Classics dominate the pre-set buttons on my radios. Three buttons tune in National Public Radio stations in our area. Each has a different mix of classics or classical music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven symphonies, etc.), classic jazz, and classic crooners. Three other radio buttons deliver our local radio market’s three clone stations, all playing essentially the same ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s soft rock and rock classics (Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Carly Simon, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, et al.). At either end of the spectrum I am drawn to the classics.
Classics seem to rule other selections I make as well. I have attended presentations of Les Miserables multiple times on both stage and movie screen, and have even read Victor Hugo’s magnificent novel. I saw Richard Harris’ classic portrayal of King Arthur in Camelot on stage twice, and have gone to other productions of the musical. Other Broadway shows have a long way to go, for me, to reach the heights of those classics.
Even TV classics capture my attention again and again. Give me classic episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, or Everybody Loves Raymond any day! Reading the classics of literature certainly results in more than ample numbers of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations.
While classics are recognized in so many fields, just what makes a work a classic? The term is derived from Latin, classicus, denoting the highest rank or class of Roman society. It has come to mean, “serving as a standard of excellence; of recognized value; characterized by enduring excellence, appeal, and importance.” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary) Classics stand the test of time. But longevity is not enough in itself to confer classic status on a work.
Tamim Ansary, an educator, author, and Director of the San Francisco Writers Workshop offers several qualities possessed by genuine classics in any field. Classics invite attention time after time, not just once. An attraction more than you can explain draws you back into the world of the classic again and again, with new enjoyment and benefit. While blockbusters may grip your attention so that it is hard to turn away in the present moment, classics have staying power that transcends the immediate time and place. Classics lodge in the mind, forming powerful images that may serve as guideposts for thoughts and actions. Experiences of life continue to remind you of classics, finding expression of thoughts and emotions in the refined and stored images and values of the classics. Often, classics permeate the culture, becoming a shared foundation for living in community. Another author has observed, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” (Italo Calvino)
This week my thoughts kept returning to a classic portion of scripture, Psalm 139. While not belittling any passage of the Bible, most everyone recognizes portions of scripture that meet the characteristics of classics stated above. Many are immediately obvious: John 3:16; the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7); Psalms 23, 1, 100, 8; the creation story (Genesis 1-2); John 1; the “love chapter” (1 Corinthians 13); and many others. Certain passages of scripture grip our attention, implanting the images of God and God’s grace by which we live and believe. We are drawn back to them again and again. Events in daily life remind us of the classic scriptures, such as Psalm 23 at the death of a loved one. We earnestly return to teaching them as the foundations of the community of faith.
The classic text on my mind this week is printed here from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase from the Hebrew, The Message. In the depiction of how God chooses to relate to us, our need for salvation by God’s initiative, and the hope that faith in God can provide each day and for all eternity, this Psalm fulfills every criterion for classic status and more. Read it slowly, quietly. Read it as your prayer. Return to it and read it again and again:
God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back; I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too – your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful – I can’t take it all in!
Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit? To be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, you’d find me in a minute –
You’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark! At night I’m immersed in the
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the
same to you.
Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God – you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I
worship in adoration – what a creation!
You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body;
you know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my
life were spread out before you, the days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.
Your thoughts – how rare, how beautiful! God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them – any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you! . . .
Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me;
cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about;
see for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong – then guide me on the road to
(Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24, MSG)
What areas of your life do you need to submit for God’s probing inspection today? What behavior, words, and thoughts does God already know are part of your day – to your chagrin? What comfort and joy does the unshakable presence of God provide you today? What Bible classics draw you back to themselves and to a fresh encounter with God again today?
The classics will get you every time!
– J. Edward Culpepper
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