In 2017, Get to Know Some Dead People

by Jonathan Trotter on January 3, 2017

It’s a noisy, noisy, noisy world out there. If you’ve got an internet connection, you have access to a screaming torrent of opinions and crises and politics and yummy recipes for some no-bake-easy-prep-3-step-totally-awesome-cheesy-enchiladas.

And that, my friends, is why we need dead people.

Some time ago, I decided that I needed to balance my reading list with some not current authors. I needed to spend some time with folks a few generations removed. I needed some mentoring from history.

I’d like to encourage you to try it too.

Because if we only read Chan and Platt and Claiborne and Mayfield and Brown and so on, we’re missing something huge. We’re missing an old reservoir of tremendous depth.

I’m not saying you should stop reading modern books (or blogs like A Life Overseas!), I’m just saying, we’ve got to balance the new and modern and URGENT stuff with some long-standing, foundational writings.

After all, wisdom was building her house long before people started tweeting in the eaves.


The Danger of Thinking We’re the First
Have you ever seen someone who thinks they’re the first one? And they’re so not?

For example, some folks act like “social justice” wasn’t even a thing before they were born. By all means, these folks should read Claiborne and Caine, but they can’t forget to read Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Carmichael, and Aylward. These old folks were hardcore long before most of us were even born.

When we think like this, when we think we’re first, we blind ourselves to the wisdom of others; we deafen ourselves to the lessons they learned while living and fighting. And dying.

And that’s exceptionally stupid.

Being first has a sort of romantic ring to it for sure, and it makes us feel important. But it also unmoors us, and it’s usually just not true.

It disconnects us from our history and the bigger story. And the longer I live abroad, the more convinced I am that one thing we MUST do is remember that we are part of a much bigger story.

Remembering that our part is only one part of a grander story insulates from despondency when things go poorly and prevents arrogance when things go splendidly.

It is a Small Place we must visit regularly.


A New Thing?
Creativity is awesome, and we should come up with new approaches that adapt to changing demographics and emerging technology. God is certainly the King of the Dawn.

Isaiah gets quoted a lot this time of year: “For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19)

But we can’t forget Isaiah’s neighbor, Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’” (Jeremiah 6:16)

Want to keep your faith alive and growing in 2017? Remember that God is the God of the living and the dead. Anticipate the new things and walk faithfully in the old things.


Try It
For every living author, read a dead author.
For every new book on missions or missiology, read an old book on missions or missiology.

Here’s a check: Think about the last five books or articles you’ve read. If all the authors are still alive, you’re missing out on a very special treasury I call “wise dead people.”

If there are local stories of older (even ancient) believers in your region, find them and read them. Connect your story to theirs. Help new believers learn about and connect with these stories too, as a vital part of their spiritual heritage.

In this age when so much data is accessible so easily, it would be a shame if we never accessed the long view of those who’ve gone before us. We need them, the writers, thinkers, and believers from ages past.

So, may God indeed do a new thing in you and your family and your ministry in 2017.
And may you not be surprised if some of the new things look like ancient paths.


Who are your favorite non-living authors?

How do you deal with the overabundance of screaming current information?

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About Jonathan Trotter

Jonathan is a missionary in Southeast Asia, where he provides pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. Before moving to the field with his wife of sixteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41
  • Alana

    Thank you for this timely reminder, as an avid reader I try to balance what I’m reading with classics, and I have found that the longer you immerse yourself exclusively in today’s style of writing, the harder it is to read the older writing styles of the masters. I don’t read a lot of Christian books, but I really liked “Devotional Classics” because it introduced me to a variety of Christian writers from Augustine to Julian of Norwich, authours that I probably wouldn’t have picked up and read a whole book of on my own.

    • Thanks for the comment, Alana! I think you’re write about how reading the old stuff gets harder and harder. Shoot, after scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, just reading a magazine starts to test my attention span! : )

      • And the other way around. I suffer from “reverse chronological snobbery,” as I heard someone call it recently. I read mostly old books, and often when I try to start into a modern one, I tend to be very critical.

  • Steve White

    Favorite dead authors: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and C. S. Lewis. (Who did write about reading older books, not just modern books.

  • Denise in Kenya 2

    I have been a fan of Amy Carmichael for years and have most of her books. She has been a beacon of hope in my ministry and my life–especially as a single woman missionary.

    • Hey there, Denise! Thanks for stopping by! I read A Chance to Die when I was a teen and it messed me up! : ) Are there any of Carmichael’s books that you would particularly recommend?

      • Denise in Kenya 2

        Her first missionary book “Things as They Are” as well as Gold Cords (I think that is the name.) When I read “Things As They Are” I am amazed at how things have really not changed much on the mission field–especially here in Kenya’s villages and countryside. I have had goats and sheep walk into the house as I have shared the gospel and swept chickens out of my way! P.S. Amazon has a 13 book set on Kindle and an 8 book set on Kindle for less than $5 USD each.

  • Miriam Pauline

    Thank you for this article! Reminds me of truths that I often forget. Last year, I focused on daily readings from CS Lewis. This year my focus is Bonhoeffer and Spurgeon. And I plan to re-read the books of my personal hero, Helen Roseveare, who went to heaven a few weeks ago.

    • You’re welcome, Miriam! I knew there would be lots of folks here who read old authors. It’s fun to see what other folks are reading! Thanks for the comment.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    This is SO good!! In moving into the Orthodox Church, I met a lot of dead men and women saints. Of course, they are more alive now then they ever were which is one of the reasons for Orthodox churches being full of beautiful icons. But the point is, these dead saints knew how to live and their words are timeless! When I need to feel grounded I read St.Gregory of Nyssa or St. John Chrysostom (or CS Lewis or Thomas Merton!) You are so right in pointing out that if we just read modern day authors it’s a problem. Thank you.

    • Ha! I thought you’d like this one, Marilyn! : ) Thanks for sharing your “grounders.”

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      I got a real kick out of the couple sentences in your book where you (understandably) pick on contemporary “camp” songs. I’m with you — I’m a real sucker for ancient theology wrapped up in comforting meter and verse.

      This year more than ever I’ve been overwhelmed by the contemporariness of the Scriptures, how they are so old yet still speak to human nature. Of course, this has always been true about the Bible; I just noticed and appreciated it more this year 🙂

  • MrBultitude

    I recommend C.S. Lewis’ essay “On Reading Old Books”. The sentence that is oft quoted is “It is a good rule, 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.” The entire essay is excellent, and you echo much of it in your article as well!

    It is important for us to strive against “chronological snobbery” which thinks that what is new is better and that our generation has discovered what is most important.

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