Merely Temporary Fashion

C. S. Lewis on why we should study history.

C.s.lewis3In his fascinating new book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs quotes C.S. Lewis from a sermon he gave at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in 1939.

We need an intimate knowledge of the past not because the past has anything magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

What Lewis says here about the basic assumptions undergirding different periods of time is what I find most profitable about reading history, including biographies and memoirs. It’s not only that life looks different in these previous eras from our current vantage, it’s that the assumptions themselves about life can be seen more clearly with the benefit of historical distance.

There are ways of reading history that are either arrogant or nostalgic. That is, we have a tendency to think that we’ve progressed beyond whatever it is that strikes us as remedial about the past or we look wistfully back to what seems better than our current age. Lewis, I think, is suggesting something different- reading history for what it reveals about the assumptions we take for granted. It is a rare, almost impossible thing to have one’s most deeply held assumptions to be revealed for what they are, assumptions that have not been universally held. This is the gift of history.

In addition to Jacob’s book, here are a few others I’ve read this year which have helpfully challenged my assumptions: Grant, Ron Chernow (2017); City of God, Augustine of Hippo (426); Demanding Freedom, Brandon O’Brien (2018); Black Elk The Life of an American Visionary, Joe Jackson (2016); and, The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter (2011).

Readers On Reading: Rich Johnson

I’ve asked a few more friends to contribute to my Readers on Reading series. I’ll post them as their answers roll in.
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My friend Rich Johnson is the church planter of Sanctuary Columbus Church and a seminary student at North Park Theological Seminary. He also consults churches and Christian organizations on developing a biblical view multi-ethic community. As you might imagine, his reading centers around church, theology, and racial reconciliation.

Richard JohnsonWhat books are you currently reading?

My current reading list (recently finished or recently began) includes Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright; Redeeming Mulatto, Brian Bantum; An Introduction to Theology, Gonzales and Perez; A Biblical History of Israel, Provan, Long & Longman; Exploring WorshipBob Sorge.  For light reading my eight year old son and I plan to start C.S. Lewis fantasy The Space Trilogy.

Where is your favorite place to read?

I like to read anywhere – the car, oversized chair in the living room, as well as a coffee shop.

E-reader or codex?

A few months back I committed to doing all my reading via Kindle.  Over time I found myself finishing fewer books so I’ve returned to paperback editions.  Books take up so much space, but at least I’m more likely to finish what I started.

What book have you recommended the most in the past 12 months?

I’ve recommended A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards and One Tribe, Many Churches by Richard Twiss the most in the last 12 months.  A very close second is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

What is most enjoyable about your reading life?

What is most enjoyable about my reading life is that I started writing a two page summary of the book for my personal recollection. When seminary professors started asking for summaries (particularly for books I’ve read previously) it was an easy transition for me.  As with most books I read, there are two or three chapters that stick with me the most and my summary reflects that impression.  I wish I was better about posting my book responses to my blog but at times I simply want to keep ruminating on these thoughts before sharing incomplete thoughts with the world.

Readers on Reading: Michael Washington

047-bryce-e1305733282782Michael Washington reads more than just about anyone I know. He also reads deeply and you get a sense of this as you read either of his two blogs: Intersections and For Fathers.

What books are you currently reading?

Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis; Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church by Barbara Holmes; Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks; A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri.

Where is your favorite place to read?

On the long deck on a ship somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean. My most common place to read is one of two chairs in my home or while walking around my office.

E-reader or codex?

Seriously, you’re asking me this? [By this Michael means that he’d never sully his fingertips on an e-reader. At least I think that’s what he means.]

What book have you recommended the most in the past 12 months?

Are You Waiting for The One? by Peterson & Peterson.

What is most enjoyable about your reading life?

I love walking into created worlds, fashioned lives, and being able to do that between the covers of a book is so manageable. I get to meet so many different people (i.e., characters) when I read, and following up with some of the authors is a gift and a blessing, too.