Our Great Redemption From Above

A recent poll declared James Joyce's Ulysses the most important English-language novel of the century. Also in the top ten were D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Nabokov's Lolita. All three books contain shockingly explicit sexual passages or themes—in fact, Ulysses and Lolita were both initially banned in the United States. What a sign of the degradation of Western culture! Only a generation ago, the most influential works of English literature were not only morally uplifting, they were also often explicitly Christian. In their new book, Invitation to the Classics, Os Guinness and Louise Cowan challenge Christians to rediscover the classics, and to reclaim our glorious heritage of literature. And one of the greatest Christian writers of all time is the English poet John Milton. Born in 1608 and raised in a pious Christian home, Milton considered entering the clergy, but eventually decided to serve God as a kind of priest-poet. Today he is generally ranked second only to Shakespeare as the greatest English writer of all time. Milton's first mature poem, written when he was barely 21, is titled On the Morning of Christ's Nativity. Just listen to the exuberance of its first lines: This is the month, and this the happy morn,/  Wherein the Son of heav'n's eternal King,/ Of wedded Maid and Virgin Mother born,/ Our great redemption from above did bring.   And he's just getting warmed up. The joy of his Christian faith could not be more evident. Milton's most famous work is his epic poem Paradise Lost, written much later in life, after he'd gone blind. Paradise Lost deals with the story of Adam and Eve and Satan in the Garden of Eden. It attempts, in Milton's famous words, "to justify the ways of God to man." It's shorter sequel, Paradise Regained, tells the subsequent story of Jesus' redemption of Adam's sin. Milton also wrote a long poem about Samson, titled Samson Agonistes. Almost all his works are replete with Christian ideas and references. So why don't more Christians know about John Milton? For one thing, Milton, like many great writers of the past, can be difficult to read—certainly harder to read than a novel by Frank Peretti or Chuck Colson. And sad as it is to admit, we Christians aren't much more self-disciplined or rigorous about what we read than non-believers. Another reason is what Guinness calls "the centuries-old strain of cultural philistinism within the community of faith"—one that "rejects the importance of literature and art." And he reminds us that the Apostle Paul "was thoroughly trained in classical languages, literature, and philosophy." Christians have, Guiness says, "a unique responsibility to guard, enjoy, and pass on [the Classics]... not least because [we] are privileged to share the faith that animated the majority of [them]." So read Invitation to the Classics and discover your Christian literary heritage. I leave you with the advice of C. S. Lewis. "It is a good rule," Lewis said, "after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between." We would all do well to take his advice.


Chuck Colson


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