Sunday, February 08, 2004

CS Lewis on Spiritual Reading

Wherever you find a litle study circle of Christian laity, you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke, or St. Paul, or St. Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas, or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev, or M. Maritain, or Mr. Niebuhr, or Miss Sayers, or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvey. Naturally, since I myslf am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But 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 against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. And new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in the 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. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o'clock a coversation which began at eight, you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why - the reason of course, being that the earlier stages of the coversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed "at" some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real sifnificance. The only safety is to have a stndard of plain, central Christianity ("Mere Christianity" as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one til 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.

(Transcribers Interjection. I think the same rule should hold true for all reading. While some modern books are very good, and entertaining, a steady diet of them can make you either one-dimensional, or undernourished intellectually. For example. Le Divorce. Pretty intertaining socially, but not really that deep. Certainly not edifying. Substitute a classic.)

For a good ("popular") defense of our position against modern woffle, to fall back on, I know nothing better than G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man. Harder reading, but very protective, is Edwyn Bevan's Symbolism and Belief. Charles Williams's He Came Down from Heaven doesn't suit everyone, but try it.

For meditative and devotional reading (a little bit at a time, more like sucking on a lozenge than eating a slice of bread), I suggest the Imitation of Christ (astringent) and Traherne's Centuries of Meditiation (joyous). Also my selection from Macdonald, George Macdonald; An Anthology. I can't read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.

For Christian morals I suggest my wife's (Joy Davidman) Smoke on the Mountain; Gore's The Sermon on the Mount and (perhaps) his Philosophy of the Good Life. And possibly (but with a grain of salt, for he is too puritanical) William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life...

You'll want mouthwash for the imagination. I'm told that Mauriac's novels (all excellently translated if your French is rusty) are good, though very severe. Dorothy Sayers' Man Born to be King (those broadcast plays) certainly is. So, to me, but not to everyone, are charles Williams's fantastic novels. (Another Interjection by Rachel: An allusion to Tolkien, who had a very big aversion to William's style of writing, declaring that his books were vulgar and farcical. The eventual erosion of their friendship started when Lewis befriended Williams and allowed him into their writers circle) Pilgrim's Progress, if you ignore some straw splitting dialogues on Calvinist theology and concentrate on the story is first class.

St. Augustine's Confessions will give you the record of an earlier adult covert, with many very great devotional passages intermixed.

Do you read poetry? Geore Herbert at his best is extremely nutritious.

I don't mention the Bible because I take that for granted. A modern translation is for most purposes far more useful than the Authorized Version (Aka, King James).

As regards my own books, you might (or might not) car for Transposition, The Great Divorce, or The Four Loves...

Have you read anything by an American Treppist called Thomas Merton? I'm at present on his No Man Is an Island. It is the best new spiritual reading I've met for a long time.

About prides, superiorities, and affronts, there's no book better than Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life where you'll find all of us pinned like butterflies on cards-the cards being little stories of typical characters in the most sober, astringent, eighteenth century prose.

Sunday Reading

Today I am reading today "The Joyful Christian" by CS Lewis. Someone asked me about it. And the first thought that came to my head is, I am reading it because it is Sunday. Which raises a quandry in my mind. One hundred years ago, people read only their Bibles on Sunday, or maybe various church published tracts. There was a sense of keeping separate the sacred and secular on that particular day of the week. Some Sundays, I feel the need, since I am always working (lets ignore the serious issues on that subject for a moment) to read something devotional.


Shouldn't we read such books that we shouldn't be ashamed to read on Sunday? Or, since to most of us that thought rarely occurs, should we ever read anything we would be embarrassed for someone to "catch" us reading? So, in a sense, shouldn't all our reading be "sunday reading?" Not, necessarily sacred in nature, but things that are edifying. Books that are uplifting, and of good content. "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely ...think on these things."

It's worth at least a passing thought.