Christianity is catholic, as noted in “What Is Classic Christianity?”, yet it is also personal. To answer the question, “Why Classic Christianity?” we must start with me, an evangelical, charismatic, traditionalist, missional, palaeo-orthodox Anglican with leanings towards Franciscanism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
I have been on a journey, and part of that involved encountering St. Francis, the Book of Common Prayer, Richard Foster and Orthodox Church of Cyprus. As a result of these encounters (and others), I realised how little I know of the classic writings of Christianity. And if I, who read a lot of old books to begin with, know little, then doubtless others are in the same boat; upon investigation, I found this to be true.
In Western Christianity, we have forgotten those who have gone before. The only people Protestants seem to know are St. Augustine of Hippo because of his influence on the Reformers, and then a cursory knowledge of the Reformers. But besides St. Augustine’s Confessions, what had any of us ever actually read? For example, I knew one church leader who commented that C.S. Lewis encourages reading an old book every second or third book; he found that he tended to read a C.S. Lewis book every third book. So I decided that it would be a good thing to base a small-group around reading Christian classics — ancient, mediaeval, “modern,” and see what we learn.
And as I pondered this, I realised that there is more to orthodoxy than what we believe, more to what has gone before than just books to fill our heads with ideas and knowledge. My charismatic upbringing knew well that Christianity is more than dry scholasticism and idle talk. Therefore, what I had read in Richard Foster’s books Prayer, Celebration of Discipline, and Devotional Classics was part of tapping into the Tradition, part of something bigger than just a few old books. And as I thought about it more and more, it started to become apparent just how large this Great Tradition I’ve been contemplating was, and how exciting it would be to jump into it head-first with a few other excited Christians.
This Great Tradition includes spiritual disciplines, prayers, liturgies, novels, poems, architecture, art, music, hymns, statues, frescoes, mosaics, conversations, contemplation, solitude, community, “social justice”, sacrifice, the abundant life. It’s really big. And it’s all we need. This is another reason why Classic Christianity is important.
Today, many Christians find the Jesus they are offered is commercialised, unsatisfying, wimpy, irrelevant. Thus, they turn outside the faith to find answers. Now, I don’t deny that the pagans have good stuff to say. I’m a Classicist — to deny the fact that there is truth in other religions would be to deny my calling. But to say that Christianity — the spirituality, theology, practice, and life in/with/of Christ — is insufficient is deeply untrue. We do not need to turn to the Buddhists to bring life to our spiritual practices (contra Anthony de Mello), nor to the Hindus to amplify our understanding of the universe. Christ should satisfy those who have become acquainted with him. Somehow, the experiences and teachings our churches offer fail to do this. Recovering the Great Tradition is a remedy to this, a remedy to faddish Christianity and easy answers.
Another reason to seek Classic Christianity is release from Christian cultural myopia, from small-mindedness about the things of Christ, theology, and the world. CS Lewis, in his introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, says:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook. (4-5)
He recommends, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” (4) As well, the following from Chesterton was one of the inspirations for me to start a “Classic Christianity” small group:
The highest use of the great masters of literature is not literary; it is apart from their superb style and even from their emotional inspiration. The first use of good literature is that it prevents a man from being merely modern. To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one’s last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns. Literature, classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone. (“On Reading“)
And Thomas C. Oden and those in the paleo-orthodox camp would agree, calling us to return to our heritage and roots as a source of theology.
Third, I think that Classic Christianity is a remedy to the post-evangelical malaise. Many raised in evangelical traditions have found something lacking, and do not wish to ask the Buddhist or Wiccan next door for advice. There is more to worship than what one blogger calls “top-40 style songs”, more to theology than the past 10 to 50 years of scholarship, more to liturgy than the liturgical reforms of the sixties and seventies, more to God than our “experience” of Him, more to God than a good feeling, more to God than fast-paced music and happy-clappiness, more to God than mere justification, more to God than the same prayers, Bible-readings, and worship-services in an endless cycle that has little potency. More. Much more. For God is huge, big, tremendous. And so many evangelicals have found themselves disillusioned with modern conservative Christianity as well as with modern liberal Christianity, postmodern Christianity, and that thing we call “church” anyway.
Classic Christianity is a relief from these things.
Come, journey with me.
Chesterton, G.K. “On Reading,” Essays and Poems, London, 1958, 21-24.
Lewis, C.S. “Introduction,” On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, Crestwood, NY, 1996, 3-10.