she finished studying to become a graphic designer and as this she currently works full-time in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Irenie How's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/irenie-how.html