The Novelty of the Old

SONY DSCHello, again! In lieu of posting on my personal blog, I have been contributing to a larger Christian blog called Evangelical Outpost. I have received multiple requests to publish the posts here so that the email subscribers receive them, too. This is my latest post, which went live today.

Throughout my schooling career, teachers have instructed me to say something new, to “contribute something unique to scholarly research.” This has always been frustrating because of its obvious impossibility. I cannot say anything truly new when scholars have been writing on the same subjects for millennia. Whatever ideas I possess have been discussed before, and unless I become the premiere expert in one subject, there will always be someone smarter, more knowledgeable, and more adept at writing to address the issue. One of the wisest men who ever lived said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) I agree with him. Ideas circulate through the ages like perpetual spinning tops. Debates that are “new” today were widely debated topics among the Greeks, Romans and medievals.

So it’s hard—almost impossible—to contribute something truly new to any discussion on a given  subject.

But perhaps that’s not the right goal. The trick, I think, is not to write something new, but to remind others of the relevancy of the old. Whether in fiction or non-fiction, book, movie or magazine, truth remains truth. Virtue will always be good, and sin will always be bad. Our definition of literary “good” should not be originality, but whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)

A good story is worth repeating. Movie theaters are full of remakes because film makers know they can make bank by retelling a story that has already proven its worth—is popular, moving, or exciting. Perhaps we need to rethink our standard of “good” as being new and different. In chapter four of Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeatedly unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.

Perhaps our desire for something novel and unique is a result of our sin, and not a result of our cleverness or virtue. Yet we do grow bored. If every movie in existence was a remake of Casa Blanca, I would grow bored very quickly. I can only listen to so many repetitions of “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

The challenge, then, is to present old, good, tried and true ideas in ways that are fresh, capture people’s attention, and remind them of what is good, true and beautiful.

Chesterton’s Manalive is a fictional representation of this idea. Innocent woos his wife over and over in different ways to keep her loveliness fresh in his mind, and his desire for her close to his heart. He leaves home for months and traverses the entire earth, with the sole purpose of returning to where he started and having a greater appreciation of his life. He says at one point, “It was not the house that grew dull, but I that grew dull in it. My wife was better than all women, and yet I could not feel it.” Innocent continually rediscovers the wonder of old ideas by reliving them in new ways. He is a man fully alive, because he does not allow himself to grow bored but to rediscover the beauty of old truths again and again. That’s the definition of an insight: to experience a new understanding or appreciation of an old idea.

Aslan brought me renewed excitement of God when I was a child; Middle Earth continually reawakens my mind to the power of friendship and loyalty. Just because super hero tales are retold through books, movies and TV shows does not mean that their lessons of bravery, courage and virtue must become less potent. We can stop looking for new ideas—we won’t find them. Instead, we can learn to appreciate old ideas because they work. Truth is older than the sun, but is still exciting.

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