How to Read a Classic

This is the third in a 4-part series (part 1, part 2) from Dr. Leland Ryken, former professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of Crossway's Christian Guides to the Classics series, which explores great works of Western literature.

In my previous postings I provided answers to two questions:  What is a classic?  Why should we read the classics?  This posting raises the question of how we should read a classic, and it presupposes as a background what I said in my previous postings.  If a classic is a work that possesses the qualities that I ascribed to it, and if there are good reasons why some of our reading should be reading the classics, then how should we go about our reading of them?

Reverence and Suspicion

My overall point is that we need to strike a balance between reading classics with undue suspicion on the one hand and on the other hand holding them in such reverence that we do not subject them to ordinary standards of analysis and criticism.  I will be talking about reading literary classics, but as I said before, all art forms and most disciplines have their classic texts.

When we know that a piece of literature is a classic (see my first posting on how to recognize a classic when you read one), I believe that we should begin with a vote of confidence for the work.  We know that we are reading a great work.  That being the case, we should open the book with high expectations.  Occasionally we personally will be disappointed by this or that classic, but not often.  The liberal establishment today attempts to instill an automatic bias against classics for their alleged tyranny.  I believe that we need steadfastly to reject that voice.  We can almost depend on it that a classic will give us more truth, wisdom, and beauty than the literature of the contemporary "politically correct" lobby.

Things to Expect

What, specifically, should we expect to find as we open ourselves with a more-than-ordinary receptiveness as we begin to read a classic?  We should expect to be entertained, first of all.  For people who have developed a taste for the classics, the classics will offer more entertainment value than what we find in contemporary pop literature.  Along with that, we should be looking for a display of artistry and a quality that through the ages has been called beauty.  Reading some books of commentary or internet reprints of articles are good allies in uncovering the superior artistry of the classics.

Additionally, we should go to a classic with the assumption that the subject of literature is universal human experience, concretely rendered in such a way that we vicariously relive the experiences that the book places before us.  One of the most demonstrable points of superiority of the classics over popular literature is the depth and multiplicity of human experience that they embody.  The classics touch upon life powerfully at many points (said Victorian Matthew Arnold), and we should read them predisposed to find truthfulness to human experience at every turn.  If we don't see it, we need to assume that the deficiency lies with us and find a remedy.

Writers of the classics also offer interpretations of the experiences that they embody in their works.  We can count on it that classics will present us with what is commonly called "the great ideas," and we should allow those ideas to serve as a catalyst to our own thinking.

Wary Readers

All that I have said thus far leans in the direction of expecting the best from a classic.  But not all human experience is edifying to relive vicariously, and ideas can be false as well as true.  One of the great contributions of Francis Schaeffer to our thinking about the classics is his claim that the fact that a work is great literature is no guarantee that it asserts the truth.  So if we should be expectant readers when we read a classic (the drift of my remarks above), we also need to be wary readers.

Another way of saying this is that as Christians we need to be ourselves when we read and assess a classic.  [inlinetweet prefix="" tweeter="" suffix=""]There is only one classic that is without error, and that is the Bible.[/inlinetweet]  It is our standard of truth for weighing the truth claims of a classic.  We need to keep our convictions when we read a classic.

Remember Common Grace

As an addendum to the foregoing, let me say that we should read the classics in an awareness of the doctrine of common grace.  By God's common grace, every person and culture has some capacity for the true, the good, and the beautiful.  It is a rare classic with which we cannot find a large common ground, even if the worldview and moral vision are partly deficient.  Christians have no good reason to be fearful or automatically suspicious of classics, even when they come from non-Christian cultures (as Homer's Odyssey, does, for example).

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer's The OdysseyMilton's Paradise LostShakespeare's MacbethShakespeare's Hamlet, Hawthorne's The Scarlet LetterDickens's Great ExpectationsBunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.