Sunday, March 11, 2012

Chronological Snobbery: A rant

Man can only find life among the dead.

When I walk into a Christian bookstore I often feel a mixture of disgust and anger. Whether it's the visual insult of garish "Christian" "art" which usually involves an out-of-context Bible verse or some cheesy statement with no relationship whatsoever to Scripture slapped onto a tacky painting or the mind-numbing vacuity of most of the "literature" present, Christian bookstores are a place I generally try to avoid.  The thing that bothers me the most, though, is that in the great majority of Christian bookstores 99% of the books present were written by authors who are still living. Sure, they'll throw in some C.S. Lewis among the prosperity theologians and the writers of contentless sweet-nothings to tickle the ears but actual theological profundity is something very hard to come by.

The problem, in my opinion, is what has been called "chronological snobbery." C.S. Lewis likely coined the term and it is mentioned in his excellent autobiography, Surprised by Joy. The basic idea of "chronological snobbery" is that ideas and books and art that is made in our own time is somehow better or maybe more applicable than ideas and books and art from ages past. I think that this assumption, that the new is somehow better, is one of the worst and most damaging beliefs commonly held in Evangelical Christianity today - and it is held by nearly everyone.

Some of the best writing on this idea of chronological snobbery comes from G.K. Chesterton, before Lewis had ever coined the term. In his book, What's Wrong with the World, Chesterton wrote of "the modern mind," being "forced towards the future by a certain sense of fatigue, not unmixed with terror, with which it regards the past." He writes profoundly that "the future is a refuge from the fierce competition of our forefathers," and "I can make the future as narrow as myself; the past is obliged to be as broad and turbulent as humanity." Another idea I've seen expressed somewhere and with which I fully agree is that when we listen to the voices of ages past we live in a much more democratic world. This idea would also apply to the Church. Why do we accept the undemocratic idea that only those Christians currently living should have a vote when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture or the order of worship or the Christian life? Perhaps it is because the Church is not a democracy. But this fact does not save the modernist or post-modernist from scrutiny. Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth (John 16:13) and I've often heard this verse used as a rationalization for some novel theology or practice among Christians. But if this promise is true, that the Holy Spirit has been guiding His people into all truth, then He has been doing it for the past 2000 years and not for the past 50 or 100 as most Evangelicals seem to understand it. Therefore when Christians have understood Scripture to say something about a theological issue for many centuries, their understanding should have more weight than whatever fads are currently affecting the Church.

If Christ has not returned in 500 years I am certain that nearly all modern writers will have passed out of the memory of the populace and of the Church. Perhaps C.S. Lewis will still be remembered and read. But I am certain that Athanasius and Augustine and Luther and Calvin will still be read and will still have a profound influence on God's people. So my question is, why do we waste our time on writers who will not stand the test of time when great riches of thought and theology and devotion by saints unquestionably inspired (not as Scripture is inspired) by God are readily available? I think the clear answer is arrogance. We audaciously think we have discovered a better Christianity or a clearer understanding of Scripture than they had. We should spurn that "refuge" of the future and instead keep company with that great communion of saints which has gone before us. We should commune with them in their understandings of Scripture, in the liturgy and in the sacraments which we share.


Josh Monen said...

Matt, this is so good and I couldn't agree more. Right now I'm reading, Discovering the Character of God (a compilation of George MacDonald's sermons arranged by Michael Phillips) and enjoying it very much.

It's a little harder to read than modern books and I wonder if that's one of the reasons so many people neglect reading old books? But whether it's laziness or "chronological snobbery," the fact is most people, for whatever reason, believe newer is better.

I thought you'd enjoy this quote by C.S. Lewis, "A new book is still on trial, and the amateur is not in a position to judge it...The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ('mere Christianity as Baxter called it), which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can only be acquired from old books. 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."

Anonymous said...

Thanks Matt for this. I too have found it hard to even enter a Christian Book Store these days. Thankfully there are sources still out there to get solid and time tested theology. I don't remember who said it but the words " democracy of the dead" comes to mind in this subject. Not that the church is a democracy but that we would allow the voices of those who have gone on before to be heard in our subjects. It has always been this way. The Bible itself is an example of this when Gods people would remember what someone of old had said or what was in their history.
God bless you
Pastor Ron

Cradle Anglican said...

Well said. I want to read more of those "classics" of the Faith, and stop spending so much time on-line. :-) Thanks for reminding us of the need to go to back to the writings of the great men of the Church. I need to read the Holy Scriptures more too. A link to this article has been published on:
for others to read.

peggy38 said...


You just said what I have wished I could say as briefly as you.

The problem for orthodox Christians like ourselves is to get this concept into a pithy soundbite form since the attention span of those we would like to reach would probably blank out (squirrel!) after the length of a couple of sentences. With these, we have to start small at first and then hopefully begin to enlarge their view without blowing any fuses! :-) The capability is there but it is so very atrophied.

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