Old Books & Present Problems

C. S. Lewis once wrote an essay to a very old book wherein he commended the practice of reading old books. He, as a modern writer, did not want people to stop reading modern books but to generously sprinkle their reading of modern books with old ones.  However, and this gets his point across, he said, “But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.” Now, he gave that advice because he didn’t want the reader being carried away unprotected into modern perspectives. So, Lewis went on to commend the reading of old books. It is an excellent essay and I highly commend it and the practice that Lewis commends in it, that is, intentionally reading old books.

There are a variety of reasons for this practice but I think Lewis sums up an important one in the essay. He writes, “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 the old books.” I would like to illustrate this principle in this little essay.

But before I tell you about that experience let me give you some cultural background. Our present Western culture has not abandoned morality. It has changed morality. For example, homosexual practice was once viewed as sin (and even illegal).  But the orientation was something that was considered a psychological problem needing to be corrected. If a young man dressed up like a woman he too was considered a candidate for mental health services. In fact, even the church has capitulated to this new morality. Granted, some have not gone as far as mainline liberalism but there are even Reformed churches flirting with the idea of allowing candidates for ministry who identify as gay (as if it were a neutral orientation) but celibate. What is more, criticism of these practices and orientations is considered to be a sin of the worst kind.  Enter an old book.

I have been reading through Augustine’s The City of God. I am nearly finished.  However, early on in book six I read a passage that I can’t get away from and I need to burden the reader with it. Augustine is writing about mythical and political theologies. In other words, he is writing about the pagans, which is what he does in the first half of the book!  But in book six he tells us that the pagans included in their sacred rites castrated and effeminate men.  In other words, these men were either homosexual or were used in those sorts of practices.  

It is at this point that Augustine tells us something striking, “To be sure, no castrated or effeminate man has ever appeared there (on the theatrical stage), even as one of the chorus of harlots.”  Augustine goes on to say that base and infamous people were often used in plays to perform vile and base actions that no honest man would perform.  In other words, had you turned on the television set in ancient Rome you would not have seen what we see on our television set today! The point?  The West is further down the moral slide of collapse than was Rome in Augustine’s time.  That is frightening.  But it gets even worse.

Augustine says to the pagan cults of Rome, “What sacred rites are they; then, for the performance of which holiness has chosen such persons as not even the obscenity of the stage has admitted to its company?”  In other words, how can you pagan cults do what Roman culture will not tolerate on its theatrical stage? And yet, here we are in the West.  Our entertainment is filled with this sort of practice. Disney is actively trying to train our children in this sort of thing.[1]  And the church, even the evangelical church, is warming up to this nonsense.  I think it is about time we pick up an old book called the Bible. I have no doubt that old Book will give us the perspective we desperately need.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 



Jeffrey Stivason