One Twitter aficionado recently pointed out that the future date used in Back to the Future was 2010. I missed that detail when I watched Michael J. Fox in the SciFi comedy years ago. Their prediction of flying cars was certainly off mark. Hopefully we will get those sometime in the next decade along with our gravity-defying skateboards.
The title “Back to the Future” is compelling though. There is a perennial pull towards the past for anyone who wants to progress into the future. I just finished an article for a LifeWay magazine encouraging teenagers to read Christian classics. I was more than happy to take the writing assignment because I love to read old books.
When I say I love to read old books, I mean it. While I like my iPad, I would rather read my first edition, dusty, time-worn copy of A Grief Observed than to scan over it in a digital format. I like the smell of old books. I like the feel of worn pages. More importantly, I value the wisdom of the past. On a recent trip to a Tennessee bookshop I discovered a signed first edition G.K. Chesterton book with a newspaper clipping of his visit to Nashville in 1921 and a ticket from the event where he was speaking (all tucked inside the back cover). Not a bad find for $14.95.
Writing the LifeWay article made me reflect on a few points of encouragement for developing the discipline of reading older works:
1.) It reminds us that our situation in life is not all that unique.
You can read about temptation from John Owen, heresy from G.K. Chesterton, or complete surrender from A.W. Tozer. There is nothing new under the sun, and the most recent book on any given topic isn’t always the best. Don’t equate new with better. Don’t get rocked over by new philosophies and emerging liberal theologies. They are neither entirely new, nor altogether unique. For every New Kind of Christianity offered to us today there is an Orthodoxy to be read from the past. Stay balanced. I’ve heard it said that for every book you read written by a living author, you should read an additional one by a dead author. That’s good advice.
2.) It challenges us to do great things for God in our day.
It’s impossible for me to read Pilgrim’s Progress without thinking of John Bunyan in a cold 17th century prison cell. I’m unable to read the poetry of Isaac Watts without considering that his beliefs kept him out of Oxford and Cambridge and landed him in prison on more than one occasion. With all due respect, you will read very little about how to Have Your Best Life Now in works from the past. You will, however, read a great deal about sacrifice in service of the cross.
3.) It focuses our attention on eternal issues.
I recently read a book entitled “Beyond Agnosticism” from the early 1920s. At times I felt like I was reading something out of a recently published bestseller. However, there were a couple of chapters where the author gave great detail to issues that seemed of much lesser significance. With a little historical context one is able to discern between the issues of grave importance and the more preferential ones. Reading classics can help you emphasize eternal issues by discerning from those that are of only passing value.
I hope you are planning on going back to the future. Your faith will be edified, your service encouraged, and your knowledge expanded. You might even come across a rare find on your quest to acquire a little vintage wisdom from the classics.