Not all Big Old Books are spiritually beneficial, but most classics have survived because they plunge the pen deeply into the reality of human life. As we spend hours observing the life of another—be it Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or Churchill in the The Last Lion, or Pierre in War and Peace—we cannot help but reflect on our own life and the state of our souls. The theme that challenged me in in War and Peace is the role of suffering in transformation.
Note: Minor plot spoilers ahead.
I picked up War and Peace for the first time ten years ago on a family vacation, read 200 of its 1300 pages, and then set it down for the decade. I didn’t have time to follow the meandering paths of five noble Russian families through the Napoleonic Wars. I didn’t have the attention span for a 200-page plot setup. I couldn’t remember the myriad of characters, or endure the narrator’s historical analysis, or grasp the expansive history. But most of all, I didn’t have time for fiction when there is so much to read of Doctrine, Theology, and spiritual life. How could I read “for pleasure” when I was already pressed with studying, writing, and shepherding?
This summer, in the midst of an international transition and the global pandemic, I picked up Tolstoy’s treasure again and read it from cover to cover. What I found in these half million words was more than I expected: I found an antidote to our instant world, an answer to the vitriolic tweet-cycle, and an ally in my spiritual life.
I am now convinced that reading Big Old Books (B.O.B.s) is a useful habit for all Christians, especially those who desire to understand our current culture and engage it with the good news of Christ.
1. B.O.B.s as an antidote to an instant world.
“. . . when the fullness of time had come . . .” Gal 4:4
The majority of modern culture, from commercials to food labels, is aimed to trigger a chemical reaction in your body that will elicit a response. Buy this car. Eat this guacamole. Watch this series. A book that waits until page three for the inciting incident is left to collect dust on the shelf. A movie without an explosion (or car chase, or alien invasion, etc) in the opening scene is relegated to the box office also-rans. We in the West are not good at waiting for anything. We want our reaction and we want it now.
And so, when we take up a B.O.B. which doesn’t move out of first gear until page 250, we protest this modern malady. I noticed, as I made my way through War and Peace, a lowered heart rate, a more focused mind, and a decluttered consciousness.