Old Books Are Good For Your Soul

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.




Seeing the Propaganda and Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

Most of us spend time with people who think like we do and we read or watch news that affirms our understanding of things.  This is called living in an echo chamber.  It gets to the point that we feel unable to relate to the other side, because the other side is a mystery.  After all, everyone we know thinks like we do (and we know lots of smart people, of course!).  When we encounter people outside our echo chamber we don’t bother with dialogue and debate but go right for power and silencing.  This is dangerous because in a world where everything is a battle and there are only winners or losers, we are on a track to totalitarianism.

Pessimistic? Maybe.  But look at social media.

I don’t have a lot of solutions outside basic things: listen to people with different opinions, be humble and know you have a lot to learn.  One solution is simply reading.  You might start with a recent book called On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.  In this book he talks about tyrannies in the twentieth century and steps to take to avoid and oppose them.  One of the primary steps is to read:

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this—but we still can…

What to read? Any good novel enlivens our ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being might suit our moment. Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here is perhaps not a great work of art; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is better. One novel known by millions of young Americans that offers an account of tyranny and resistance is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you or your friends or your children did not read it that way the first time, then it bears reading again

I love that Snyder mentions Harry Potter as a book to read.  In essence, you can almost read anything.  But if you want to go a bit deeper than Harry Potter, perhaps try Propaganda by Jacques Ellul.  While I cannot say I’ve read all the best books on propaganda, I can say I’ve read the definitive one (at least, that’s what perusing lists of books on propaganda tells me).  Ellul argues some surprising things, such as that it is the most educated who are most susceptible to propaganda.  Perhaps the best quote in the book (here, I’ll save you a few bucks) is this one:

“Those who read the press of their group and listen to the radio of their group are constantly reinforced in their allegiance. They learn more and more that their group is right, that its actions are justified; thus their beliefs are strengthened. At the same time, such propaganda contains elements of criticism and refutation of other groups, which will never be read or heard by a member of another group…This double foray on the part of propaganda, proving the excellence of one’s own group and the evilness of the others, produces an increasingly stringent partitioning of our society…Thus we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly views his own certainty about himself and the wrongs done him by the Others – a world in which nobody listens to anybody else, everybody talks and nobody listens”

If you only watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh or if you only listen to MSNBC and listen to whomever the liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh is, you’re in the echo chamber.

Now, I admit I am guilty of this.  It is easier to listen to whatever agrees with you, it is fun to be affirmed.  It takes work.  I get a lot of my news from Twitter and I’ve made an effort to follow people on the Left (Shaun King) and the Right (Ben Shapiro).  I find myself agreeing with all of them at times, and disagreeing.

If you want a simpler book to read, Frank Lunz’s Words that Work talks about the power of words.  He has worked on numerous political campaigns and it is amazing to see how the right catchphrase can drive a movement (Hope and Change, Make America Great Again).  Finally, if you want to learn from history, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  It is LONG but fantastic as you see how Hitler rose to power, legally, and quickly dismantled freedoms.

After that, perhaps join me in the future in reading The Gulag Archipelego which tells the story of the Communist owork camps.  These two stories, of Hitler and Stalin’s tyrannies, must never be far from our mind.