Recently a young man emailed to ask: "Can you recommend a good book to read to understand Augustinian theology?" I wrote back: "Why don't you try reading something St. Augustine wrote, like The City of God or On Christian Doctrine?"
His reply? "Gee, I never thought of that!"
That little episode reminded me of an essay by C.S. Lewis titled "On the Reading of Old Books" (God In the Dock, William B. Eerdmans, 1994). Lewis' point in that essay is simple. The old books he refers to are the enduring classics because they are better written than other books. One mark of that is their clarity of thought and expression. Reading the old books is actually easier and more profitable than reading modern books that attempt to explain the old books.
Since 1944, when Lewis' essay was written, things have only gotten worse. What, I wonder, would Lewis think of The Bible for Dummies and other such works that attempt to explain what the Bible really means? I suppose it's an honorable, though misguided, goal. If you want to know what the Bible means, well, read the Bible. And if you have trouble figuring out what it means, read the Bible in community with other believers. I have shelves filled with well-thumbed volumes that have attempted to explain the Bible to me, with varying degrees of success.
But I have come to understand that Lewis was right. The primary document is always cleaner and clearer than the explanation. Sure, I need some help with the Greek and the Hebrew and the cultural customs, and the books are good for that. But the real way to dig into the meaning is by reading the Bible itself, regularly, both alone and in community, keeping up a lively discussion between God's word, your life and the lives of others.
Some years ago there was a popular bumper sticker that read, "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." One day in traffic I burst out laughing when I saw another bumper sticker. It read: "The Bible says it. I believe it. Can we talk?"
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