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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.

Getting Medieval with C.S. Lewis

Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Review Forum Introduction

[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:

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
Forum Introduction

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.

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.