It’s difficult for most Americans to understand what is happening in the streets at this time. That’s because most of us have a poor diet.
Most Americans get their news from social media (Facebook, Instagram, Drudge, etc.) as well as old media (print and television). But a steady diet of both makes us dumb. That’s because modern media offers little context. It tends to have a simplistic take on complex issues.
Emily Powell doesn’t. She’s a reader, as well as CEO of Powell’s Books, the famous family-owned bookstore in Portland, Oregon. With the pandemic, Powell’s is presently only selling online. But Powell sees a silver lining – folks are buying much more classical literature.
That’s welcome news. Readers are buying less “modern literature,” Powell notes, “but things from a different era, things that are tried and tested and shown to stand the test of time.”
Sounds like C. S. Lewis. “I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books,” he wrote. “But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.”
Diet is from the Greek diaita, meaning “way of living.” It’s whatever we consume. No one “goes on a diet.” Every person is already on a diet. It can be a good or bad diet, healthy or unhealthy. Lewis felt an exclusive diet of contemporary books is unhealthy.
“A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.”
Older books bring to light what contemporary books often overlook. “All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself,” Lewis admitted. “None of us can fully escape this blindness if we read only modern books.”
I can’t. For years I consumed a steady diet of modern books, many written by Christians. Then I began dining on the Enchiridion, or Handbook of Augustine. Written around 420, Augustine upended my simplistic notions about human nature, discipleship, and transformation.
We might have some simplistic notion about what’s happening on the streets at this time. Many recommend a better diet. Andy Crouch says we need less news, not more. To understand racism and rioting, we need better books, older ones, like W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. And we need good new ones, like Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law.
I’ve found a good (newer) book is William Manchester’s The Glory and The Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972. It’s a more nuanced understanding of a century of race relations, especially how 1966 was a pivotal year. A new generation of black leaders turned away from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his philosophy of non-violence. They urged blacks to riot in the streets.
You might also benefit from reading the August 2019 report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Nationwide, researchers could not find evidence of systemic racism in police departments. Some bad egg cops? Yes. Are they in police departments nationwide? Yes. Is this a problem we must deal with? Yes.
Racism is a problem, no doubt. But Lewis had a remedy. “After reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” That’s the sort of diet that helps us understand what is happening in the streets these days.
Next week, I’ll suggest a few more books and reports that might help us better understand what’s happening in the streets.
 C. S. Lewis, Excerpt from the Preface, On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius the Great (Popular Patristics Series Edition)