Four Recommendations When Reading the Great Books

Founder and Director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, John Mark Reynolds has edited a new book called, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization. In a related article, he offers four recommendations when reading the great books:

Reading the “greats” is not the answer to every problem, and it will not save your soul. If you want God, read the Bible. If you want love, find a friend. If you want hope, pray. None of these books will renew your mind, but all of them will expand it. 

Try to remember these four things when reading the classics. First, most great books require time, much time, to even begin to unlock the good stuff. The process of finding what an author such as Plato said is as important as the “truth” found there. One joy of reading outside an academic context is that there are no deadlines; nobody is grading you. Take the time to read until you see. 

Second, try not to read alone. Get a small community, read, and discuss. Don’t be ambitious, but do form a small group of fellow readers. My wife belongs to a women’s group of different ages reading patristic theology together. I know communities all over our area where busy people gather to read and discuss the great texts. Social media will help you find such friends, but try to meet together at least once a month. 

Third, reading a great text brings benefits, but these benefits work in “agricultural time,” not computing time. You sow and then you reap, but the seeds take a bit just to germinate let alone come to the point of harvest. 

Finally, if we can love our enemies, surely we can love Darwin! Read these great works charitably and with humility. Understand something, appreciate it, and only then judge it. Some Christians stripmine great books for the “good stuff” and hastily condemn the “bad stuff.” Just as a stripminer may destroy beauty in his haste to get coal, so too an overly hasty conclusion about what Christians should learn from a great book may keep the reader from seeing glory of the whole.

10 Essential Classics of Western Literature,” The Gospel Coalition

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