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What makes something classic?


“Classic”–a word that can describe any number of things, including art, literature, music, theology, and tradition. But what does it mean? What makes something classic?

A very helpful explanation of what makes something classic, and the value of classic things, can be found in Jacques Barzun’s Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. Barzun gives three primary features of something classic.

First, a classic is “thick.” By this Barzun means that a classic has density; it says much. Speaking specifically of literature, Barzun says that “much is going on in every line or paragraph; every sentence contains an idea; the whole work covers acres of thought and feeling; whereas the ordinary book, no matter how think in physical measurement, pegs away at one or two little matters.” This description could apply just as easily to other things as well.

Second, a classic is adaptable. Barzun notes that when first introduced, something that becomes classic “fits an existing situation, perhaps an existing demand.” However, a classic treats the current situation in such a way that its values and answers transcend the particular demand and can be easily adapted later.

Third, a classic “must gather to itself enough votes to be openly, publicly called a classic.” Barzun insists that “the vote is never unanimous,” but enough qualified people have to consider something a classic for it to be one. He also notes that after something has been “voted in” as a classic, “It is the academic community that records the vote and prolongs the term of office.”

Barzun also helpfully describes why classics are valuable.

He says, “The first service that a classic does is to connect the past with the present by stirring up feelings akin to those that once moved human beings–people who were in part very much like ourselves and in part very unlike.”

Second, Barzun says that classics “teach how to read.” He is discussing specifically literature here, but this applies to “reading” other art forms, ideas, and traditions as well. Because the density of a classic and its birth in a past time and culture make it difficult to read, it equips the reader with the skills necessary to really read. What Barzun says about contemporary practice is worth quoting in full:

The mental attitude and attention that are good enough for reading the newspaper and most books will not work. We read ordinary matter by running the eye over the print at a steady rate, rarely stopping to think and wonder. The material was chosen and written precisely for this rapid, effortless pace. The easy progress is habit-forming and that is why the overwhelming majority everywhere, including most of the college educated, read only contemporary books, and of these only read-as-you-run. In college these people may have struggled with a handful of classics and escaped unaffected, but more probably the curriculum was adapted to their tastes . . .

Again, this could apply to music, art, theology, and worship just as easily as to literature. The value of “classics” in each of these realms is not just the content communicated, but how “reading” that content equips us to really know.

Third, classics “are an extraordinary means of communication. The provide a shared experience that creates “a means of mutual understanding.” Barzun also notes how classic have “contributed to the general vocabulary, even though the ordinary citizen is not aware of it.” In other words, terms, phrases, idioms, and expressions from classics have made their way into popular discourse, and thus an understanding of their source would broaden our ability to communicate with others. Again, this is also true of theology, worship, and other arts like music. Barzun notes,

These classic elements of reading and writing [and more, I would add!] are part of something larger known as our cultural heritage–the accumulated lore about our forebears, their doings and sayings. Nobody grows up in a settled society without picking up bits and pieces of it and being in some way molder by them.

Finally, Barzun addresses a common objection to a fixation on things classic. Many people today (including Christians when discussing theology or worship) insist that our multicultural, pluralistic culture requires that we contextualize and not limit ourselves to relics of an unfamiliar culture. Barzun responds:

The need for a body of common knowledge and common reference does not disappear when a society is largely pluralistic, as ours has become. On the contrary, it grows more necessary, so that people of different origins and occupation may quickly find familiar ground and, as we say, speak a common language.

In other words, as our society–and our churches–become even more multicultural, this may be an even greater reason to create a “common language” through the use of what is classically Christian.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.