Helping readers understand, engage with, and enjoy the classics of Western literature, this volume answers basic questions and provides practical tips for reading some of the greatest works of the last 2,000 years.
About the Author
Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English and A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.
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Misconceptions about the Classics
There have always been misconceptions about the classics, but until recently these were relatively minor. The picture changed when liberal or "politically correct" advocates wrongly decided that the classics are harmful to society. These false claims need to be refuted. We need to realize at the outset of our discussion that all claims made about the classics are self-revealing of the people who make the claims. The rival positions often say less about the classics themselves and say more about the values and mind-sets of the people who hold the positions. The Christian defense of the classics grows out of the Christian value structure, and attacks on the classics are rooted in the worldview and political outlook of the attackers.
I will note in advance that some of the material covered in this chapter will be taken up in greater detail at various points later in this book.
Misconception #1: The classics are irrelevant to us today because they come to us from long ago.
This claim of irrelevance is an expression of what some scholars call "the myth of the contemporary." Those who hold this mind-set think everything contemporary is automatically better than what preceded it. Correspondingly, something that belongs to the past is inferior. Sometimes this expands into a presumptive rejection of everything from the past for no better reason than that it comes from the past.
The first thing to say is that this viewpoint presupposes that the past holds little value for us today. The issue of how we should regard the past will loom large in later sections of this book, so we do not need to say a lot about it here. At this early point, all we need to do is express disagreement with the premise that the past is irrelevant. Under that umbrella, we can note the following:
Anyone who looks at the contemporary scene can see that it does not represent an ideal. On many fronts the modern world is in a state of decline. To hold it up as an ideal by which to denigrate the past is preposterous. At the very least, we need to be open to the possibility that taking an excursion into the accumulated wisdom of the past by way of the classics might provide an avenue for bringing order to our present situation.
The pleasure principle is also a relevant consideration. For people who develop the capacity to enjoy being transported from their own time and place to a world of long ago, reading the classics is one of the inexpensive pleasures of life. It is a right and a delight that we can exercise simply by opening a book.
The classics have a particular knack for capturing what is universal in human experience. As a result, they are perpetually up-to-date, contrary to what devotees of the contemporary myth claim. The case can be made that Homer is as up-to-date and relevant as a contemporary novel. It just takes more interpretive skill to see the relevance of Homer, and that is where literature courses and published literary criticism show their worth.
Taking excursions into the past by reading the classics opens up alternatives to the way things are in our everyday world. At every point in history, good alternatives have existed to the current situation regardless of what ultimately occurred. If we do not tap that source of insight, we become victims of what is imposed on us by the circumstances and thinking of the present.
The foregoing barely scratches the surface of what can be said about the benefits that come from the classics by virtue of their pastness; more will be said in later chapters.
Something additional that needs to be noted is that not all classics come to us from the past. Many of the classics of the past were originally classics in their own time. There have always been contemporary classics. Even if we decide that a classic needs to stand the test of time before fully meeting the criteria of becoming a classic, the passage of time merely validates the status of the work as being a classic. It had the qualities that made it a classic right from the start.
Misconception #2: The classics are elitist and instruments of social oppression.
This line of thought requires some unpacking. We can start with the charge of elitism. There are multiple fallacies in the claim that the classics are elitist, but also some truth. We can start with the obvious: to enjoy reading the classics, we need to be initiated into them. Until we are introduced to Homer or Milton or Hawthorne, they are a foreign world to us. The corresponding question is, "So what?" This is true of every human activity or skill or realm of thought.
We do not know how to write until we are taught to do so. Until we learn to read, we are excluded from reading books. We cannot play baseball until we are initiated into the rules of the game and the techniques of holding a bat and throwing the ball. Playing the piano requires us to take piano lessons as a prerequisite. There is nothing elitist about any of these activities. It is simply in the nature of life that we are prevented from doing certain things until we are initiated into them, usually by someone who takes us under wing and educates us. The word elitist carries automatic sinister overtones that need to be rejected.
The charge of elitism usually implies that someone is acting as a gatekeeper to keep people on the outside from entering. But reading the classics does not exclude anyone. Classic books are free in a library or can be found inexpensively at hand. The only force of exclusion from the classics is the inertia or unawareness of the person who has not yet entered that world. The gateway to the classics is wide open for anyone to enter. All it takes to enter the "realms of gold" (John Keats's metaphor) that we know as the classics is to allow oneself to be educated into the joys of reading them.
There is a small way in which the claim of elitism is true. One dimension of being elite is that in whatever field, the pursuit of excellence — raising the bar of achievement high — does not appeal to most people. As a result, the people who value the best almost automatically place themselves into a smaller category. To those who are content with a lower level of achievement (or who have not been educated into something higher), a common maneuver is to stigmatize achievers with the label elitism. At this point we need to accept the label as honorific.
For example, anyone who strives to follow Jesus's command in the Sermon on the Mount that "you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48) is in a small and "elite" group within the broader society. So much the better. We do not denounce all-American basketball players because only a few rise to that small circle of superior athletes, nor do we attempt to prevent the public from playing basketball. Instead we honor the small circle of players who rise to the top.
The claim that reading Homer's Odyssey or Toni Morrison's Beloved is an instrument of oppression should be named for what it is — preposterous. The classics as a whole embody the entire range of intellectual and political viewpoints that the human race has produced through the ages. They are not monolithic. At the heart of the "politically correct" enterprise is censorship. Attempting to keep people from reading the classics is in fact an instrument of suppression. We live in a cultural situation in which the liberal establishment attempts to deny people access to any literary work that does not advance the propagandistic cause of liberalism. There is absolutely no way in which reading Dickens's Great Expectations enslaves anyone who reads it. The censorship consists of the attempt to make sure that no one reads Dickens if certain people do not wish to read him.
Misconception #3: Because we know that classics are great works, we can presume that they tell us the truth.
The two misconceptions discussed above share the quality of undervaluing the classics. But it is also possible to overvalue them or value them incorrectly. This is a danger that resides with those who elevate the classics, just as the first two misconceptions belong to people who dislike the classics and attempt to make sure that people do not have access to them. It is possible to attach an automatic and arbitrary positive value to the classics that they do not entirely merit.
The most common manifestation of this is to venerate the classics (and especially those belonging to the classical Greco-Roman tradition) so highly that in effect they are regarded as being beyond criticism. No work of literature is above criticism. The fact that a classic is artistically and intellectually great does not necessarily mean that it embodies the truth. We know this partly because the classics do not agree among themselves. In fact, taken together, they express the full range of human thinking and feeling, both good and bad. Additionally, the only book that Christians should presuppose to be completely trustworthy and truthful is the Bible. We need to weigh whether all other works match up to biblical truth, not presume that they do.
Misconception #4: The classics are relics in the museum of the past, and their primary function is to preserve the past as something that we can visit.
Earlier I made the case that part of the value of the classics is the very fact that most of them come to us from the past (and many of them from the distant past). But this line of defense, too, can be carried to an untenable extreme. Some enthusiasts for the classics view them only as a gateway to the past, with no regard to what is contemporary in them. These people are historians and antiquarians at heart; they simply like to know about past people and cultures.
There is nothing wrong with this love to know about the past. However, to read the classics only as giving us information about the past is to reduce the scope of what they stand ready to give us. In fact, that would be to make them a source of historical data instead of a living presence. Works of literature embody universal and timeless human experience, and the classics should be read as imparting that form of knowledge to us. The classics are partly windows to the past, but as works of literature they are (even more) pictures of what is true for all people at all times in all places, including us.
Misconception #5: Classics are by definition long and difficult works.
We most readily think of the classics in terms of masterworks — long works such as epics and novels and perhaps, with a little bending of the definition, plays such as those of Shakespeare. These works are difficult and demanding, requiring literary expertise and sophistication. They are works that are studied in advanced high school courses and college literature courses.
Several things are wrong with this automatic assumption that classics are necessarily long masterworks.
First, every genre has its classics, including short works and simple ones. There are classic nursery rhymes (Mother Goose) and children's literature (The Tale of Peter Rabbit). Dick and Jane is a classic first-grade reader. There are classic riddles and sayings ("A penny for your thoughts"). There are classic hymns ("Amazing Grace") and proverbs ("Curiosity killed the cat"). Folk stories, such as Little Red Riding Hood or Paul Bunyan, can be classics. So can murder mysteries (Sherlock Holmes). I offer these categories simply as examples that show that a classic does not need to be a long and difficult masterwork.
Second, short lyric poems can be classics. Hundreds of them are. They meet all the criteria that will be explored in chapter 2. It is therefore misleading to picture the classics, either to ourselves or others, as being more formidable than they are.
Furthermore, we are all entitled to have our own private list of classics. If they serve the function of classics in our personal lives, they are classics to us. The Narnia books by C. S. Lewis and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder have been classics to generations of families. They are children's books for children and also adult books for adults, and in both cases they are simple stories and not epics on a par with Milton's Paradise Lost.
Finally, the Bible is the supreme classic. Is it a masterwork? Yes, but that is not how Christians through the centuries have experienced it. They have experienced it as an everyday companion in their lives. The Bible has been the most accessible of all books for believing families and individuals. If the Bible is a classic, all Christians have at least one great classic in their repertoire. If they have one, they can have many.
To value the classics does not require us to have an advanced literary education. This is not to disparage the classic masterworks. For people of sophisticated literary taste, they are the best of the best. What is most important, however, is to value classics in whatever form they enter our lives. Of course, to aspire to the highest is always a virtue. Additionally, all education is ultimately self-education. The way to acquire a taste for the classics is to read them. The tragedy would be to settle for our current level of attainment and not aim higher than that.
Before we construct a case for the classics and a methodology for reading them, we need to clear the ground of obstacles. Many of the obstacles come from people who try to keep the classics out of our schools and out of sight in our culture, but some of the wrong thinking about the classics also comes from their advocates. The positive antidotes to the fallacies explored in this chapter are the following:
The classics are important to us today, partly because they are a voice from the past and partly because they speak to the universal human condition.
The classics do not enslave anyone and in fact liberate those who read them (in ways to be explored later).
But the classics are not infallible, with the result that they always need to be critiqued by Christian standards of truth and morality.
Classics are available to us at whatever level of literary sophistication we possess; if we cannot yet master a Shakespearean tragedy, we can read Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.CHAPTER 2
What Is a Classic?
The first thing to say is that the concept of a classic is not limited to literature (although that is the subject of this book). Most objects and events in our lives have examples that rise to the status of being a classic. "Give the gift of a timeless classic," says an advertisement for a watch. "It's a classic," a wife tells her husband as they look at suits in a clothing store. In some American towns, residents can saunter downtown one evening per week during the summer to see displays of classic cars. One of the ESPN television channels is called ESPN Classic; it specializes in reruns of past sports events or profiles of athletes from the past. It is obvious, then, that when an English professor tells a prospective student and her parents that "we still teach the classics," the professor is tapping into something universal and not only literary.
A second preliminary observation is that the universal concept classic should not be confused with the adjective classical. Classical literature and art were produced by the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The classical school movement derives its inspiration and content from Greco-Roman civilization and is not necessarily built around classics from all eras. (It is also the case, though, that people who value classical education in this specialized sense tend to embrace the classics generally, even when they are not ancient in origin.)
A third thing to note at the outset is that in popular culture today, words such as classic and epic are tossed around as honorific terms with little specific meaning — like the all-purpose adjective awesome. When people do this, the word classic is assumed to carry automatic positive associations and is little more than a way to express enthusiasm for the work or event in question. Often publishers resort to the quick fix of pinning the label classic on a book that they wish to promote. It was an editor who once changed a book title from Reading Literature with C. S. Lewis (the accurate title) to Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis (a title that the marketing department thought would carry more popular appeal). As the author of multiple guides to the classics, I am of course gratified by this vote of confidence for the classics, but it is important that we validate the label with some genuine content.
Toward a Definition of the Term Classic
Every academic discipline, as well as such cultural pursuits as sports and cooking, has its classics. That is useful to keep in mind as we consider the concept of a literary classic. It helps to think of a literary classic in light of classics in other spheres because the literary definitions that I am about to quote can illuminate the concepts of a sports classic or a classic family photograph as well.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Christian Guide to the Classics"
Copyright © 2015 Leland Ryken.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Misconceptions about the Classics 7
2 What Is a Classic? 16
3 Why We Should Read the Classics 23
4 The Greatest Classic: The Bible 35
5 How Not to Read a Classic 43
6 How to Read a Classic 51
7 Christian Classics, Part 1 61
8 Christian Classics, Part 2 72
9 Secular Classics 80
10 Where to Find the Classics 91
Afterword: Reflections on Reading 99
What People are Saying About This
“Ryken is a warm and welcoming guide to the classics of Western literature. The books in this series distill complex works into engaging and relevant commentaries, and help twenty-first-century readers understand what the classics are, how to read them, and why they continue to matter.”
Andrew Logemann, Chair, Department of English, Gordon College
“Students, teachers, homeschoolers, general readers, and even seasoned literature professors like me will find these Christian guides to classic works of literature invaluable. They demonstrate just what is so great about these ‘great books’ and illuminate their meanings in light of Christian truth. Reading these books along with the masterpieces they accompany is a literary education in itself, and there can be few better tutors and reading companions than Leland Ryken, a master Christian scholar and teacher.”
Gene Edward Veith Jr., Emeritus Professor of Literature, Patrick Henry College; author, Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature
“The Classics are peaks I’ve always wanted to climb, but never had the chutzpah to tackle. I often find myself, as a result, admiring these beauties from afar, wondering if I’ll ever dare an ascent and one day enjoy their views. That’s why I’m delighted to see the release of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics. Now, I’ve got a boost to my confidence, a feasible course in front of me, and a world-class guide to assist along the way. In fact, Dr. Leland Ryken could scale these peaks in his sleep, having, for decades now, guided hundreds of students to a greater appreciation for the Classics. Lee combines scholarly acumen and Christian faith with uncluttered thinking and crystal-clear style in a way that virtually guarantees no one will get tangled-up in woods or wander off trail. The Classics are now within reach! I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about this series!”
Todd Wilson, President, Center for Pastor Theologians; author, Real Christian and The Pastor Theologian
“In an age when many elite universities have moved away from the classics, this series will help re-focus students and teachers on the essential works of the canon. More importantly, it will help present the classics from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian worldview upon which the university was built. These guides offer exactly the kind of resources needed to empower high school and college students (whether in public, private, classical-Christian, or home schools) to connect with the Great Books and to ask the kinds of questions that we all must ask if we are to understand our full status as creatures made in the image of God who have fallen but who can be redeemed.”
Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence, Houston Baptist University; author of From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics and Literature: A Student’s Guide
“It is hard to imagine a better guide than Leland Ryken to help readers navigate the classics. In an age in desperate need of recovering the permanent things, I am thankful that Crossway and Ryken have teamed up to produce excellent guides to help Christians take up and read the books which have shaped the western intellectual tradition.”
Bradley G. Green, Associate Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition, Union University; Writer-in-Residence, Tyndale House, Cambridge