Humans create communities with vibrant cultures. When you are blessed to be part of a vibrant community, you are immersed in the culture of that place and its people. Christians, particularly, have always been very interested in building and sustaining culture. I wanted to take some time in this blog post to talk about why reading the Great Books is so important if you want to see Christian culture continue from one generation to the next. Here are my top three reasons why reading the Great Books is crucial to sustain Christian Culture:
Reason 1: Christianity is a Historical Religion and the Great Books teach us our History
Either history matters or it does not. Henry Ford famously said, “History is bunk!” As an innovator, he has a point...to a point. Creators and innovators can be trapped in old mindsets and discouraged if they only look to the past. No one in the past made an automobile. Some believed it would never happen. Ford was not imprisoned by history, and we are all thankful for that (except when we are stuck in traffic).
Some religions have a “Fordian” view of history thinking and even saying that it does not matter. For example, some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism don’t pay much attention to history focusing instead on principles or on escaping reality, which is only a dream.
Christianity is defiantly historical. It asserts that history matters and that, in fact, redemption happened in history when a real man was really killed and rose from the dead. The church I attend supports this idea by reciting either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed each Sunday. We assert that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate”; we announce that he “rose again on the third day.” In summary, Christianity requires the study of and belief in history.
As Christianity grew, by God’s providence, the gospel went West. This, of course, is both historical and interesting. It went West into Europe because God gave Paul a dream telling him to take his message to Macedonia in the west. The rest is history.
Because the gospel came to and grew in the West, the Great Books have been the defining works known by believers in each generation. Even now, as Christianity explodes in Africa and the Far East, the Great Books have to be on the agenda, and hopefully on the bookshelves, of Christian leaders in these non-Western places. Why? Because to read Augustine or the other church fathers you need to know the writings and ideas of Plato and Aristotle and Homer and Cicero. The West ends up being an imperfect, but wondrous experiment involving the gospel impacting culture over many centuries. Christians in Nigeria or Beijing today need to study the experience of their spiritual forefathers in the West as they seek to build an authentic Christian culture in their countries. Reading the Great Books is the best way to do this.
Reason 2: The Fifth Commandment is at the Heart of Culture Creation and Reading the Great Books is the Best Way to know the Best of the Work of our Fathers and Mothers
This is the foundation of every well-run home. Families make up communities. Communities band together into nations. At the root of civilization then is the commitment and requirement that God gives in this commandment: honor your father and mother.
Some might not know their parents. We have a number of students at Veritas Academy, where I work, that are adopted. Although they do not know their birth parents, they have been blessed with wonderful adoptive parents. In some places, children face the tragic circumstance of not knowing their parents and of not having the support they need from other adults. These children are vulnerable and at risk of harm.
Today, sadly, in the West, we are trying to forget our parents or pretend that we don’t have parents. How foolish and dangerous! In order to know who we are, we must come to terms with the glories and follies of our predecessors. The Great Books are the stories that fed the hearts and minds of generation after generation in the West. If we are to love and understand our parents, we must read about them and get to know them. If we mean to sustain a Christian culture, we need to learn from those who built the culture that they handed off to us. Through this study, we can avoid the pain of repeating the mistakes that they made, and we can discover treasures that they have left for us.
Reason 3: A Standard of Excellence is Required to Sustain a Christian Culture, and the Great Books Provide this Standard
Finally, to sustain a culture you must have a standard of excellence. Henry Van Til reportedly said that “culture is religion externalized.” The practices of a culture and community flow out from the deepest religious commitments of that community. A culture without a definition of “the good, true, and beautiful” is doomed to meander and is likely to disappear.
For Christian culture throughout history, the Great Books provide examples defining excellence. This doesn’t mean that everything in the Great Books is right; it does mean that it is often excellent and that it has been influential. The Greeks learned how to be men from listening to poets tell the story of Odysseus. He was a paradigm of what it means to be a man. We see that this “man of many ways” is very flawed--he sleeps around, he lies, he is proud--but he still serves as a powerful example that influences many. He also chooses a difficult return to wife and family instead of remaining with Calypso. Odysseus might not be the perfect man, but Homer’s epics are inspiring examples of imagination and poetry.
This is not to say that all books written in the past year or two aren’t excellent. Many aren’t but maybe a few will have a great and positive impact. If they do, however, they will be living up to a tradition of excellence that was defined by Shakespeare, Dante, Aquinas, and Aristotle (to name only a few). This is an invaluable quality of the Great Books. They show us what excellence really is.
So, in conclusion, reading the Great Books (including the Bible) is critical if we are to sustain a Christian culture. They provide a common history, the foundation for family and community life, and the standards of excellence needed to create and sustain a robust Christian culture.
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