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Books: Good books, great ones

Books | A Christian guide to classic literature helps readers know the difference

Issue: "Clinton: Time to resign," Aug. 29, 1998

Invitation to the Classics is a treasure. This encyclopedic work compiled by Louise Cowan of the University of Dallas, a Catholic liberal arts institution, and evangelical scholar Os Guiness of the Trinity Forum, should be in the library of every Christian school. Homeschoolers, too, will find it a good investment at $35. The purpose is laid out clearly: "to introduce Western literary masterpieces in a clear and simple style that is mature in seriousness and tone and Christian in perspective-and in doing so, to help reawaken Western people to the vibrant heritage of these classics that are rich in themselves and in their 2000-year relationship to the Christian faith." The work steers the middle course between falsely elevating the classics to a quasi-scriptural status and deconstructing the foundational works of Western civilization. As its introduction shows, the editors looked for guidance to C.S. Lewis, who rightly respected the classics but saw authors only as sub-creators. Invitation begins with Homer, naturally, briefly outlining his life and his major works. The insights are crisp: "For Homer, the definitive condition of life is not peace but battle." And like the best English professors at Christian colleges, the book finds the Christian truth that is at the core of even the pagan classics-for all truth is Christian truth: "The Iliad piercingly raises the question of what it means to be human and have to die. Homer elicits the deep intuition that death is a terrible deprivation and metaphysical wrong, not a natural part of life. In this respect, the poem agrees with the biblical revelation that death is abnormal and incongruous, following only from the sin committed by our original parents." The volume includes the church fathers Ambrose and Jerome, as well as Augustine. It touches on Thomas More as well as Martin Luther, Dickens as well as Gustav Flaubert, and almost always points out the spiritual backgrounds and perspectives of writers. George Eliot, the book notes, "was a brilliant, sensitive and intense woman who passionately embraced the evangelical faith in her girlhood but permanently rejected Christian dogma when she was 20." T.S. Eliot, on the other hand, was a modernist who became a Christian after "systematically exploring Christian doctrine." Some pedagogues dump on John Calvin, but this book does not: "All who know Calvin recognize his Institutes of the Christian Religion as the great summary of his thought. It is a learned book written for beginners, a simple book extending more than 1,000 pages, a grand summary that Calvin hoped his readers would eventually set aside in order to engage directly with the Bible itself." The treatment of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century mathematical prodigy and brilliantly original Christian apologist, is right on: "Although he wrote at the dawn of the scientific age, he strikes themes whose resonance grows louder in light of scientific theories three centuries later." The work closes with a synopsis of contemporary writers, and that's a risky thing. It's too early to measure the worth of writers such as Jorge Louis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, not to mention Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie. This chapter could drop off in a later edition and save the editors the risk of embarrassment; otherwise, the book is likely to become a classic itself.

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