The Classics: Why Read Them?

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Continuing with our Wednesday Book Discussions, we're republishing this insightful article by Amy Leonard from our August 2007 issue. Enjoy!
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Why Read Classics?
In years past, if you peeked in on a day in the life of Amy, you would likely have seen me curled down deep in my "comfy chair," reading Christian romances or mystery novels - not classic literature. In my mind, literature was dull...boring...blase. Of course, attempting Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in ninth grade did not help me think of literature as accessible and enjoyable. Still, even milder classics left a bland taste in my mouth.
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Today, if you peered into my room, you might find me in my white armchair, feet propped up on my antique foot stool, reading a novel by Chaim Potok or Virginia Woolf, or maybe a memoir by Lauren Winner, or a book of essays by C.S. Lewis.
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What changed?
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Well, I came to the realization that I knew very little, and I wanted to remedy my sorry state. There isn't one hard and fast reason for why you should read classic literature; it is more of a personal decision you need to make. However, in my experience, there are certain perks to choosing books from the more intellectual sphere.
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Above all else, reading has helped me form my own opinions and begin to think for myself. To be placed under the literature heading, a book must deal with the heavier issues of life: death, bigotry, faith, jealousy, satire, obsession, right versus wrong. It is not that fiction bestsellers fail to address some of these issues: however in literature they are explored more deeply. Characters are complex and often placed in no-win situations. Issues are not clear-cut; when I read I understand why a person may be motivated to oppress others, why a woman may commit adultery, why there is strain between a father and son. That does not mean that because I understand why a person may commit a sin that I condone that sin, but I believe such understanding is important to my life as a Christian, for if I know why people do what they do, I can better help them, better connect with them, better be Christ to them.
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And I, myself, can better live as a Christian. Last summer as I read Anna Karenina, I felt myself empathize with and understand Anna's reasons for leaving her husband. Her actions are sinful - no doubt about it - yet I saw how she logically arrives at the conclusion she does. That scared me, for I realized that I am not too different from Anna Karenina. I am just as much a sinner as she, and am not immune to temptation and sin simply because I believe Christ is my savior. When I read literature I become better acquainted with myself: I learn about who I am, what I believe, how I should act, how I should not act, my strengths, my failings, my humanness, and my great need for a Savior.
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I should add that there is another plus to reading classic literature, but please don't think I say this with a bloated head: I know I have an infinite amount of learning still to do. That aside, reading has made me smarter. It has not increased my IQ, but it has exposed me to new viewpoints, different cultures and religions, various periods of history, political and social issues, Christian theology, music, and art. I am far from being a well-rounded individual, but if that's my goal, reading quality literature is the best place to start.
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Why read non-Christian classics?

This fall I am entering what is supposedly "the best four years of my life" - college - as an English major. As I learn more about literature, I have discovered that I cannot be a serious English student without encountering the grim and tragic facts of life. At first I was a little wary of books dealing with dysfunctional, neurotic, and positively creepy characters. Yet as I delved into such books, studied them, and analyzed them, I found that there is much to be gleaned from their stories.
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Gene Edward Veath, Jr., author of Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, promotes what he calls "promiscuous reading" - "reading a wide range of materials", even those that do not necessarily endorse a Christian worldview. "Why?" you might ask. Because, in Veith's words, they "gain [us] entrance to worldviews and human feelings that [we] need to understand." Why exactly do we need to understand such worldviews and emotions? To answer that question, Veith quotes Milton:

"That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure...Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice in this world is so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity, than by reading all manner of tractates, and hearing all manner of reason."
In my opinion this is an important concept, so make sure to wrap your mind around it. In order to live a truly virtuous and godly life, shouldn't we know exactly what we are rejecting? If, for instance, we shy away from hearing about the ungodly or depressing because our parents have always done so, or because that is our community's belief ,is that true virtue or is it blind indifference, what Milton dubs "blank virtue"? If we do not know why we spurn the things of this world and choose God's ways instead, then are we fully honoring God? Are we fully able to appreciate His ways and understand His glory?
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Obviously, I am not suggesting you indulge in ungodly activities simply to understand why you should choose the Christian path. Neither is Milton. In his opinion, reading is the safest way to "scout into the regions of sin and falsity." For when we read we can come to better understand and recognize the ways of evil. There is a point, though, when reading non-Christian literature is carried a bit too far: I am not urging you to read trashy books, full of obscenity, sexually explicit scenes, and gruesome violence. Veith draws the line when the novel offers him nothing of value: when it does not possess any redeeming quality. Personally, I think this is a good rule of thumb. If a book portrays sinfulness in a condoning manner, perhaps you should think twice before picking it up. However, if a book highlights sinful behavior but in doing so also exposes the consequences of sin, then I believe there is something to be gained by the reading of that book.
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"Read promiscuously, but always critically" says Veith. This is of utmost importance when reading books that are not inherently Christian. Be aware of what worldview the author is pushing, Veith advises, and in what way the author characterizes God and sin. As you study science, you learn that a good scientist is always asking questions, always remaining a bit skeptical, always thinking critically. Try to think like a scientist as you read, even as you read Christian books. For instance, as you read, say, C.S. Lewis, you may find yourself thinking that since he was one of the most influential Christians of the twentieth century, surely his opinions are sound: who are you to question them? Put simply, you are a person with a mind of your own who needs to think through the reasons to why you believe what you believe. So, question Lewis's ideas. Even his conclusions are not without their flaws. My advice to you as you read the classics, and other higher-level material, is this: think for yourself, think critically, and always consult the Scriptures, for the foundation to any answer can be found within its pages.
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And that brings me to my final point: develop a strong spiritual grounding. I have urged you to broaden your scope when it comes to non-Christian literature, but I would be neglecting the other half of the equation if I did not also urge you to saturate yourself in Christian literature and, most especially, in the Bible. In order to read the classics critically and view them through Christ-centered eyes, you need to know about your faith, and you need to know your God. I try to always be reading one classic and one book written by a Christian author in addition to my normal Bible study. That way, I have one foot firmly planted in the truth, keeping a check in my priorities and thoughts, while the other foot wanders and explores.
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But, in the end, the best advice I can give you is this: enjoy yourself! Take pleasure in what you read and you will learn much from it. My hope is that you come to love literature even half as much as I do. Happy Reading!

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