Ancient Wow

Jul 07, 2011 |Gary Thomas

Adding the literary equivalent of a musical hit collection to your devotional reading  

Several engineers who met weekly for a barbecue entered into a frenzied rivalry over who could light the charcoal briquettes faster than anyone else. By “lighting the coals,” I don’t mean just getting them started; the black stones had to be white hot and ready for cooking. After several creative attempts, one engineer blew away the competition by having the coals ready in three seconds.

How did he do it? I’ll tell you if you promise not to try this at home: a 10-foot pole, an ignition device and carefully applied liquid oxygen.

For me, reading the great Christian classics — devotional books written over the past 2000 years — are “liquid oxygen” to my soul. I don’t want to sound cynical or critical, but when I look left and right, I’m not always inspired by what I see. Many Christians take their faith for granted; others feel downright discouraged. Relatively few seem to walk with a sense of joy, purpose and passion.

But when I look back — whether it’s the seventh century or the 13th century or the 16th century — I find any number of friends who inspire me with their earnest desire to love and serve God above all else.

The Christian classics provide a treasure trove of inspiration for any believer serious about truly discovering what it means to pursue a life of intimacy with God — the literary equivalent of a musical hit collection Ancient Wow! Taking advantage of these books has been one of the most powerful spiritual disciplines I’ve ever known, something I began in my late teens. There are some, however, who are, at best, “suspicious” of this practice.

“Enemies” of the Gospel

After I preached at one church, an earnest young man came to me and said, “What you shared is so important for the church to hear; it was truly inspired. But why did you have to quote enemies of the gospel to make your point?”

I sighed.

I had quoted Francis of Assisi and an Eastern Orthodox monk.

“Francis couldn’t very well have been a Calvinist, could he?” I asked, “seeing as how Calvin wasn’t even born until Francis had been dead for almost 300 years. And while evangelicals certainly have disagreements with certain points of Eastern Orthodox theology, do you really want to write off the wisdom this wing of the church has gained over the past two millennia?”

My final admonition was this: “Do you truly want to limit your reading to the ‘three Johns’ — Calvin, MacArthur and Piper? While I have enormous respect for each one of them, I have gained so very much from reading widely and seeing how different generations and different Christian perspectives have broadened my understanding of the journey of faith.”

I believe it is silly for us to avoid the devotional writings of ancient Roman Catholics (many of whom wrote before the Protestant church was even born) or Eastern Orthodox Christians. From the perspective of systematic theology (biblical doctrine), I don’t agree theologically with everything that John of the Cross or John Climacus writes, but their devotion fans into flame the burning embers of my faith.

Ralph Venning, a renowned Puritan preacher from the 17th century, actually urged his church members to read John Goodwin’s A Being Filled, even though Goodwin was a thoroughgoing Arminian (and thus at odds with Venning’s theological Calvinism). He explained, “Though I confess myself not to be of the same mind and opinion with the learned author in some other controverted points, yet I cannot but give my testimony concerning this piece, that I find an excellent spirit moving on the face, and acting in the heart of it, to promote the glory of God, the power of godliness, and consequently the good of men, especially of Christian men.”

William Law, a 17th-century Anglican, chastised his fellow Englishmen for neglecting the Christian classics:

Why then must the Bible lie alone in your study? Is not the spirit of the Saints, the piety of the holy followers of Jesus Christ, as good and necessary a means of entering into the spirit and taste of the gospel as the reading of the ancients is of entering into the spirit of antiquity?

Is the spirit of poetry only to be got by much reading of poets and orators? And is not the spirit of devotion to be got in the same way, by frequent reading the holy thoughts and pious strains of devout men?…Is it not…reasonable for him who desires to improve in the divine life, that is, in the heavenly things, to search after every strain of devotion that may move, kindle, and inflame the holy ardor of his soul?

Devotional reading differs from doctrinal reading in that we’re not looking for answers to controversial theological questions, but rather for insight into the ways of God with women and men. That’s why Law urges us to find the classic writers who can “inflame the holy ardor” of our souls.

The practice of pious readings not only inflames us with John of the Cross’s passion for God, John Climacus’s willingness to discipline himself for God, William Law’s commitment to progress daily in God, Madame Guyon’s submission to God, and Teresa of Avila’s contemplative devotion for God, but it also chips away at our personal prejudices. I rarely hear a sermon that talks about pride with the same seriousness that you read about it in the classics.

Years ago, Dr. James Houston, a professor of spirituality at Regent College, encouraged us seminarians to read Teresa of Avila. Why? Because she was as different from most of us as anyone could possibly be. She was from another country, another century and another tradition. She was female, and most of us were male. She wrote The Interior Castle near the end of her life, and most of us were at the beginning of ours. She could provide answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask.

I found Teresa’s commitment to prayerful intimacy with God very challenging. Prayer was often a battle cry for me until Teresa urged me to settle down and seek an intimacy far removed from works. It was natural for Teresa, a woman, to seek to become the bride of Christ, but how could I, a male, have the same intimacy in a different way?

Teresa couldn’t fully answer this question for me, though she pointed me in the right direction, but I found some additional assistance in the works of Andrew Murray, a rather modern writer if judged by the standards of the classics. Soon my prayer wasn’t just “Thy kingdom come — today!” but “My precious Lord, I want to be often and long alone with You.”

Every Christian needs other Christians to point out new possibilities of faith and growth. None of us is so advanced as to be a self-sufficient “spiritual machine” that has a monopoly on our understanding of the Christian life. When I read the classics, I’m challenged by the fire and holy passion burning in the souls of men and women who ached to know God as intimately as He can be known.

Practicing a Lost Art

Because reading the classics as part of our spiritual training is practically a lost art, mentioning some basic practices may be helpful. The first thing to remember is that devotional reading is not solely an intellectual exercise; its aim is the active transformation of the heart. James Houston has said that most damnation comes not through ignorance but in keeping things in our heads instead of our hearts.

We read with our hearts by allowing God to challenge our attitudes, our reactions and our emotions. Your mind may be tempted to dismiss a convicting truth because, surrounding it, you are able to spot a single theological error or weakness, or perhaps because the author is using an outdated method of biblical application. Don’t fall into this trap. Devotional reading is meant to challenge the inner soul. I read systematic theology to find out how to think correctly, but I read the classics to measure my heart's temperature.

The second thing to remember is that it’s usually more profitable to read a good book two or three times than to read five mediocre books. I realize that all of us have different learning styles, but very few of us can “own” a book — in the sense that its truth becomes part of us — after one quick reading. Devotional books need to be read and reread slowly, so that we can ponder their ideas and thoughts.

The third thing to remember is that, unlike scriptural reading, we need to be wary of the writer’s limited perspective. William Law’s later book, The Spirit of Love, has a considerably different emphasis than his Serious Call. The norm is that a writer will sound very legalistic in the early years and then in the later years mature into a more grace-filled approach stressing intimacy with God over zealous works. It helps to know where a writer is on his or her journey so you can provide a biblical balance. The classics are inspiring, but they are not inspired, and thus need to be read with a discerning eye.

The fourth thing to remember is that God can play beautiful music through dented instruments. When we encounter spiritual writings, our tendency may be to completely reject a writer’s particular emphasis rather than find the truth that his or her side represents. It would be easy for us to read John Climacus’s account of the monastic “prison” in which painful acts of penance are performed in a virtual torture chamber, become horrified by the self-abuse that was carried on in the name of Christianity, and dismiss it out of hand. Or we can be challenged by seeing what lengths other Christians have gone to in order to be rid of sin. We may disagree entirely with their method, but we can learn a great deal from their motivation.

There’s another aspect to this that I find fascinating. When I read Johannes Tauler’s sermons, I’m reading homilies that Martin Luther himself read and studied, calling them “pure theology.” Just about everybody, of course, read Augustine. When I read Madame Guyon, I’m reading a book that John Wesley and Count Zinzendorf both found immensely fruitful. When I read Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli, I’m reading a book that Francis DeSales carried with him, daily, for 18 years. Fenelon mentions De Sales by name in his classic Christian Perfection. Which means Augustine inspired Scupoli, who taught DeSales, who challenged Fenelon, who now teaches us. This kind of thing amazes me and connects me to the history of God’s working among His people.

My prayer is that you’ll use it to make reading from the classics a staple of your spiritual development. You may also want to check out Thirsting for God, a book I wrote to present some of the most common themes from the Christian classics.

Trust me: “Ancient Wow” is worth the journey. These are treasured friends.

Copyright 2011 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.

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