[Editor’s note: The following is the introductory post for a book review forum we’re hosting on Dr. Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians. Here’s our lineup of reviewers in the forum:
- Review One: Heather Walker Peterson, English professor, University of Northwestern Saint Paul
- Review Two: Jeff Olson, pastor, Catalyst Covenant Church
- Review Three: Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger, English professor, Gordon College
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
Why turn to the medievals? Why would anyone be drawn to a time that popular culture portrays as one of backwardness, oppression, academic nitpicking (ever heard the joke about angels dancing on the head of a pin?), the Black Death, etc.—a time commonly known as the “Dark Ages”? Why look to the medievals for guidance in Christian discipleship today?
Though each of these characterizations of the Middle Ages is more caricature than portrait, each also has some historical basis. Does it seem strange to you that people would be drawn to the Middle Ages, looking . Consider the many forms medievalism has taken in the last few hundred years:
- The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gothic revival in architecture
- The gothic turn in fiction, around the same time
- The Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements in Victorian England
- The social, cultural, and political criticism of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin
- Medieval modernism’s reaction against the sterile abstractions of avant-garde art
- The immersion in and reflection of medieval literature in the work of the Inklings
Although each of these impulses to turn to the Middle Ages seeks some particular goodness, truth, or beauty in that past age, the source of each impulse comes from perceived deficiencies of modernity—it’s a reaction against elements of contemporary society and culture. And in each case, I’d argue, the perceived contemporary problem is one of fragmentation; the solution sought in the middle ages is one of wholeness, unity, coherence. The poet W. H. Auden remarked on the value of medieval poetry for contemporary life:
There has been no time since its own when the literature of the Middle Ages could appeal to readers as greatly as it can today, when the dualism inaugurated by Luther, Machiavelli, and Descartes has brought us to the end of our tether and we know that either we must discover a unity which can repair the fissures that separate the individual from society, feeling from intellect, and conscience from both, or we shall surely die by spiritual despair and physical annihilation.
Auden points to particular fragmentations wrought by the Enlightenment and Reformation as the wound that the balm of medieval poetry can soothe, if not heal. Since 1949, when Auden wrote those words in an introduction to an anthology of medieval poetry, the Enlightenment and Reformation have been identified as the source of problems as diverse as the fragmentation of ethical discourse (for example, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue) secularization (in Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation), our greatly diminished attention spans (in Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head), and now also, in Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, many of the problems faced by the contemporary church.
Armstrong’s book, then, is not so much a novel argument for a return to a forgotten past as it is the latest in a long tradition of turning back to the medievals in order to remember, restore, and renew forms of life forgotten, shattered, or left moribund by the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Armstrong’s argument reflects his awareness of his participation in this tradition, because he’s not only turning directly back to medieval thinkers, but rather turning to C. S. Lewis and letting Lewis’s medievalism serve as his guide. To use an analogy borrowed from Lewis’s most-beloved medieval poet, Lewis himself serves as Virgil to Armstrong’s Dante.
In the aforementioned introduction, Auden goes on to warn:
We must not, however, be nostalgic. Luther and Descartes, to whatever brink of disaster we may have allowed them to push us, stand, like the angels about Eden, barring the way back from an unintelligible dualism to any simple one-to-one relation. That way lies, not the Earthly Paradise, but a totalitarian hell.
How much can we restore the discarded image of the medieval world without indulging such temptations? Is it dangerous to demand of the past that it serve present needs, as Armstrong implies in the early pages of his book? To what degree can turning to the medievals help us meet present challenges and solve the problems we face, as Christians and as a church, in a society so deeply shaped by the fragmentations of the Enlightenment and Reformation? These are the questions the three respondents in our forum ask of Armstrong’s book.