As you hopefully saw on Monday, I just released my e-book entitled 50 Books Every Christian Should Read which you can get for free by signing up for my newsletter.
Many of the books I chose are classics of the Western Canon. These books have created the foundation of the intellectual tradition that we have in the West.
A large part of that foundation is based on Christianity. We all know that. Ever since Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, Europe and more recently North America in particular, those regions have developed under the influence of a Judeo-Christian value system. When people worshiped God, they consequently created societies that were consistent with those beliefs and teachings. This is no different than the foundation of many Middle Eastern nations being consistent with Islam or Chinese culture being consistent with Confucianism. Religious beliefs form a large part of the foundation that intellectual traditions are built on.
However, there are other forces that influence cultural development. This is why you’ll notice that a substantial portion of my e-book also drew from non-Christian sources. We are Christians first and foremost, so we need to understand our faith. Our faith also helps us understand the world around us as noted above. However, there are other influential ideas that have moved our society in certain directions that are not Christian in origin. For example, Plato’s Republic is obviously not a Christian work, but Christians ought to understand it as it has been highly influential in developing not only our government but also our culture.
Similarly, Virgil’s Aeneid is a story about the interactions of the Roman gods and man, so even though, as Christians, we reject those gods wholeheartedly, this story shows many of the characteristics of the ideal man that still permeate Western society. Aeneas was a strong, noble and passionate man who the story says was motivated by duty to found the Roman Empire. Even if we don’t believe in the Roman gods, if we want to understand our commitment to duty in the West, this is a great place to start.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to understand our world. We can be like Daniel in captivity in Babylon. He still worshiped God first and foremost just like we as Christians need to know our Christian intellectual tradition.
However, we are told that he also was one of the top students among all the Babylonian wisemen in training because God gave him that ability. He learned Babylonian knowledge while not departing from his commitment to God. He needed to know Babylonian literature and how Babylon developed in the way that it did. After all, he was serving the King, so if he did not understand Babylonian tradition, how could he possibly work in that capacity?
When you put these two factors together to form the entirety of the Western Canon, you’re in a good position to understand Western society as we know it. If you understand Christianity and more generally a Judeo-Christian worldview, you have a good portion of the picture. In fact, I would say that you understand the most important part of the picture of Western society. Christianity is indeed the most influential idea in Western history.
However, if you understand the more diverse traditional Western Canon including both Christian and non-Christian works, you are much closer to the full picture of the society we find ourselves in today.