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Monday, December 13, 2010


As part of a routine of discipline I am trying to set for myself, I recently decided to read something written by a prominent figure in church history every day. On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius seemed an appropriate work for Advent, so a few days ago I pulled my copy off the shelf. Opening the book, I began reading the introduction, forgetting that C.S. Lewis had written the introduction to this particular copy I own. Lewis begins with these lines:

“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

I started to think about this, and how unfortunately true Lewis’s words are. In case some of Lewis’s language is a little tough to understand, let me explain in perhaps simpler, more contemporary, and much nerdier terms.

I am a huge fan of Lord of the Rings. I’ve read through the books a number of times. I did an independent study on them in college. I’ve spent many hours of my life watching the movies, both regular and extended editions. (However, I’ve not yet gotten to the point of learning to read or write Elvish.) 

Likewise, since childhood the original Star Wars trilogy has been at the top of my favorite movies. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen them. I love playing any Star Wars video game I can get my hands on, even though I’m terrible at them. Even though I was thoroughly disappointed every time, I still went to the midnight premier of every one of the prequels. (But no worries, I wasn’t one of those guys who dressed up as a storm trooper.) 

All this is to say, when it comes to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, I consider myself a fanboy.

Now, let’s apply this to what Lewis says. Let’s pretend that I still consider myself a Lord of the Rings fanboy, but I’ve never seen the movies. Furthermore, I’ve never read the books. Here is all that I have done – I’ve heard other people talk about them. I’ve gone online and read critics' reviews of the movies. I’ve read summaries of the books on Wikipedia. I've done all these things but I’ve never actually spent time in the original material. I don’t think anyone else would consider me to be a true fanboy. It’s like saying John Coltrane is my favorite jazz musician, but I've never heard him play. Or apples are my favorite fruit, but I’ve never eaten one.

Taking this a step even further, I think this issue is a reality too common in the church. Many of us would consider ourselves to be “fans” of Christ or “fans” of the Bible, but how much time do we spend actually reading Scripture? I’m sure we get good summaries of it at church. We probably read some great books that explain it to us. But are we allowing time for reading and discovering what is in the Bible?

Perhaps we are intimidated because we don’t think we can handle it on our own. The Bible seems too foreign and intimidating. This is where we need to take Lewis’s words to heart. There is something that can’t be gained through only hearing about the Bible from others. To be shaped and formed in holiness, we need the Scriptures to penetrate our everyday lives and our everyday schedules. We need the delight and ease of first-hand knowledge of spending personal time in the Scriptures.

This being said, there certainly is a place for the community in helping us read and interpret Scripture as well, but how ready will we be to join that conversation if we are not spending personal time in the Bible? Perhaps we can fake it well, or we can at least get by, but there are new depths of wonder and beauty we will never reach unless we commit ourselves to daily reading God’s Word.


  1. I write all this as a challenge to myself just as much as a challenge to anyone else. I am trying to commit myself to daily time in the Scriptures each morning along with my time reading historical church writings.

  2. Very well-said! Are we recipients of a tradition or participants of it? If the latter, then we can't be satisfied with merely listening to what others say about Jesus, the Bible...it invokes our participation in the tradition/community/movement that has continued for two millennia.

  3. Great post. I love this message. It's something I think most people need to hear, myself included.

  4. Jonathan, wonderful post! I have always referred to this as the main difference between Christendom and the Church. This was one of the contributing factors that lead to my decision to leave seminary, but not Christ. Our authenticity is not determined by our culture or our degrees.