The Great Books Reader by John Mark Reynolds

Traveling and talking about the revolution that is coming in college education leaves many grownups wishing they had the chance to read the texts they did not have time to read when they were in college. Some of us did not have a chance to go to college at all! As an angel would say, “Fear not.” While the tidings are only pretty good and not of great joy (as compared to Christmas), there is a solution to this worry.

We can start reading now, together. The Great Books Reader is designed to help you start by picking some authors that everyone should read. I have written a warm up essay for why I think the writer matters. You can Google the biography if you wish, but my job is to help you see why a particular writer mattered and still matters to us. Following a short selection by the writer, there is an essay by scholars of the writer who will take us just a bit deeper and pose some good questions for us.

Great books are a revelation of God to humankind, sometimes very dimly, sometimes perfectly as in the case of Sacred Scriptures. Reading old books is the only moral way to break the chronological loneliness that death brings each of us. We are cut off from our intellectual ancestors and great books help us stay in touch until that better day when the dead will leave again.

Let’s read, question, and understand.

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.


John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.


D I G  D E E P E R



Here are five tips on how to use GBR in starting or going further along on the Way.

First, after the brief introduction, read the text—the excerpt—quickly; then, read it carefully a second time. Consider taking a moment to write about three hundred words on what you think the author is saying. (If writing is hard for you, record your ideas.) Only then turn to the essay by one of your fellow students and discover what he or she has to say.

Second, read charitably. Don’t look for problems in the ideas on the first read. Great men and women have patterned their lives on the books you are reading. Why? What’s good about it? What’s true? What’s beautiful? Try to get inside the world of Homer and see what it would be like to think with his view of reality. Only then can you begin to judge it, because only then do you really understand it.

Third, read argumentatively. Charity does not preclude being opinionated! After your second reading, compare, and bring into line, every thought with God’s Word. Then realize that you have only brought those thoughts into line with your thoughts about God’s Word! Ask yourself: are you right in your comprehension of that Word? Have you rightly understood the author, and the Author?

Embrace a point of view, and argue for it forcefully, but be meek enough to realize you might need to change your ideas. Commit yourself, and then see what you find. Don’t make the mistake of hiding any idea from the Way. Every thought must be examined by God—the Word, the Logos—including our beliefs about Him.

Also, don’t make the secondary mistake of starting over all the time in the vain belief that this shows humility. Ask the questions you really have, not ones you think you should have.

If you come to wonder about God’s existence while reading this book, enjoy the wonder. But don’t try to force yourself to doubt His existence if you truly do not. A double-minded and unstable man uses “reason” to undermine things he really knows to be true in order to justify his folly or sin. The single-minded man pursues the Logos knowing it’s the only choice he actually has.

Fourth, don’t try to get a “last word” on any of the authors. There is no harm—and much value—in ending with tentative conclusions. It’s highly unlikely any of us will ever fathom all the depths of any of these writers before we get to continue the Discussion in the real City of God. Spend some time with each, wrestle honestly, and then move on to the next. Come back another time and try again.  As with physical fitness, mental fitness is a lifetime project.

Fifth, pick at least one author and go read the entire work found in partial form here. I would recommend starting with Homer, because he is accessible and there are many good translations of his great works. If America does become a post-Christian society, then something like his view of reality may prevail.

One more thing: Avoid secondary sources, and don’t try to master all the details about an author. Most of us have loved something or other to death—like the Star Trek fan who watches all the episodes and movies too many times and eventually ruins the fun. Being an “expert” on Shakespeare is not the same thing as enjoying and learning from his plays. There’s a place for the expert, but most of us will remain happy amateurs. Embrace that status.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life