My greatest temptation is cynicism. My deepest struggle is despair. I envy Christian leaders who possess unabashed confidence in the gospel; I’m personally more prone to bouts of unbridled skepticism. I regularly doubt the Scriptures I preach, the God I worship, the worldview I espouse.

If, like me, you tend toward cynicism, this post is for you.

From the outside, you might assume that the pastoral vocation would encourage and strengthen faith. I’d argue the opposite is often true. Pastors have a front-row seat to the ugliness of human sin and its manifestation in the church. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been lied to, lied about, and slandered. I’ve believed the best about people who (it turned out) believed the worst about me. I’ve watched pastors I trusted abuse their power, betray their calling, walk out on their marriages, and even abandon the faith. And as I write this, I know I’m preaching to the choir. You have your own stories of betrayal and disillusionment. Cynicism is tempting because there are things to be cynical about.

One of God’s most gracious gifts to the cynical person is the gift of honest Christian friends. Recently, as I was processing a spate of cynicism and despair with a trusted friend, he suggested a book I hadn’t heard of: Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes. I read it and found it challenging and helpful. In this post, I want to summarize some of the book’s most valuable insights. 

Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006)

Dick Keyes is a graduate of Harvard University and Westminster Seminary who has worked with L’Abri Fellowship in Southampton, Massachusetts, since 1979. Now in his 70s, he’s given his life to patient, thoughtful interaction with skeptics of all stripes. This makes his reflections on cynicism mature, measured, and wise.

The title of the book pays homage to C.S. Lewis’s famous observation in The Abolition of Man: “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever… To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” Keyes adopts this rubric as his baseline definition of cynicism: “Cynicism… has to do with seeing through and unmasking positive appearances to reveal the more basic underlying motivations of greed, power, lust, and selfishness.” Throughout the book, he identifies three targets for cynicism: other people, institutions (government, family, church, marriage), and God.

Cynicism, of course, is the air we breathe. It saturates our political discourse, it inundates social media, it’s the key to modern humor. We live downstream from postmodernism and from three influential philosophers – Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche – who taught us to “see through” economic patterns, psychological biases, and power dynamics. Without dismissing the critical insights of these thinkers, Keyes wants to help us question our cultural assumptions and “suspect our suspicions.”

If, like me, you wrestle deeply with cynicism, this is a book worth reading from start to finish. In this post I merely want to summarize six key insights that were helpful to me in my own struggle with cynicism. I’ll also leave you with a few salient quotes from the book.

SIX INSIGHTS ABOUT CYNICISM

Cynicism operates from a hidden idealism. “Cynicism is usually expressed in innuendoes, passing remarks, moods, cartoons, glancing blows, hints, insinuations, unacknowledged assumptions, and jokes. The full self-confidence of its suspicions, enabling it to unmask all things in its vision, are whispered… The genius of cynicism is that it is a voice in your ear which does not usually hang around long enough to be interviewed.” Every cynic is a closet idealist, assuming the superiority of his vantage point. The power of cynicism is that as it critiques the ideals of others, its own ideals are generally hidden from view.

Cynicism is a claim to know all things. Cynicism is a generalizing and totalizing project: because some people act from self-interest, the cynic concludes that all people are driven by self-interest. By claiming to “see through” the motives of others, the cynic assumes a posture of omniscience. “Cynics see through the illusory truths of others to get down to the ‘real truth’ beneath… Far from losing confidence in truth, cynicism has put enormous trust in a different set of truths – its own tools of cynical inquiry.” Though often cloaked in the language of skepticism, cynicism is in fact a claim to absolute truth and objectivity.

Honest dialogue requires that we “reverse the flow of suspicion.” Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche claimed that all religious belief could be reduced to human projection: “the idea of God [provided] a needed crutch, a smokescreen, or both.” But in the same way, both crutch and smokescreen can be motivations for cynicism. The critique cuts both ways. We need to subject cynicism to its own tools of analysis. As we do, we discover that “there is no neutral, objective, or unbiased place to stand” when asking questions about ultimate reality. “Our ideas about God’s presence, absence, or unknowability are all self-involving ideas… They necessarily implicate us or make claims on us, our priorities, and our futures. A dispassionate neutrality is impossible.” Our existing commitments create an interpretive filter through which we evaluate reality. We need to suspect our suspicions.

Cynicism is attractive because it’s partially true. “Cynicism at its best dares to recognize that things are not as they should be… It is suspicious of spin and plastic smiles… [it] has a refreshing aversion to naivete, sentimentality, hypocrisy and blind optimism.” The problem with cynicism is that it goes too far: “Cynics presume to see through those that they cannot in fact see through at all.” For instance: the postmodern cynic adopts a skeptical view of language; words are merely tools that mask agendas of power and oppression. Is this true? Certainly, in some cases. But it’s also true that “words have also been used to clarify, challenge, and motivate people to overcome prejudice, oppression, and injustice.” (Think, for example, of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.) This is the “yes, but” that a healthy response to cynicism requires. Yes, words can be tools of oppression… but not in every case. In the end, cynicism is too simplistic. It’s overconfident in its suspicions. It claims an omniscience it doesn’t have.

The biblical alternative to cynicism is “qualified, redemptive suspicion.” A qualified suspicion acknowledges that not every silver lining has a cloud: despite the brokenness of the world, people are capable of genuine goodness. A redemptive suspicion “is willing to risk giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.” It dares to hope. In a fallen world, suspicion is warranted; we should not trust every person or believe every story. But biblical suspicion looks inward as well as outward. It is self-critical before it is critical of others. It recognizes the possible errors in my judgment and the possible biases in my viewpoint. With qualified, redemptive suspicion, “we can recognize the brokenness that the cynic sees – but without losing the hope that the cynic rejects. [And] we can recognize the glory in the world that the cynic cannot see – but without the sentimentality that the cynic fears.” God, who sees the human heart more clearly than any of us, is not a cynic about humanity. Neither should his people be.

We see only the back side of the tapestry. God, in his providence, is working out his sovereign purposes in history. “What we can see as finite, dependent creatures, limited in space and time, is only a tiny piece of the back side of a tapestry, with only the crudest inklings of what the front side of the tapestry of God’s providence must look like.”

FIVE THOUGHT-PROVOKING QUOTES

“Cynicism is prudent… Believing in the integrity of another person, the validity of an institution or the goodness of God are all high-risk convictions. They are potential setups for disappointment. If you are concerned first and last for emotional safety and survival, cynicism is going to look quite attractive.” (p. 82)

“All men have a natural fear of making a mistake – by believing too well of a person. However, the error of believing too ill of a person is perhaps not feared, at least not in the same degree as the other.” (p. 80, quote from Soren Kierkegaard)

“The cheap pleasures of cynicism are always in plentiful supply. Abandoning them is like going on a diet or giving up smoking. Hope, in other words, is the thing that takes work.” (p. 211, quote from Michael Kinsley)

“If there is an alternative for cynicism, what is it? …[It is] the lifelong determination to see the world as it really is, as much as we can, with eyes open. This means being suspicious of the deceptive filters of our culture and of our personal experience – filters both sentimental and cynical. I am looking for wisdom expressed in a redemptive suspicion, limited by humility and tempered by love and mercy.” (p. 171)

“As cynicism sees through people to unmask them, love also ‘sees through’ them, but with a very different agenda. When we believe and hope in someone, we are also looking through or beyond them, past their face-value appearance or past track record. We see their potential for growth in goodness, strength, and virtue.” (p. 186)

I’m confident my struggle with cynicism will be a lifelong battle. But I’m thankful to Dick Keyes for helping to map the terrain more clearly, and for providing keen wisdom for the journey.  

What if I am grieved by America’s legacy of racism… but tend to distrust governmental solutions? What if I agree that the American church has been complicit in racism… but tend to see preaching the gospel, rather than “antiracist social action,” as the church’s primary mission? What if I agree that Christians should work for racial justice… yet am wary of the ways that the language of “justice” is being weaponized in our cultural dialogue?

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019)

Readers who can relate to these tensions won’t be greatly helped by Jemar Tisby’s new book The Color of Compromise. Though it offers an excellent historical overview of racism in the church, Tisby’s book falls prey to some key weaknesses that diminish the force of his overall argument.

The Color of Compromise is an important book. It’s a necessary book. It’s a meaningful book. Tisby is a first-rate historian, and he has compiled a thorough and sobering account of racism in America and the church’s sad complicity in it. The book is divided into eleven chapters: an introduction and a conclusion, with nine chapters of historical survey in between. Beginning with the colonial era and ending with Black Lives Matter, Tisby traces the story of race in America. Throughout the journey, he comes back to one central point: “nothing about American racism was inevitable.” The story could have been different. At countless moments in history, Christians could have courageously stepped forward to combat racism and change the narrative. But they didn’t.

Overview

For white Christians specifically, Tisby’s book is important in two regards. First of all, it gives historical context. For years, I personally was ignorant of why certain social and political issues tend to elicit a strong response from my black brothers and sisters in Christ. Many of my white friends share that ignorance. But when we understand key events from the slavery and Jim Crow eras, we gain insight and clarity. For instance, when we remember that Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South in 1877, leaving newly freed blacks to fend for themselves, we can make better sense of “ongoing disputes over the role of the federal government in proactively ensuring civil rights” (p. 98). To meaningfully engage issues of race, we must know our history. Tisby’s book is massively helpful in that regard.

Second, Tisby’s book is important for white Christians because it confronts false narratives. For example, chapter 6 addresses the “Lost Cause” mythology that persists throughout the American South to this day. “According to the Lost Cause narrative, the South wanted nothing more than to be left alone… but it was attacked by the aggressive, godless North, who swooped in to disrupt a stable society, calling for emancipation and inviting the intrusion of the federal government into small-town, rural life” (p. 94). Having attended college in the South, I can affirm that this explanation for the Civil War is alive and well. Certainly numerous other issues were bound up in the causes and justifications of the Civil War – but every one of those issues was connected in some way to the institution of slavery. Tisby helps us reckon with the hard truth. He shows how Christian denominations split over the issue of slavery, how theologians and preachers used the Bible to justify slavery, and how Christian leaders failed to act courageously to end slavery. White Christians of all persuasions need to reckon with these facts. As Tisby points out, “American Christians have never had trouble celebrating their victories, but honestly recognizing their failures and inconsistencies, especially when it comes to racism, remains an issue… The Color of Compromise undoes the tendency to skip the hard parts of history and… [challenges] a triumphalist view of American Christianity” (p. 20).

A Work of History & Persuasion

As a historian, Tisby excels. He writes with cogency; he acknowledges complexity; he documents his sources well. Yet he seeks to offer more than just a historical survey. The Color of Compromise is a work of persuasion on two levels. First, Tisby hopes to persuade readers that “the American church has been complicit with racism.” At this level, in my opinion, he succeeds. When Southern preachers used the Bible to defend slavery; when denominations divided over it; and when theologians used the “curse of Ham” in Genesis 9 to justify the subjugation of black people, it’s impossible to argue that the church has NOT been complicit in racism.

Second, Tisby seeks to persuade American Christians to “feel the weight of their collective failure to confront racism in the church… [and take] immediate, fierce action to confess the truth and work for justice” (p. 24) And it’s here that the book fails, in my opinion, for two reasons.

First, Tisby assumes that readers share his vision of what “working for justice” looks like, rather than persuading readers that his particular set of prescriptions are both necessary and just. Second, he gives the impression that anything less than “immediate, fierce action” (action, presumably, that accords with his own set of prescriptions) amounts to ongoing complicity with racism.

At this point, I’ll put all my cards on the table. I’m a white Christian reader who’s willing to be persuaded. I’m grieved by the historic injustices done to black image-bearers of God in this country. I’m willing to acknowledge and repent of the sins of my forefathers. I want to identify any overt or covert racism in my life. And I desire to take meaningful action to heal the racial divides in our churches and our society. As such, I imagine I’m exactly the kind of reader Tisby had in mind when he set out to write this book.

At the same time, I also lean in a politically conservative direction; I have a conviction that personal conversion to Christ is foundational to any meaningful change; I think the main task of the church is to preach the gospel and call people to surrender to Jesus Christ; and I am generally skeptical of some of the ways that the language of “justice” is used in our modern political dialogue.

Call me “willing but wary.” Challenged but critically-minded. I imagine that in this regard, I’m representative of a fair percentage of the American Christians whom Tisby hopes to persuade. But his book displays four key weaknesses that will end up hindering its rhetorical effectiveness among the very audience he seeks to influence.

Weakness #1: dismissive treatment of a mainstream theological conviction.

In chapter 8, titled “Compromising with Racism During the Civil Rights Movement,” Tisby contrasts “two approaches to religion and justice – moderation and activism.” Throughout the chapter, Tisby assumes that his own position – activism – is the obviously correct one. He asserts that Christian moderates “played it safe, refusing to get involved in the civil rights movement” (p. 132).

His example of moderation is Billy Graham; of activism, Martin Luther King Jr. Using Graham’s own words, Tisby explains the convictions behind his “moderate” position:

Graham stated, “I believe the heart of the problem of race is in loving our neighbor.” While few Christians would object that racism is a failure to love one’s neighbor, Graham did not carry that statement any further into the realm of institutional racism. Like many evangelicals, Graham believed race relations would gradually improve – one conversion and one friendship at a time… Ultimately, Graham made it clear that his primary goal was evangelism… Graham never relented from the belief that “the evangelist is not primarily a social reformer, a temperance lecturer or a moralizer. He is simply a keryx, a preacher of the good news” (p. 135 and 149).

Leaving aside the question of Billy Graham’s engagement in the civil rights movement, Graham’s stated conviction that “the evangelist is… simply a preacher of the good news” is one shared by many Christian leaders and activists today – of all races and nationalities. One notable example is the Chinese dissident Wang Yi, who wrote recently upon his imprisonment: “I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime… But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.” Tisby fails to treat this conviction as a serious and cogent expression of Christian obedience and mission. Rather, he writes it off as evidence of “complicity with the status quo of institutional racism” (p. 135) and a “failure… to respond to the evils of segregation and inequality” (p. 143).

If Tisby wishes to assert that “activism” is the only properly Christian option, he needs to make a cogent argument to that end. There remain many Christians who DO care about racial justice, but who share Billy Graham’s conviction that the preaching of the gospel is the primary means to that end. Tisby appears to write such people off as lacking a serious commitment to racial equity. This is a core weakness in his book, and one I hope to see him remedy in future writings.  

Weakness #2: an unclear (and seemingly malleable) definition of racism.

In the first chapter of the book, Tisby puts forward Beverly Daniel Tatum’s definition of racism: “racism is a system of oppression based on race.” He points out that racism includes both “personal bigotry toward someone of a different race” and also “the imposition of bigoted ideas on groups of people.” This is a good, clear, and helpful definition. Historically speaking, it’s quite obvious how deeply entrenched this kind of racism has been in the American story.

But then, toward the end of the book, Tisby seems to expand this definition quite dramatically. He offers these tenuous examples of modern-day racism: “sharing the works of people who practiced slavery without context or criticism; continually hosting panels, conferences, and other events that feature only white men; Christian schools making peace with the presence of buildings named after racists or featuring their statues on campus grounds…” (p. 211).

It’s hard for this reader – and others, I imagine – to see how these modern-day examples reflect “a system of oppression based on race.” Each one certainly could be evidence of such – if we are knowingly avoiding the negative aspects of someone’s history, intentionally excluding minority voices, or proudly celebrating a racist past. (And it’s important to acknowledge that these kinds of things can and do happen). But none of these examples, in and of themselves, amounts to de facto racism. To take each one in turn: If I don’t mention Jonathan Edwards’ slaveholding when I quote him, am I guilty of racism? If my panel or conference features only white men, does that mean it’s racist? Is every Christian school with a building named after George Whitefield guilty of racism?

Some of our white forefathers believed that black people were property, not persons. That’s a grievous, sinful offense against human dignity – and it was part of a system of oppression based on race. I’m not convinced that a bust of Thomas Jefferson in the school library is the same thing.

Weakness #3: unjust prescriptions for “justice.”

In his final chapter, Tisby urges Christian leaders to use their platforms to “call out” racism. In so doing, he violates biblical principles of justice that would make such efforts truly just.

Public offense calls for public opposition. Too many Christian leaders refuse to use their platforms to speak publicly against racism. Those who do tend to speak in generalities. “Racism is wrong,” they say, but they refrain from naming individuals or situations in which racism is at play. Moreover, they use euphemisms like “racial tension” or “racially charged” instead of simply naming words or actions “racist”… If someone has been called out for racism, and they refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they caused – whatever their intent – then that person should not enjoy continued credibility and attention. Refuse to go to their conferences, buy their books, quote them on social media, or share their work.

Note carefully the process this paragraph condones. If someone has been “called out” for racism (which makes the accusation of racism the operative principle)… and if they “refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they caused” (making subjective “harm” the determining factor of guilt or innocence)… they should lose public credibility. An accusation of racism, and anything less than immediate capitulation to that accusation, is grounds for denouncing someone as a racist. This is a dangerous prescription that substitutes shame in the court of public opinion for true justice before God and man.

We’ve seen this script play out time and again on social media and in our cultural dialogue, and it’s unfortunate to see a Christian leader condoning these sorts of “shame storms.” Biblical justice demands more. I understand the importance of (especially white) Christian leaders speaking out boldly about issues of race. But when they do so, it’s imperative that they do so biblically and truthfully. If they follow Tisby’s prescription as stated, they may gain followers on social media… but they will not be acting justly in the eyes of God.

Weakness #4: a lack of gospel distinctiveness in the solutions proposed.

At the beginning of the book, Tisby makes an important point that’s foundational to any thinking about racism:

Skin color is simply a physical trait. It is a feature that has no bearing on one’s intrinsic dignity. As the following chapters show, people invented racial categories. Race and racism are social constructs.

This is exactly right. “Race” is an invented category – a social construct used to divide people from one another.

Therefore, we might expect a Christian treatment of racism to use the Scriptures to critique the very idea of race. A Christian approach might start with a survey of the doctrine of the image of God; fast-forward to Revelation’s vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” gathered around the throne of God; and then explore how the gospel of Jesus Christ has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility” and “reconciled us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14-16). Such an approach might show how the gospel critiques the very idea of race (as a category constructed by sinful humans to divide us from one another), and how Christian baptism welcomes us into one new family where identity in Christ and not skin color is our defining feature.

It’s odd, then, that in the final (and prescriptive) chapter of Tisby’s book, he doesn’t mention the gospel at all. His suggestions for addressing racial injustice include: reparations; taking down Confederate monuments; learning from the black church; starting a new seminary; hosting freedom schools and pilgrimages; making Juneteenth a national holiday; participating in the modern-day civil rights movement; publicly denouncing racism; and starting a civil rights movement toward the church.

In his defense, Tisby’s goal is to offer practical advice – things Christians can DO to combat racism. Action steps are good and necessary. But my question is this: if race itself is a social construct, why prescribe remedies that operate within that social construct? Why not show how the gospel dismantles and redeems the whole construct in the first place?

Tisby’s prescriptions aren’t inherently bad (though I expect robust debate on their various merits and demerits); but none of them are distinctly Christian either. Each of them can be pursued without the gospel and without the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that reflects a self-conscious authorial decision; it could be that Tisby was aiming at a common-grace approach to furthering racial justice. But it seems to me that he missed a powerful opportunity to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ gives a totally different set of tools – and a totally different empowering grace – to address racism. If some Christians reject his ideas as “too liberal” – a charge he anticipates in his first chapter – I suspect this is why. It’s not because he’s an unreliable narrator; it’s not because his ideas are unworthy of consideration; it’s not because his audience is importing their own “implicit bias.” It’s because none of his solutions require the shed blood of Jesus Christ and the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit.

Summary & Conclusion

In summary, The Color of Compromise is an important book. It makes a meaningful contribution to the conversation about race in the church and in our society. I anticipate using it with my own children to help them understand (and lament) the church’s history of racial injustice.

However, it’s not a flawless book. It treats dismissively a well-established theological conviction. It offers a fuzzy description of modern-day racism. It fails to uphold biblical justice in some of its prescriptions for justice. And it misses a chance for clear gospel application. As a result, it fails to be as persuasive as the author hopes.

Jemar Tisby is a young scholar with many years of productive writing and activism ahead of him. I’m thankful for his voice, his influence, and his love for the church. I trust he will choose to address some of these weaknesses in his future work. And even if he disagrees with these critiques, I hope they serve to advance this important and fruitful conversation in the church at large, for the healing of our nation and the glory of God.

From the March 2019 issue of First Things:

We’re beholden to many false truisms. One is that our coasts are diverse places representative of the great mosaic of our country, while Middle America is boring and homogeneous. Not exactly. Echelon Insights crunched census data to come up with the 25 counties in the United States in which the mix of residents most precisely mirrors the country as a whole: race, political allegiance, income, educational level, religious affiliation, and age distribution… Douglas County, Nebraska, made the list.

…One of the irritating features of fancy-pants places like New York is the ignorant assumption that people from Omaha live in an insular, white-bread bubble. The opposite is the case. New York County (the island of Manhattan) ranks among the least typical places in the United States. In truth, an Omaha resident has immediate, everyday experience with the actual diversity of the United States, not the paradoxical hyper-diverse homogeneity of places like New York.

Recently I spent a week ministering in the Gauteng province of South Africa (Johannesberg/Pretoria). In this post I offer five reflections on my time there to help American Christians pray and give more diligently to further the work God in Africa.

It’s not my intent to make sweeping generalizations about an entire continent; yet I can’t avoid some element of generality in what I write. The observations below are based on conversations with Christian leaders who are well-networked throughout sub-Saharan Africa and who keep a keen and prayerful eye on God’s work throughout the continent.

a large wall map of the African continent…

Africa is profoundly complex. Last week, I stood in a church office in Pretoria gazing at a large wall map of the African continent with my friend Tobie. “Just think about the complexity of this place,” he reasoned. “Over 50 countries. Over 2000 languages. Everything from Dutch-Reformed Christianity here in South Africa, to Muslim influence across the north, to Eastern Christianity in places like Ethiopia. The complexity of church-planting in Africa is almost overwhelming.” On one hand, everyone on the continent considers themselves an African; yet the differences between a Libyan, a Moroccan Berber, an Ethiopian, and an Afrikaner in Johannesburg are vast. Gospel work in Africa will require the willingness to enter into complexity.

(Southern) Africa is overwhelmingly warm to Christianity. “Christianity is the largest religion in sub-Saharan Africa,” observes the TGC-Africa website. But it’s not generally a healthy, gospel-rich Christianity. “The worst thing to happen to Africa… was TBN,” laments Pastor Tobie. In every town and village in Africa, satellite dishes lie perched on rooftops, streaming anemic teaching (and outright heresy) into almost every home. The work of evangelism in Africa is not converting the unchurched, but gospeling the ungospeled. People in general are warm toward God, Jesus, and the church… but apart from clear gospel teaching, they remain stuck in theologically insipid strains of “Christianity.”

Theological training is critical. Tobie asserts that much of the work in Africa comes down to equipping pastors with sound, gospel-rich resources. Many pastors have little training, and sources like TBN are all they know. Once they encounter good biblical theology and clear gospel teaching, they come alive with renewed vigor, and their churches experience revival. Pastors are longing for good training; they simply need access to it. Both residential forms of training (seminary, Bible college, church planting residencies) and non-residential forms of learning (books, websites, apps) will be vital to the work of gospel renewal in Africa.

Africa is graced with amazing leaders. During my time in Gauteng, I met dozens of young pastors-in-training from radically diverse backgrounds. Every one of them is hungry to be used by God. Both City to City Africa and TGC-Africa are examples of fruitful collaboration among theologically sound, Christ-loving pastors. Reformed, evangelical Christianity is on the rise. God is raising up gifted leaders across the continent to shape the future of the African church. If American Christians can help to encourage and resource these leaders, the prospects for gospel revival in Africa are incredibly bright.

Resources are key. The question American Christians must ask is: “How can we better resource the work of the gospel in Africa?” Church planters need funding – and often for prolonged seasons of time, as they work to build self-sustaining congregations. Church leaders need training materials. Network leaders need travel budgets to facilitate face-to-face collaboration. Average Christians need podcasts and websites to help them grow in their faith and deepen their theological understanding. We’ve already exported to Africa the worst theological virus to grow in the American petri dish: the prosperity gospel. Now, we who fear God and love the gospel have the chance to overcome that virus and strengthen the immune system of the global church for long-term health and viability. Let’s not miss the moment.   

I’m a huge C.S. Lewis fan. And yet I had never read one of his most enjoyable essays – until a seminary professor made me purchase Athanasius’ famous little book On the Incarnation for a class on Christology. It turns out that the English translation of Athanasius contains an introduction by C.S. Lewis, in which he makes his famous observation about the necessity of reading old books.

Below is the entire introduction. Enjoy!

C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation) by St. Athanasius

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.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, 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. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.

In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new 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 the old books.

All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. 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.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity.

They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so.

Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne.

In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:

an air that kills
From yon far country blows.

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age.

It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

The present book is something of an experiment. The translation is intended for the world at large, not only for theological students. If it succeeds, other translations of other great Christian books will presumably follow. In one sense, of course, it is not the first in the field. Translations of the Theologia Germanica, the Imitation, the Scale of Perfection, and the Revelations of Lady Julian of Norwich, are already on the market, and are very valuable, though some of them are not very scholarly.

But it will be noticed that these are all books of devotion rather than of doctrine. Now the layman or amateur needs to be instructed as well as to be exhorted. In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing. Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

This is a good translation of a very great book. St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the “Athanasian Creed.” I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words “Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep.

The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame. But this is not my immediate concern. I mention “the creed (commonly called) of St. Athanasius” only to get out of the reader’s way what may have been a bogey and to put the true Athanasius in its place. His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did the same. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression.

His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.

The translator knows so much more Christian Greek than I that it would be out of place for me to praise her version. But it seems to me to be in the right tradition of English translation. I do not think the reader will find here any of that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages. That is as much as the English reader will notice; those who compare the version with the original will be able to estimate how much wit and talent is presupposed in such a choice, for example, as “these wiseacres” on the very first page.