Voices of the Departed: Still Life-Giving Today

Can you imagine refusing to read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens because “they’re out of date”?

Seems a rather superficial reason to miss out of some of the best writing English literature has to offer. And worse, it’s incredibly arrogant. Would we really suggest our novels are so superior simply by the virtue of their newness?

Thankfully, this is a mostly hypothetical scenario. Even book lovers who’ve never found the motivation to read Notes from Underground typically have little interest in dismissing Dostoevsky as irrelevant.

Or rather I should say, this is a mostly hypothetical situation in literature.

The classics in literature may be under read, but their value is difficult to deny. When it comes to our faith, however, the situation is quite different.

Classic has come to mean dry.

Old has come to mean out of date, and out of touch.

Ancient writings have been left to collect dust, while we fawn over the latest book to get enough marketing buzz and capture our shortened attention spans.

We look at the writers of ages past, and think how much more enlightened we are today, imagining their stories have nothing to say to us. How could they? We have iPads, the internet, and Angry Birds.

We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking we are so special, so different. We’ve imagined one has ever asked these questions, no one has faced these doubts or made this theological proposition.

But chances are, they have.

Probably hundreds of years ago.

The Christian faith has an incredibly rich tradition of writers and thinkers, a heritage stretching back to Bonhoeffer and Barth, Calvin and Loyola, Origen and Augustine. Yet too often our generation has been willing to toss this heritage on the scrap heap of history, and to co-opt mere shadows of these writer as talismans to reinforce an argument, or straw men to demonize.

Even when we avoid those traps, we tend to assume those books are only for the “experts” (they’re not, most of them were pastors writing for people like you and I).

In the process we miss out on a chance to wrestle with new approaches to the questions we’ve been asking, to be challenged by different perspectives, to have the blind spots of our day illuminated by writers who did not share the same cultural myopias.

We miss a chance to give a voice to those whose stories are most easily marginalized and forgotten, those who came before us and can no longer insist we listen to their words.

None of this is to say there is no value in reading new books. By all means do.

There are of course ways in which our context provides opportunities which others simply could not have had. Globalization has broadened our perspectives, advances in archeology and linguistics mean we probably know more about the first century world today than we did fifteen hundred years ago.

But it’s not an either-or. We can get lost in the Odyssey and Harry Potter, we can learn from Martin Luther and Eugene Peterson.

There is value to the new, but we need the voices of the departed as well, for there is great wisdom to be found in those stories which have stood the test of time.

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Mason Slater
Mason is a husband to Melinda, seminary student, youth pastor, blogger and freelance writer in, Grand Rapids, MI. He is passionate about theology, community and justice. What little time is left amidst his busy schedule is devoted to reading, coffee snobbery and a new adventure in home brewing.