When you read old books, you’re blessed with a vision from outside your own time and place. Most of us cannot see the assumptions, stemming from our particularities, that blind us and distort how we view reality.
When C. S. Lewis wrote an introduction to an old book, Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, he explained:
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.
As a professor of great books, I am weekly faced with the blind spots in my outlook. I find Lewis is right; old books often illuminate the errors of our time better than we who are swimming in it can. And it’s astounding how often these old books don’t even sound old. Rather, they sound like the author has been reading our headlines and is remarking presciently on the latest news.
We all need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.
Although I could discuss the terrifying similarities between Oedipus Rex or Richard III with our current political landscape, we need not go back that far in time to garner the “old book” insights Lewis describes. Even novels from the last century have enough distance to offer us helpful perspectives on today. High-school literature go-tos are Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984, yet there are a handful of less-read titles that have prophetic, powerful resonance with our current situation.
Here are four that Christians should read and learn from as we seek to wisely navigate our present age.
1. That Hideous Strength (1945) by C. S. Lewis
In the finale to his sci-fi Space Trilogy, Lewis explores what happens when language becomes trivialized and worn out, when “love” resembles utility or self-fulfillment more than sacrifice or grace, and when the desire to be in the “inner ring” dominates our behavior.
Unfortunately, I witnessed the truth of Lewis’s novel when I attended a recent undergraduate chapel. Without naming the speaker, I will say that this person repeated trite truths about Christianity without biblical or theological substance, punctuated by a couple of unintentional “Oh my God!” exclamations. The person flashed pictures of her and celebrities on the screen while singing a politician’s campaign slogan. After she concluded her talk, students stood to applaud. When I asked students afterwards why they gave a standing ovation, no one could give a reason. They’d simply stood because others had.
That Hideous Strength warns against the herd mentality in culture by showing what motivates us to participate in these moments. As you’d expect in a Lewis novel, the ending anchors ultimate hope in Jesus Christ.
2. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller
Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, published 14 years after Lewis’s trilogy, has less explicit hope in its conclusion. Canticle is set in a Catholic monastery in the desert, somewhere near what used to be New Mexico, following a nuclear holocaust. Divided into three sections, the narrative encompasses thousands of years of history rebuilding and once again destroying itself, a cycle suggestive of our penchant for sin.
When the story opens, monks are copying manuscripts that turn out to be plans for weapons of mass destruction. They believe they’re preserving scientific knowledge, yet it’s knowledge that doesn’t lead toward wisdom. Miller’s novel questions our assumptions about knowledge: Should there be things we choose not to know? As the catastrophe of the past revisits the future, a remnant of monks serve faithfully, showing readers how to live in the ruins of civilization.
3. Love in the Ruins (1971) by Walker Percy
Walker Percy greatly admired Miller’s novel and emulated it in his own apocalyptic story, Love in the Ruins. The book opens, “Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world. . . .” Percy then alludes to Dante by having his pilgrim come to himself in a grove—only this wayfarer is Tom More, a name drawn from the martyr who authored Utopia. In some ways, Percy’s book combines the discernment of Alexis de Tocqueville with the apocalyptic clarity of Miller. Ralph Wood has quoted William Buckley as saying that “all future presidents should be made to take a double oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America but also promise to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Walker Percy’s 1971 Love in the Ruins.” When the 2016 presidential election left America divided and confused, many scholars, writers, and bloggers were quoting Percy’s novel to make sense of the disorder.
4. The Children of Men (1992) by P. D. James
As I read about the moves in New York and Virginia to allow third-trimester abortion, I recall P. D. James’s 1992 novel The Children of Men, set in a not-so-distant future where humans are incapable of giving birth. Because we have misused our fertility, nature has removed it entirely. Many people lose a sense of meaning when they cannot have children—and not because children provide personal fulfillment. Rather, imagine that the work you are doing has no end beyond yourself, contributes nothing to a next generation because there are no more generations to come. Euthanasia becomes a common practice: state-funded, promoted, even enforced in some cases. Churches become hollow shells where citizens, desperate for liturgy, bring their pets to be baptized. Although the book sounds funny, it is only darkly so. The themes are more grave than comic.
These books raise clarifying questions for us in what feels like a chaotic age. As much as our eyes are seeing more in today’s world of constant headlines, tweets, advertisements, video streams, and so forth, we are actually seeing less, becoming myopic.
Of course, the Bible grants us the clearest and most illuminating vision in order to see our age—or any age—for what it is. The greatest old book is the Book of books, the Story that never fails to speak to any time and place. Yet there are other books, such as the four mentioned above, written by those who applied these biblical eyes to their world. Reading these books—even ones from the recent past—can restore some of our blurred, overwhelmed vision and offer us fresh ways of interpreting the contemporary disorder.