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The Table Video

James Houston, Bruce Hindmarsh& Steve L. Porter

Read Old Books, Be Counter-Cultural - James Houston and Bruce Hindmarsh

Emeritus Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College
James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
November 25, 2013

James Houston and Bruce Hindmarsh, both professors of spiritual theology at Regent College, discuss the benefits of reading old Christian texts. Moderated by Steve Porter (CCT Associate Director).


Both of you have done a lot of academic work and just even in our conversation today with spiritual classics and the role of spiritual classics, the importance of spiritual classics and reading devotionally the classics of Christian spirituality. Talk about that a little bit. What is it that coming before a spiritual classic? What is it that opens up to us? What’s the benefit of that?

Well, what I wanted to do is in my struggling in my middle years of life was to be counter-cultural.

And so the best way I discovered of being counter-cultural is to enter the culture of another period and to see things from the eyes of Bernard of Clairvaux or from the eyes of Augustine and his Confessions. Then you begin to realize that you are now inhabiting a different world, so that helps you to be counter-cultural. But basically, I think the approach that I find for a number of years was, I was still learning to be theologically-minded later in life, it wasn’t a seminary training I had, because I had none.

But it was realizing that perhaps through the classics, I could do my homework for being a thoughtful Christian and then to discover that there are one or two classics that fit hand to glove that identify you with your narrative, and you give that kind of aha! So then you recognize that others have not been as quirky and isolated as you thought you were, but you were on that wavelength too. And in fact, they were much richer and wiser and deeper about it. So then you begin to discover that that beginning of a new trajectory of spiritual life is going to be reinforced into full flight when you start reading these classics.

So I found it always important that you know the person that you’re advising and knowing that person, you give them an appropriate classic. There may be other classics which are quite inappropriate for them, but in their stage of the journey or their type of personality or their particular pressures that they’re under, find something that’s appropriate for them, and then they’ll enrich and deepen their own life.


There’s a course I teach every year The Classics of Christian Spirituality. We read book a week. It’s kind of lectio acceleratio. We kind of read them and read them carefully and know that we’ll return to them all our lives, but it’s one of my favorite courses to teach, just to watch the way in which it opens up. Just think if you have the riches of one generation, and you have the books written within your own generation.

There’s tremendous wisdom and breadth that can help us, but imagine having the wisdom of 70 generations. Imagine inviting Martin Luther and Richard Baxter and Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux and Augustine to your Bible study. Just imagine how the conversation gets improved a little, and there’s a different level of depth and dimension.

I think what Jim is saying, the past is prophetic, because people had different outlooks, and it lets you see your own. But also, we’re at a great loss when we don’t have the wisdom of these books that have been tested. A classic is something that, as Gadamer says, it resists the corrosion of history. It continues to speak beyond its own generation, and so you privilege a classic.

Classic isn’t perfect. You can critique a classic, but you privilege it, because why wouldn’t you? If John Cassian has been read for 1500 years in Benedictine monasteries and all over the world has been consistently read, and people have found it fruitful, why wouldn’t I read it with the expectation that here’s going to be wisdom and something to help me.

You could sum up by saying that reading the classics is more richly appreciating and experiencing the communion of saints, the total body of Christ. And maybe that’s the answer to the next question, but I was thinking what about the Christian who hears this and says, why should I be reading Christian classics?

I just need the Bible, and as long as I have the Bible, that’s all I need. Most of these classics were written by folks who weren’t Biblical, or they believe things that were erroneous in some way. So what’s the apologetic? I mean, you’ve given some of that, but what do you say to the person who’s resistant to the spiritual classics or just wary about them. They’re untried, they’re untested in their experience.

Well, I wouldn’t argue with that kind of person. I would say, I want to be your friend. [bright music]