I am currently enjoying reading Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda who received the Pulitzer Prize for his essays and reviews in the Washington Post Book World. In his brief essays on the literature of the world you are introduced to a wide range of authors who have delighted readers for millennia. I read one of the entries every night and have been enlightened and entertained by his erudition.
Last night I read the entry for The English Religious Tradition. This how he describes it.
“In English there are five main sources for religious eloquence: the King James Version of the Bible; the Book of Common Prayer, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan; the hymns of writers like Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and others; and the classical traditions of preaching and homily. What links them all is a Shaker plainness and cleanness of diction, just barely covering profound spiritual conviction and emotion. This is, in short, the speech of men and women doing the Lord’s work, honoring him and praising him with ceremony, reverence, and humility.”
“The solemn harmonies of such prose are largely ignored in these days of text-messaging and political newspeak. Nonetheless, sometimes only the full organ roll of liturgical English can match the sacredness of weddings, funerals, and religious holy days.”
Commenting on the great hymns he writes,
“Like the Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, and Pilgrim’s Progress, like the resounding voices of great preachers, they ask us to think about our lives and how we conduct them. It is right and good that we should do this. They feed what Philip Larkin once called the hunger to be more serious that lies within each of us – even the agnostic and the atheist.”
Being raised in this tradition I find myself taking refuge in the age-old texts to express the solemnity and the high dignity of the Gospel truths. In our contemporary world there is the tendency to be casual about everything. The eternal and heavenly throne room of God, filled with divine splendor, angels and archangels, the representatives of creation and the communion of saints of all ages, deserves, nay demands, the best. While all are welcome to worship no matter what their station in life, and no one should be judged by their appearance, I try to polish my words as well as my shoes, and dress to honor the one who has given me life and breath and everything, and who holds in his hands my origin and my destiny.
I honor my religious heritage. I was marinated in it from childhood. It has stood me in great stead all my life and ministry giving me strength and historical perspective. I have not had to reinvent the wheel, to create from scratch, the contours and content of the Gospel, to respond to daily needs. The words from the past have been hallowed by usage at countless services, weddings, and funerals. I have not found it necessary to replace them with modern verbiage, and to rewrite the Creeds. What was good enough for my ancestors is good enough for me! I don’t believe in what C.S. Lewis called, “chronological snobbery”: the belief that the past is inherently inferior to the present. One conserves what is good from the past and builds upon it. Hence the need to treasure our inheritance.