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Getting Medieval with C.S. Lewis

Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians:
The Discarded Images of Medieval Christianity

Today’s post comes from Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger, assistant professor of English at Gordon College, who specializes in medieval studies. Kerilyn has a dual PhD in religious studies and English from Indiana University. Here’s our lineup of reviewers in the forum:

If the questions raised in these reviews intrigue you, join us at the study center on Tuesday, September 13, 7 pm—that’s tomorrow!—when Chris Armstrong himself will join us for a talk entitled “Getting Medieval with C S Lewis: Spiritual Wisdom from a Forgotten Age.”]


Chris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians
Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger, “Discarded Images of Medieval Christianity”

Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age provides a useful jolt of insight for those American evangelicals who take seriously the need to examine our own contemporary forms of religiosity. The book will find a welcome readership among those who are willing to (re)consider their own understandings about the nature of the church, the relationship of the individual to God, and the role of church history (or “the tradition”) in right thinking and right living. The deep value of this book stems from its ability to help Christians, particularly those with little knowledge of Christian history, to “see otherwise”—to find points of comparison that serve not merely as foils, but instead as points of illumination that allow us to more clearly perceive the contours of our own present. The one drawback is that, for those looking for a more detailed treatment of medieval philosophy, theology, or spirituality, Armstrong’s book might have the unfortunate side effect of painting a somewhat flat picture of the Middle Ages.

Armstrong provides an excellent diagnosis of our contemporary evangelical moment. His application of the term “immediatism” to sum up American evangelical climate usefully builds on what other scholars and teachers have been pointing out for some time now, but his own added definition of the term is particularly trenchant: “The immediatism of American evangelicals is also a way to God without mediation” (8). This is to say, in Armstrong’s diagnosis, evangelicals have largely disregarded any forms of piety that rely on mediating forms of practice, whether these be spiritual disciplines, reliance on Christian community (not just as “fellow travelers,” but as necessary for our own contact with God), or any of the accrued wisdom we find in “the tradition.” In his first chapter, Armstrong gestures briefly at the forces (cultural, philosophical, and theological) that got us to this place, but also outlines how our evangelical immediatism has hamstrung us as we attempt to grow as Christian disciples, work toward the kingdom of God, and engage well with our contemporary culture. His turn to “the Middle Ages” can, I think, provide the needed antidote, an illuminating and thus convicting point of comparison. I agree with Armstrong, who himself agrees with Lewis, that we need “the past,” generally construed, in order to see as clearly as we possibly can our own present. We need to humbly (but not blindly) submit ourselves to the teaching of the tradition—the hard-won theology and spirituality of those who have come before us, thinking and praying far more faithfully than most of us can claim to have done.

This pastoral, perhaps even prophetic, call returns strongly in the final chapter, when Armstrong turns his attention to the resources that monasticism, in particular, can offer a harried, overly spiritualized (and thus disembodied), and somewhat conformist American evangelical church. In this last chapter, Armstrong suggestively points to the late medieval focus on the Incarnation, as well as the traditions of monasticism starting with St. Benedict, as answers to our shallow forms of piety. (Here he also offers an intriguing diagnosis of why the earlier project of evangelical ressourcement, headlined by Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and others, has not taken stronger root in the evangelical world.) Both Armstrong’s diagnosis and his gestures backward to the theology and spirituality of our corporate past are wise indeed, and we would do well to listen.

All of this overview begs the question: what does this book have to do with C.S. Lewis? Everything I’ve outlined above can be stated independently of “the Narnian’s” influence, and Lewis’s own scholarship, as most readers will know, was about medieval literature and languages, not history and theology. In fact, I find the book’s reliance on Lewis somewhat odd. Armstrong seems to have come to the Middle Ages through Lewis (no problem there, as many Christians who are also “professional medievalists,” including this author, have similarly done so). But my one criticism of the book is that, in its reliance on Lewis, Armstrong actually offers a somewhat flattened picture of medieval religion.

Armstrong’s tendency to locate a singular “medieval worldview” is, I suspect, due to his indebtedness to Lewis. Lewis himself often talked of “the medievals” with little attention to chronological or geographic diversity, and with an unreflective confidence that the term could adequately represent the diversity inherent even within a single nation or a single century. Lewis took medieval trends toward synthesis and order as providing the key that could sum up a single medieval worldview and explain a huge range of philosophical, theological, and literary texts. He was enamored with the picture that he himself produced (somewhat selectively and synthetically) from a range of medieval texts, and applied it liberally to whatever he read. Lewis was not alone in this tendency—those familiar with the history of medieval studies will recognize the name D.W. Robertson, a Princeton medievalist and slightly younger contemporary of Lewis, whose insistence on using allegorical modes of interpretation was deeply influential but has been systematically rejected by scholars more recently because of its tendency to reduce texts down to formulaic rehearsals of the same set of meanings.

Lewis’s own adoption of the medieval synthesizing tendency is also selective. The animating spirit of The Discarded Image is, as Armstrong points out, that of Dante’s cosmology in The Divine Comedy, which provides a picture of highly ordered and harmonized creation, a celestial hierarchy where everything is in its place (even if that place is hell), and the “music of spheres” rings out harmoniously. But Dante is himself the product of a particular medieval moment, his theology and cosmology indebted to scholastic thinking, his literary tastes to thirteenth-century trends in Italian poetry, while he is in other ways highly idiosyncratic, departing from traditional views that, had he been more thoroughly “medieval” in giving way to textual authorities, he might not have espoused. (Consider, for instance, his nearly sui generis reimagining of Purgatory, which had, until The Divine Comedy, been considered more or less as equivalent to hell, but with the promise that souls would be able to leave once they had been properly prepared for heaven; or his placement of Ripheus, a pagan, in heaven.) Lewis’ indebtedness to Dante was certainly inspirational to both his creative and his scholarly work. But we need to be aware of the ways in which Lewis’s version of the Middle Ages is itself idiosyncratic and not totally representative.

By way of Armstrong’s reliance on Lewis, then, this book’s treatment of the Middle Ages paints an overly simplified picture. It is true that, within the somewhat loose (and at times contentious) vocabulary of historical periodization, the term “medieval” or its English translation “Middle Ages,” does refer to roughly 1,000 years of history, starting around the time the Roman Empire fell in the late fifth century and continuing up to the start of the early modern period, which is variously marked by the “discovery” of the New World, the invention of the printing press, or the Reformation—in other words, the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Most surveys of medieval history would cover this great expanse of Western civilization. The problem lies, for Armstrong’s purposes, in suggesting that all Christian wisdom from this thousand-year period can be distilled down into a few key lessons, or that one figure from the mid-twentieth century can represent it all.

Over the course of this time period, Christian thought and practice changed quite a bit—Christians critiqued themselves as they started new religious movements (and reformed old ones) and developed new intellectual paradigms. The church and individual believers responded (sometimes wisely and well, sometimes foolishly and ineffectively) to cultural changes, including changes in political leadership, trade and industry, and growth in contact with other peoples and cultures. Modern Christians can and should learn from “medieval wisdom” (in fact, that’s what I hope to accomplish as a teacher of predominantly medieval and early modern literature at a Christian college), but I want to be careful not to suggest that the wisdom the medieval period bequeaths to us is singular, when it is in fact highly diverse and at times discordant with itself. Dante’s Divine Comedy does not espouse the same cultural values as the Beowulf (though Lewis loved and learned from both), nor does monastic exegesis operate along the same assumptions or reach the same conclusions as scholastic inquiry (though we could learn a good bit from the intellectual habits and spiritual practices of both). As a sort of “sampler” of medieval authors, religious movements, and philosophical developments, I think Armstrong’s book serves a useful (and hopefully curiosity-inducing) purpose. But I would quickly move to counter someone who thought that a single “medieval worldview” could be taken as representative after having read Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (or, for that matter, The Discarded Image).

The criticisms I have offered of Armstrong’s book are, I admit, scholarly ones; as a professional medievalist (like Lewis), I value precise thinking about all things medieval, and this precision of thought includes careful consideration of the changes and particularities of the Middle Ages. But Armstrong’s goal is to edify and build up the church (particularly the portion of it that can be grouped under the heading “American evangelical”), and I think the direction he points us in, to rediscover all the resources of our shared Christian past in order to help us live more faithfully as disciples in the present, is indeed a hopeful one. I think that many readers of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians who are unfamiliar with this great swath of Christian history will find themselves challenged and inspired. Then I hope those same readers will read some more—perhaps make use of the many medieval texts included in the magnificentClassics of Western Spirituality series, or turn to luminaries like Jaroslav Pelikan who help us understand the theology and spirituality of the past better. In other words, I hope, as I imagine Chris Armstrong also does, that his book will be only the first of many encounters today’s evangelicals will have with the Middle Ages.

Getting Medieval with C.S. Lewis

Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: A Medieval in a Modern Body

Today’s post comes from Pastor Jeff Olson, pastor of Catalyst Covenant Church, a neighbor of ours here at the study center. Jeff has degrees in philosophy, religious studies, and divinity from Bethel, where he studied church history with Chris Armstrong. Here’s our lineup of reviewers in the forum:

If the questions raised in these reviews intrigue you, join us at the study center on Tuesday, September 13, 7 pm, when Chris Armstrong himself will join us for a talk entitled “Getting Medieval with C S Lewis: Spiritual Wisdom from a Forgotten Age.”


Chris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians
Jeff Olson, “A Medieval in a Modern Body”

Being an avid reader who loves both church history and C. S. Lewis, I loved Chris Armstrong’s new book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C.S. Lewis, even before cracked its spine. Not a topic you are familiar with? That’s the delightful surprise of this wonderfully accessible book: you don’t need to be an expert in either field to deeply enjoy this book and richly benefit from it.

With C. S. Lewis, a self-described medieval in a modernist body, as our guide, Armstrong brings us back to a period of church history filled with many a misconception in today’s popular culture. Not only are inaccurate myths exposed but Armstrong uses several key Christian thinkers and topics to give the reader suggestions as to how to engage culture today with timeless truths and harmony of thought that our medieval friends subscribed to in an era of Christianity that many believe to be an alleged dark age of thought and reason. What deeply resonated for me was Armstrong’s critique—not of the medieval world, but of the current one, in which he astutely points out that we may well find the antidote of many of modernity’s ills in the past. In his own words, we find ourselves in a world filled with people with do not know “who we are either morally or metaphysically.” In an era of hyper individualism it is necessary to go back and look at times where “community” was less of a buzzword and more of a reality, necessity, and value.

Armstrong’s playful yet articulate language and deep exploration help us explore multiple facets and categories of faith from this era. Subjects such as but not limited to theology, philosophy, Christian spirituality, and mercy and justice are covered. Along with this, Armstrong makes important mention of how the medievals understood the natural world not as disproving faith, which seems to be the binary that is forced upon us today, but as God’s “second book”, which further anchors the truths of the Christian faith.

This book is written in an articulate yet accessible way that would be useful in or outside of the classroom, in a church library, and perhaps more importantly in a general library. In our current age of brash disagreement, it is refreshing to read something that seeks to in an academic tradition be critical of its area of discourse and to also highlight positives of an era or subject of study. In education we are taught to be critical thinkers, which is vital, yet along with it which seems to happen not as often: humble and generous thinkers, too.

This book is a powerful reminder that in any and every age God is at work in profound and powerful ways. Logical positivism, the belief that progress is naturally the only way we move forward when we move forward through time is fraught with its own set of issues. It’s hard not to sound a bit hypocritical when we judge history’s ills sitting in a century that already early on has had so much bloodshed and conflict. May we learn to not only be a judge of history but a student of it. If we care about the future of evangelicalism, those of us who are evangelicals need to become better students of our past. We need to give our people both roots and wings, and this book does precisely that.

Getting Medieval with C.S. Lewis

Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Traveling the Affirmative Way

[Editor’s note: The following review, the first in the book review forum we’re hosting on Dr. Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, is by Heather Walker Peterson, a mother and writer who also teaches in and chairs the Department of English and Literature at the University of Northwestern Saint Paul. Here’s our full lineup of posts in the forum:

If the questions raised in these reviews intrigue you, join us at the study center on Tuesday, September 13, 7 pm, when Chris Armstrong himself will join us for a talk entitled “Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis: Spiritual Wisdom from a Forgotten Age.”]


Chris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians
Heather Walker Peterson, “Traveling the Affirmative Way with C. S. Lewis”

Evangelical Christians have a problem, according to Chris Armstrong. They’ve jettisoned a millennium of Christian history (from Constantine to the Reformation). Without that millennium, they believe it’s their right to live as if their individual relationship with God is the the sole informing/forming aspect of their faith. They forget to acknowledge the influence of and need for other Christians.

Thus, excesses of devotional emotion or reason appear admirably Christian even if to the neglect of those fellow believers around them. You wouldn’t want to interfere with what God was telling somebody else, right? Similarly, nobody better interfere with your relationship with God. In such a situation, Christians can compartmentalize between what’s spiritual and what’s secular, and ignore what they deem secular.

Medieval Christians, writes Armstrong in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, would have been shocked. They didn’t need talk of “embodiment” to be told they were over focused on their mind or emotions and not enough on the world around them. If Jesus was incarnate, then of course their bodies, their environments, and other supposedly “secular” things—not just their hearts and minds—were important to their faith.

If the missing millennium is the antidote to the excesses of our contemporary Christian life—including our consumerism—there is one person, the darling of evangelicals, who can convince us of our need for medieval Christian wisdom: C. S. Lewis.

Lewis, Armstrong claims, along with J. R. R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers, embraced medievalism after World War II through the writing of Dante. For Lewis, Dante challenged modernism—that what was real was only what was material—by recognizing “a vividly sacramental sense of the aliveness of all things.” There was a “deeper reality” to the world and our experiences of it that was Augustinian and neo-platonic at its best. One major implication is that we can live in a way—what Armstrong calls the “Affirmative Way”—that affirms truth and God. The Affirmative Way is shown even in the works of pagans, since they are also made in God’s image.

For Armstrong, a historian, to make a case for medieval Christian wisdom, he has to convince his evangelical readers of their misconceptions about the medievals. If you remember your high school history teacher telling you about a group of late medievals wasting their breath in arguments about angels dancing on the head of pin, you once studied Scholastics as I did. But our image of them is reductive, according to Armstrong, who asserts that their rediscovery of Aristotle’s work led to modern-day science. Not only did medievals not think the earth was flat, but Aquinas and the Scholastics were also a primarily positive influence in the history of the church, rather than a negative one, as many Protestants have assumed.

Much of what Armstrong does to show what medieval Christianity offers is that he takes us through what C. S. Lewis read and regarded as influential to his own thought. In this regard, Armstrong’s book differs from those of the Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith, who also values religious tradition, particularly liturgy, and emphasizes the body. Armstrong’s book complements Smith’s works in that he reflects more on the ancient sources that led to the bodily actions and liturgies Smith discusses.

We can have Lewis’s balanced approach to faith by dipping into the Scholastics, Aristotle, pagan mythology, and Augustine. We can learn to use reason to hold onto mystery for such theological issues as the atonement, as Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard did. We can meditate on the traditional vices and virtues, which Lewis presented in story form in his novels. We can love and care for others’ bodies, as medieval monks did. We can allow ourselves to be desiring beings, as Lewis did, following Augustine of Hippo, and to enjoy the earth and great art as indicators of the more real (God), living with a sacramental approach to life—the Affirmative Way.

We can cry and laugh like Julian of Norwich and give ourselves the freedom to meditate on not just Christ’s resurrection but also his crucifixion. And this is the most memorable case Armstrong makes for his readers—that in Protestants’ focus on the resurrection and on the divinity of Christ, they have overlooked the incarnation. They have nearly abandoned the earthiness of Christ and our identification with him in our humanity—leading to a Gnosticism in which what’s important appears to be the “spiritual” only and not the physical too.

Armstrong’s final chapter gives concrete implications for the previous pages. His most pointed ones are a challenge to Protestant Christians who have recognized the weaknesses of evangelical Christianity and sought after spiritual disciplines, such as Richard Foster has proffered, or intentional community focused on social justice. Armstrong observes that the monastic communities of the middle ages also cared deeply about the personal and communal morality of their members and paired their prayers with asceticism—even C. S. Lewis, who delighted in feasts, also fasted.

I wish that Armstrong had saved his discussion of mediation of the church and sacrament for the end rather than at the beginning in response to his explanation of the immediatism of evangelicals (a play on the root of both those words). Some evangelicals, wary of the language of mediation, might dismiss his argument too quickly before being drawn into the rest of his book. Given the range of thought and history Armstrong covers, his book is not a quick read, although the clear headings, occasional personal stories, and quotations from Lewis’s letters and works compel the reader on.

I’ve become an evangelist for this book, near collaring friends at church telling them to read it, emailing a ministry in another state recommending Armstrong be invited out to speak, musing about using it to discuss Lewis’s neo-platonism in one of my courses. I’m grateful for the words I have to explain the magnetic appeal of C. S. Lewis, who “recognized that the Christian warrant for traveling the Affirmative Way, encountering the material world as a place rich with sacramental meaning, was the incarnation of our Lord.” I hope my own children and my students take Lewis’s hand and join him in the Affirmative Way.

James K.A. Smith book cover You Are What You Love

Book Review: James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

[Editor’s Note: This post was written by Dr. Andrew Bramsen. Dr. Bramsen is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bethel University, where he specializes in comparative politics, political theory, and African politics and Islam. He’ll be co-leading our reading group on James K.A. Smith’s You are What You Love this fall.]

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

What do you want? Smith begins with this question, suggesting that what we think we love and what we actually love are often two different things. The post-Enlightenment tendency for western Christians has been to treat people as “brains-on-a-stick,” primarily driven by what we think (3). Smith argues instead that human experience and historic Christian practice demonstrate that our loves—not our thoughts—show what we want. Thus effective discipleship requires practices that shape our loves, not teachings that reform our thoughts, and the central practice in this formation is rightly oriented Christian worship.

Smith uses the term “liturgies” to talk about these “formative, love-shaping rituals” (22) and argues that false worship results primarily from bad liturgies, not bad theology. Self-focused consumerist liturgies exemplified by the mall, the wedding industry, stadium events, internet use, and the smartphone culture are part of the problem. But for Smith it goes deeper, because so-called Christian worship often conforms to and reinforces these narcissistic societal liturgies. The solution is a return to historic Christian worship “oriented by the biblical story and suffused with the Spirit,” which offers “a counterformative practice that can undo the habituations of rival, secular liturgies” (79). To participate in true worship, we must join:

the unfolding drama of the God who acts… to play the role of God’s image bearers who care for and cultivate God’s creation, to the praise of his glory… This is not playacting or pretending: it is the role we were born to play. In becoming these characters, we become ourselves (88).

To achieve this end for which we were created, we need virtue-forming habits so we “desire what God desires” (85). Christian worship does this not by giving answers, but by inviting us to participate in the story, thereby grabbing our imagination and beginning to reorder our loves.

For worship to do this work of discipleship, it must be oriented around the biblical story in which God gathers and forgives us, gives us his word, invites us to commune with him and then sends us out into the world to serve. When churches exchange this historic form of worship for something that instead caters to a consumerist mindset, offers an inspirational pep talk, or seeks to make people feel comfortable, they essentially take a liturgy whose purpose is to promote worship of something other than God and pretend that they can make it function contrary to its nature.

Smith draws on Charles Taylor to argue that such liturgies lead to a “disenchanted” and “excarnate” Christianity. Taylor uses these terms to describe an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation, namely that focusing on individual reading (sola scriptura) and understanding (sola fide) turns us into “brains-on-a-stick” and reduces the role of the divine. However, God created this world to be an enchanted place where he could interact with mankind, and—after the fall—God himself became incarnate to redeem us. Smith applies Taylor’s critique to the continuing tendency to avoid the physical side of worship (partaking of the Eucharist, water baptism, kneeling, etc.) for an excarnate “heady” approach which looks more like a self-help program than something enchanted by the presence of God. This is problematic, because only when our worship is “re-enchanted” and “incarnational” in these physical, embodied ways can we truly participate in God’s story—and only his story can transform our loves and thus transform us.


The argument Smith makes in this book is timely. It builds on Christian reflections from Augustine’s Confessions to Robert Webber’s ancient-future series to Smith’s own Desiring the Kingdom, but resonates with the contemporary world in a new way. Smith’s account of how our practices too often misshape our loves is powerful as he walks us through the particular appeals of consumerism, society’s glorification of weddings over marriage, and the problematic priority we give to digital devices. Each of these liturgies promotes a focus on ourselves and our desires and steers us away from the far greater story we were created to participate in. We live in an age that promotes continual updates and improvements for their own sake, creating a vicious cycle in which we always want—but can never really attain—the latest and greatest thing. In the midst of this frenetic world, Smith highlights the value of receiving historic Christian practices as enduring gifts that help us rightly order our loves, just as they have for Christians down through time, and he shows how this deep continuity remains a radical call to discipleship.

While there is a certain irony in a book telling us that what we need is not more information, throughout the book Smith focuses our attention on a series of practical examples that show how the liturgies we engage in shape the course of our lives. His compelling argument challenges us to turn from his book both to carefully reconsider how the way we live shapes what we love and to recognize as we do so the limits of our own knowledge and our need for the enduring wisdom of the church. This book is a significant contribution to that wisdom.

The Land, the Voice, the Nation, and the King: A Chronological Retelling of a Classic Narrative

[Editor’s note: Today’s post comes from Michaela Bunke. Michaela is a history major and religious studies minor at the U of M who focuses on intellectual and church history. She’s passionate about Europe specifically and how God has been perceived and responded to in the ideological landscapes there. Michaela is the co-founder of Round Table at the U, a student group that engages students in round table discussions on big topics.]

The following is a story about how a small Semitic family became a nation, and how that nation persevered through endless challenges because a voice from the sky promised that there would someday come a great ruler who would turn their nation into an never-ending empire.

Map courtesy of Wikipedia

Map courtesy of Wikipedia

The Land

Four thousand years ago there were about 30 million living people on the earth. Europe and the Americas were almost completely uninhabited. Asia was just starting to see the beginnings of ancient China and ancient India. The majority of the world’s population resided in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Humans had invented papyrus and discovered bronze, but the existence of coins, swords, and glass would not come for another several hundred years.

It was at this time, around the year 2000 BCE, in the city of Ur (present-day Iraq), that a particular Semitic man decided to move his family westward to Canaan, a land with rich soil and gorgeous landscapes that sat on the coast of the Mediterranean. It was well-known that whoever controlled this area, which lay at the intersection of three continents, controlled many of the trade routes from both east and west. However, for unknown reasons, the family was unsuccessful in reaching their destination and settled instead in Haran, a city slightly northeast of Canaan. But the family continued to dream of moving to this fertile land on the sea. To their east were the great empires of the Babylonians and the Persians who were ever at war with each other; to the west was the beautiful, peaceful Land that they longed for.

the voice

Image courtesy of Unsplash

The Voice

After the man grew old and passed away, his son, who was giving up hope on ever calling the Land his home, began to experience a phenomenon that was just as bizarre and stupefying to him as it would be to us today: out of nowhere, without explanation, a voice would come from the sky. This Voice from the Sky spoke in his language. It spoke with authority, but also with gentleness. The Voice began to tell the man that his family would indeed reach Canaan someday, but it would be his descendants that would inhabit the Land. So he trusted the Voice from the Sky and obeyed it in everything it instructed him. His family soon accepted his odd relationship with the Voice, and indeed, when his son, grandson, and great-grandson came of age, it spoke to them as well, promising the same thing.

They trusted the Voice, but they often doubted. Many times, their circumstances made the promise of the Land seem almost farcical. During the lifetime of the man’s great-grandson, a severe famine came over all of Mesopotamia. This famine caused the family to relocate to Egypt, where food was available. There, in Egypt, their offspring multiplied quickly, until the king feared that their greatness in number might threaten the stability of his empire. So around the year 1600 BCE, the Egyptian king made them his slaves, and they became very oppressed.

The Voice from the Sky, however, continued to speak to this people just as it had spoken to their ancestors. It continued to promise that they would soon be freed from the Egyptians, obtain the Land of Canaan, and establish themselves as an autonomous nation.

Sure enough, around 1400 BCE, the people managed to escape into the desert, but as they began toward Canaan, they soon found themselves lost. Yet the Voice continued to speak, guiding them and giving them new laws, rules, and traditions that solidified their identity as a people.

"The Chaldeans Carrying Away the Pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem" (1569) by Philips Galle (Netherlandish, Haarlem 1537–1612 Antwerp); image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Chaldeans Carrying Away the Pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem” (1569) by Philips Galle (Netherlandish, Haarlem 1537–1612 Antwerp); image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Nation

Eventually they arrived in their long-awaited Land and settled there for nearly a thousand years. Just as the Voice from the Sky had predicted, they multiplied greatly in number and became an autonomous Nation. However, they were dwarfed by the great empires that surrounded them. The Voice continued to promise that they would successfully defeat those who attacked them, and indeed, they were largely victorious for centuries despite their small size. In the 8th century BCE, the Roman and Greek Empires began to grow to the west, while their neighbors to the east grew as well—the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Achaemenid Empires.

In the midst of the increasing threats that surrounded the Nation, the people found comfort in the promises that the Voice gave them: someday they would be mightier than all other nations, someday they would plunder their enemies to the east, someday the empires that continually harassed them would be cut off, and the Nation could know that their children and their children’s children would live forever in the Land that was now theirs. All of these promises were wrapped up in one promise in particular that the Voice gave them: someday they would have a king who was mightier than any king Mesopotamia had ever seen. The Nation held onto these promises, but as their enemies grew, so did their doubt.

In the 6th century BCE, an unprecedented tragedy occurred: the Babylonians conquered the Nation and forced them out of their homes in Canaan. Suddenly, they had lost not only the Land, but their culture and traditions were threatened as well. They could no longer worship in their temple or perform their holy ceremonies as they had always done. But the Voice from the Sky told them to be patient; they would soon have a great ruler who would lead them back to the Land and establish their kingdom forever. This promise seemed to be coming true when, in 539 BCE, the Achaemenid Empire under Cyril the Great conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Nation to return to the Land of Canaan and operate relatively autonomously. However, many of them had dispersed throughout the ancient world since their evacuation from the Land, so there was great challenge in reuniting the Nation and reestablishing their culture.

Then another tragedy occurred—one more unprecedented than the first: the Voice ceased to speak. Suddenly, the Nation found themselves back in their own Land, occupied by one foreign empire after the next, struggling to hold onto their culture, their laws, and their sacred traditions, which were being constantly jeopardized—and the Voice provided no answer. The Nation and the Land became victims of continual occupation and exile by other nations, including that of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, and later those of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Seleucid Empire. It seemed that the promises had been only utopian fictions.

In the year 63 BCE, the Roman Empire gained control of the Land, and the Nation was given a ruler of their own people, but they were far from autonomous, their culture had been Romanized and Hellenized, and their leaders were growing increasingly political. The people of the Nation wondered if the Voice from the Sky would ever speak again.

the king

The King

In the midst of these dying hopes, around the year 6 BCE, in a small, unpopular town in the north of the Land, a young teenage girl reported that the Voice had spoken to her—the same Voice who had spoken to her ancestors hundreds of years before. She claimed that an angelic being purporting to be a messenger from the Voice had told the girl that she would soon bear a child who would become the long-awaited King promised to them. No one in the Nation believed her.

However, nine months later, as the girl and her husband were journeying from their hometown in the north to a small city just south of Jerusalem, she went into labor. Unable to find better accommodations, she gave birth to the boy in a stable of animals. In this stable, surrounded by cows and horses and bundled up in barn rags, it was this baby boy who would indeed become the most powerful King of the greatest kingdom the world would ever see. But his people would include many more than just those of the Nation, and his territory would include much more than just the Land.

He would not become the type of king that the Nation was expecting. Working as a carpenter and living only thirty-some-odd years, he was executed by the Roman government because of the turbulence he caused among the Nation. But those who would become his people believe that he carried the words of the Voice who had been silent for over 400 years, and they claim that he is still alive, that his kingdom is continuing to grow, and that through him, the Voice is still speaking to those who will listen.

David Ingold: The Rhythms of Advent: Which Calendar Rules Your Life?

David Ingold on the liturgical calendars of Christmas

[Editor’s note: Today’s guest post comes from David Ingold, one of last year’s Colin MacLaurin Fellows and one of the members of our pilot residential program. David graduated from the U with a degree in mechanical engineering and now works as an engineer.]

It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving. After a weekend of gratitude, rest, and maybe homework catch-up, it’s time for the final end-of-semester push.

Seventeen days. 17. Just seventeen days of until the last day of class! So much work to do in less than 3 weeks!! But twenty-four days until the last day of finals. I just need to make it twenty-four more days, and then… pass or fail…the semester will be over!

Even though I’m no longer taking classes, it’s not difficult to remember these end-of-semester thoughts common to students, especially since I live with a bunch of students at the U. In fact, just thinking about how soon the semester is ending makes me feel anxious on their behalf.

But this week marks the onset of something else, something more significant then the arrival of winter break. Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a season of eager longing and joyful hope for the arrival of Christ.

For those unfamiliar the practice of Advent, I want to ask a question: Which calendar rules your life?

For students, it is often the Academic Calendar; for much of America, the answer is the Consumer Calendar (which culminates with the Black Friday—Small Business Saturday—Cyber Monday trifecta). But for the church, Christ’s people, we have an alternative available to us: The Liturgical Calendar, a calendar of worship that begins with Advent and peaks at Easter, bringing us through the life of Jesus each year.

"The Nativity" by Antoniazzo Romano (1452-2512)

“The Nativity” by Antoniazzo Romano (1452-2512) (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It is an easy temptation to put your heart and soul in the results of finals and the hope of vacation. Rather than completely orienting our lives around the pressures of our world, the wisdom from Christian tradition calls us to remember Jesus and orient every part of our life (and year) around him.

In Advent, we join the church around the world in remembering the longing of Israel, God’s people, for the long-expected Savior while in Exile. Though Immanuel, God with Us, has indeed come (which is why we so jollily celebrate 12 liturgical days of Christmas!!) we wait still as ones in exile (1 Peter 1:17). We wait for Christ’s deeper presence in our lives and community, and even more so for Christ’s second coming. But we wait with joyful expectation, for he IS coming!

While Thanksgiving is not part of the liturgical calendar, how fitting that the prelude to Advent is a time for gratitude to God for who God is and all he has done for us. And yesterday evening I enjoyed starting this liturgical year with an Advent Feast, to rejoice and feast together because of our shared hope, and to express our longing for Christ as we sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

To aid us as we long for the advent of Jesus more than we long for the advent of vacation or relief after a strenuous Black Friday, I’ll end with an Advent prayer from Henri Nouwen:

Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas. We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day. We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us. We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom. We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence. We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus.” Amen.

Terror and Fear: Reflections on Christians' Call to Love

Terror & Fear: Reflections on Christians’ Call to Love

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Andy Bramsen, assistant professor in political science at Bethel University. This post originally appeared on Redeemer Journal, the blog of Church of the Redeemer, where Andy serves on the vestry.

As we reflect on the horrific acts of evil in Beirut and Paris that have killed scores and inflicted terror on the people of those cities and beyond, we grieve with them and pray for the Lord’s mercy and comfort. Yet it is all too easy to turn from mourning with the suffering to becoming hardened toward anyone who shares a national, religious, or ethnic identity with the perpetrators. This turn from sorrow to a hatred fueled by fear stems from a natural desire for self-preservation. Sadly, I am already seeing evidence of this in news and social media.

But as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called not to fear but to love. We are called not to focus on our own interests, but to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry, as we would serve Christ Himself. If we are serious about being Christ followers, we must take seriously the command He gave to His disciples: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

Part of taking up our cross involves loving and caring for all in need as we have opportunity to do so, remembering that the needy are our neighbors, whether or not they seem safe. And as we do so, we remember that our Lord chose not the path of safety, but the way of the cross.

So today I challenge us to reflect anew on what it means to live out the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Shaped: Design Thinking, Desire, and Engineering

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Katie Hazlewood, a junior mechanical engineering student and one of this year’s Colin MacLaurin Fellows. Her post is the second in a series of reflections on design thinking as a connection between our faith and our callings. The first, by MacLaurin alumnus Nathan Trulsen, connects design thinking and business.

As described in Nathan’s article, design thinking is a human-centered, purpose-oriented way of thinking. Instead of budget, profit, or competition being the end goal, design thinking makes this goal centered around the desires of people.

In engineering firms that produce a product for a customer/client, this way of thinking should be in place for each product that is designed, prototyped and sold. In practice, this would mean putting the person (the client) before anything else, including cost and time. This is easy to agree with, but undoubtedly harder to practice. A balance must be created inside of this way of thinking. Projects must still meet budgets and deadlines so that overall productivity can increase. I believe that having design thinking embedded in the way these requirements are met is what makes the difference. If each new problem arising in product development was handled with a primary focus on the clients’ desires instead of the time or effort required to fix it, the end product may look a lot better, and clients may be more satisfied with their products in the end.

In broad terms, engineering focuses first on how things work, and secondly on how to make them better (more efficient, cheaper, and of higher quality). But how do these twin emphases relate to faith? If put in the context of design thinking, an instinctive analogy can be made. Just as engineers constantly look for ways to improve upon the current processes, Christians look for ways to restore and renew both people and the world we currently live in. In both scenarios, something broken is being restored. In the case of an engineer, this comes into play when troubleshooting and problem-solving occur: a broken process or product must be restored to its original state. For the case of Christians, this looks like spreading the gospel with the hope that broken, fallen people can start to be renewed to their original and pure created state.

Design thinking comes into this analogy when we look at how the restoring happens in each scenario. In engineering, this shift happens in the move from restoring processes to get the biggest profit to restoring processes to meet the original desires of the client. This shift focuses on the motive behind the engineer’s work. As Christians, we were given the Great Commission to go and make disciples, and to teach them the ways of the Lord (Matthew 28:18-20). This call to restore people is present and being completed because it is the desire of the Lord, not for our own selfish purposes. Again, this comes down to the motive behind our actions. In each case, the desires of people and the Lord are the end goal.

Design thinking can and should be applied widely, in many different fields. As a Christian engineer, I must seek to see the desires of people before other requirements or compensations. Through this, I must do the work the Lord has called me to, and seek to restore both people and processes according to God’s greater purposes and desires.

Nancy Nordenson on finding true leisure with Josef Pieper

Finding True Leisure: A Guest Post by Nancy Nordenson

[Editor’s note: Today’s post is an excerpt of a new book about work and vocation: Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure by Nancy Nordenson (Kalos Press). Finding Livelihood takes a creative nonfiction approach to exploring the multiple, often conflicting, calls we experience and must navigate. Nancy will be speaking at our Fridays @ 4 event this Friday, November 6.]

When you look at the face of a worker, wrote Josef Pieper, what you see is effort and stress becoming permanently etched. I’ve been reading and re-reading Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture for a book group called “Sophia,” because like the Greeks, this group seeks wisdom. I think it’s true what is said, that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. It’s also true that when you set your mind on a search, posit a question, you can’t help but start seeing clues.

Years before, someone whose opinion I respect recommended the book, and in a spirit of dutiful response, I checked it out of my local library. The book was small with a worn gold hardcover, no dust jacket, and yellowed pages. Copyright 1952. I had flipped from page to page, dipping here and there into the dense writing. I’ll skip it, I thought. To read this book would take too much time in a schedule filled with too much work. I already knew what it said, didn’t I? That it was in periods of leisure, among people who could afford leisure, that the extras that pushed society forward arose. The discoveries of geometry and calculus came about from men with time on their hands, not from men laboring deep down in a mine. The exquisite textiles that now hang in museums were woven by hands not otherwise occupied stirring gruel. I knew these pieces of history. It wasn’t hard to extrapolate the principle to the present. The book was as good as read without completing a single full paragraph. I returned the book to the library long before its due date.

Now, here for the book group was a newer edition, softcover with bright white pages. After reading it cover to cover, I realized my assumptions about it and its concepts of leisure had been all wrong. Pieper, a twentieth century German philosopher, published this book in 1948 after having first delivered portions of it as two lectures in 1947, just after the end of World War II. He wasn’t concerned with shoring up an eroding cultural foundation by advancing geometry and calculus or filling museums with textiles or tools of scientific discovery. Neither did he care about Caribbean cruises and hammocks and umbrella drinks, or rounds of golf or dinner for four at eight. Here was a man pleading with a world of people whose noses were to the grindstone rebuilding businesses, homes, and lives destroyed by the war. Eyes on the job, all hands on deck, preached the day’s motivational speakers, betting on productivity and utility to calm the turbulence. In contrast, Pieper pleaded: “pierce the canopy” that work forms over your life and transcend “the work-a-day world.” Allow “the totality of existing things to come into play: God and the World,” he wrote.

Why this message, this urgency?

To be human.

Start in the world and go up, urged Pieper. True leisure is “a condition of the soul.” True leisure is stillness, contemplation, passivity, receptivity, celebration, worship, wonder, mystery, and grace. A Sabbath intervention. These are words I can wrap myself in and relax with. Find, grab hold of, hang on to, defend to the last, this reflective posture, I tell myself, and you find the canopy’s needed spear.


[This is an excerpt of a chapter from Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure by Nancy J. Nordenson, Kalos Press, 2015. Used with permission.]

Nancy Nordenson is a freelance medical writer and also the author of Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure (Kalos Press, 2015), a contemplative exploration of the split calls that comprise a working life. Nancy lives in Minneapolis; she blogs at www.nancynordenson-markings.com.

Shaped: Design Thinking, Desire, and Knowledge

Shaped: Design Thinking, Desire, and Knowledge in Business Innovation

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Nathan Trulsen, a management consultant at Accenture, where he focuses on healthcare innovation and strategy. He is an alumnus of the Carlson School of Management and active member of the MacLaurinCSF community, which has helped shape his understanding of the Christian calling to business and economics. Opinions are his own and not those of his employer, Accenture.

MacLaurinCSF’s 2015-16 annual theme, “Desire & Knowledge,” is well-timed, as just this month Harvard Business Review declared, “Design thinking comes of age.” There is a deep analogy between design thinking and desire and knowledge: just as universities have prized a knowledge based on fact and reason, business managers have valued risk analysis, labor and capital efficiency over risk taking, empathy, and emotion.

But design thinking—prioritizing the emotional and imaginative side of being human—seeks to put creativity in the center seat of business strategy, owning up to the reality that desire and knowledge are more connected than largely acknowledged. As a Christian who seeks to give glory to God through my work, I am delighted that design thinking provides a more human approach to understanding innovation. And design thinking also highlights the need for moral formation so that we, all who aim to create value for customers, can serve their best, instead of their worst, desires.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a method for innovation and problem solving that involves deeper, pre-cognitive approaches to creativity, for which it has also earned the term “human-centered design.” Take the following diagram from the design firm IDEO:

ideo innovation

Whereas traditional business innovation often focuses on balancing engineering and finances in order to create functional utility for consumers, design thinking focuses first on what customers desire in order to create emotional value. Each design firm and corporation will highlight their unique process for getting here, but key recurring themes in design thinking are:

  • Putting humans first — When faced with the task of create a new product or service, the first step is observing how the customer experiences the current way of doing things. Without relying on the user to explain or quantify their thoughts, designers gain a deep, hands-on understanding of what moves people. Contrast this ethnographic approach to traditional business school training, where the best practice is for managers to use quantitative market statistics as knowledge.
  • Creative brainstorming — Solutions are brainstormed freely and creatively, allowing team members to take the solution in any direction. Collaboration and flat power structures are important here, since any team member may have the solution. More and more businesses are dispensing with hierarchical organization of power in an attempt to foster collaboration.
  • Prototyping solutions — After gathering as many solutions as possible, start rapidly creating models. Build physical replicas if possible, or, if you’re creating a service, create storyboards of how a consumer will experience the solution. Run these half-made solutions by the customer to get a sense for whether you’re going in the right direction. This sounds like extra work to managers who take a unidirectional view of work: define the problem, come up with a solution, and present the solution.

The designers of the world say design thinking isn’t new—and they’re right. What’s new is trying to take their creativity and human-centered practices and replicate them in other areas of society. IDEO was one of the first product-design firms that popularized design concepts for businesses. One hospital tasked IDEO with reducing the number of children that had to be sedated before having an MRI. So they designed a pirate-themed MRI machine and trained the MRI technicians to treat the scan as a pirate ship experience. The percentage of children needing to be anesthetized, previously at 80%, dropped precipitously and patient satisfaction went up to 90%. Traditional business innovation started with the technology and built an MRI machine. Design thinking started with patients and asked how they could enjoy an MRI scan.

Design thinking is especially helpful in an environment of rapid change, where it gives whole organizations, whether businesses or governments, a way to create new possibilities instead of being confined to analyzing and refining old ways of doing things. For example, design thinking has taken on an increasing role in moving the American health system from one organized around disjointed care and administration to one that focuses on increasing patients’ health and financial well being. Traditional health-insurance companies add social media, online chats, and web portals as service options alongside their call centers without providing access to cheaper and better care.

Enter Oscar Health, a startup insurance company in New York and New Jersey that wants to create health insurance that is “simple, intuitive, and human.” They give their members a seamless interface with descriptions of bills and procedures in plain English and access to cheaper, convenient health services. That’s only the tip of the iceberg for healthcare.

Why stop at creating public good? At Stanford, design thinking has moved beyond solving economic and social problems to solving the biggest personal life questions. Ainsley O’Connell’s analysis of Stanford’s “Design your Life” class is particularly telling. One student who took this class came away saying:

It really helped me understand what the concept of vocation was. [ . . . ] I had thought of it either as a narrowly religious concept or for a specific job. But it’s this feeling that I have true agency over my work, because I know what I stand for and I have tools to fix the things that I encounter in my life.

“Design your Life,” launched in 2010, has a waitlist of attendants as students seek the tools to discern what’s next after college. O’Connell even suggests that this class is filling the void created when Christian theology and moral formation were removed from campuses in the mid-20th century. On whether this class was created to address that void, course co-creator Bill Burnett says, “Design doesn’t speak to ethics and spirituality and all those things, but they work within its frameworks. Our only bias is, hey, we can make the future better.”

The running themes in design thinking are creativity, empathy, experimentation, and learning by doing. Making design kinetic—observing people, creating models—requires designers to be viscerally in the world in a way that reminds me of Christian author James K.A. Smith’s description of practical knowledge in his Cultural Liturgies trilogy. Smith leans heavily on anthropology to show that people are loving beings as well as thinking beings. Experiencing the world through our senses creates a knowledge that is often more convincing than disembodied ideas are.

There are two key takeaways for Christians to consider:

  1. There is cause for celebration. For the business person who views their work as part of God’s creation mandate to cultivate the world, design thinking is a welcomed movement. By putting humans first, design thinking allows us to build businesses around the purpose of “creating a customer,” as Peter Drucker famously said in 1953. With its focus on brainstorming and experimentation, design thinking also allows us to “employ the whole man,” for “this approach focuses on man as a moral and a social creature, and asks how work should be organized to fit his qualities as a person.” In a digital age in which machines have become more “intelligent,” performing cognitive tasks once thought untouchable (driving cars, walking across uneven floors, constructing sentences), design thinking helps us simplify the noise of technology and asks what it means to be human. Design approaches in business make this human-centered vision of work a reality.
  2. The moral formation by which our desires are shaped takes on renewed importance. People have never lost their nature as moral animals, but just as academia separated desire and knowledge, the market has been conceived as unfeeling and value-neutral. While economists teach that markets are amoral, every good marketer knows that products sell better when the product is worshiped. As our universities and markets recover the language of desire, we must be aware of how desires are formed and to what extent we are asking our customers to desire created things over the Creator. Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, wisely noted that “a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed,” for “of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality.”

So on one hand, we have design thinking and its method for creating experiences that resonate with our innermost being. Its use of empathy and experimentation employ the desires God imbued in us that swim below the surface of our rational action. On the other hand, we are left asking which stories and experiences will swoop in to form the moral imagination to which human-centered design caters. IDEO co-founder Dave Kelley looks to science fiction authors for inspiration. The Christian story, rich with imagery of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, is a forward-looking story of hope that transforms our desires so that we worship the Creator instead of created things. I am excited for this year’s conversations about desire and knowledge as I seek to understand human-centered design in a way that provides goods, services, and a life consonant with the Kingdom of God.