Louise Cowan and Os Guinness (the editors of Invitation to the Classics) stress the idea that "the classics" are not "the canon." The canon is the collection of books comprising the Holy Bible, while the classics are no more and no less than those books providing the foundation of the Western literary tradition, a tradition which we are to keep in perspective by studying and enjoying without worshipping as some do.
This is basically a textbook for adults and older students who want to broaden their knowledge and their understanding. The authors are literate, but also explicitly Christian, and they address all the questions commonly raised in opposition to reading secular literature. Perhaps the most compelling answer to these objections is the idea that Christians have a responsibility to read the classics in order to renew their imagination, their credibility, and their willingness to believe.
If this sounds a bit mystical, the editors are unapologetic. Classic literature isn't simply a rigidly rational collection of propositions in book form; rather, it's a body of work that reveals human nature in all its poverty and glory and wickedness and humility, that shows rather than tells, and that strikes at the root of matters in a way our dry empiricism cannot.
Reading the classics makes us better people, but only if we read them to be improved and not simply as part of an academic program or for what entertainment they may offer. Invitation to the Classics helps you read them properly by providing background information, author bios, and literary analysis of the great works of the West, including theology, philosophy, drama, poetry, and novels.
Difficult works aren't avoided here; in fact, they're embraced. The classics should be hard to read: if their role is to help us explore reality and truth, their content will adapt itself to the weight and sobriety of the task. That's not to say all classic literature is brainy and complicated, just that those works that are shouldn't be skipped over. Reading well is a skill that must be developed, and as one assembles the necessary tools, he or she becomes better equipped for interpreting and wrestling with hard texts.
Invitation to the Classics offers those tools, and shows how each work either supports or contradicts a Christian worldview. The first chapters introduce the concept of "classics," the art and importance of reading them, and the proper Christian attitude toward them (avoiding unwonted admiration or consumerist greed). Chapters are short, and there are many contributors, so the book never gets dull or repetitive.
After the introductory chapters, readers are confronted with dozens of chapters covering important authors, genres, and works, and though each chapter is short, there is far more information here than you'd get in any high school or college course. Not only is there a wealth of information and guidance in the text itself, students are expected to use these introductions as segues to reading the classics themselves.
Not that anyone can read every selection they find here: at least, not in a few semesters, or even a few years (though reading the entirety of Invitiation to the Classics is doable and encouraged). Reading all these books isn't the important part; learning to engage texts, to learn from them, and to use the experience for self-improvement is what matters.
We've listed the titles you'll find referenced in this guide below. Whether you want to start with the most well-known, or a personal favorite from school days, or simply to go through them chronologically as the book does, is of little consequence as long as you invest in reading the great books of the past and thinking about them as a Christian. Invitation to the Classics will help you do just that.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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