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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.

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.

Recommended Reading on C.S. Lewis – Dave Deavel

David Deavel: The Tao of Jack - C.S. Lewis on the Foundation of Freedom

In March, St. Thomas professor Dave Deavel gave an excellent talk, “The Tao of Jack: C.S. Lewis on the Foundation of Freedom.”

Dave agreed to offer his own recommended reading on Lewis and the Inklings, which complements the previous posts in our series of recommended books on the Inklings—Joseph Pearce on J.R.R. Tolkien and Phil Rolnick’s earlier list on C.S. Lewis.

Here are Deavel’s recommendations:

2014-15 Wrap-up: Recordings of this year’s lectures

2014-15 event posters

 

As we wrap up another exciting academic year of lectures and programs, I wanted to share our video and audio recordings of those events for those who weren’t able to attend or who would like to watch and listen again.

Throughout the year, we focused on the theme of freedom and the free society, and many of these talks connect with that theme, from Gloria Halverson’s sobering talk on human trafficking and the ways healthcare professionals can combat it, to Patrick Deneen’s Holmer Lecture on liberalism and what comes after it, to Dave Deavel’s talk on the C.S. Lewis and the Tao.

We’ll announce next year’s theme soon; in the meantime, I hope you enjoy and learn from these recordings. The SoundCloud files are audio-only and downloadable.

What were the highlights of this year’s MacLaurinCSF programs for you? We’d love your feedback—leave a comment below!

Lenten reading: Dorothy Sayers’s The Man Born to be King — Guest Post by Kathryn Wehr

inklings-banner

 

Editor’s note: Kathryn Wehr is currently working on a PhD on The Man Born to be King at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.


This past fall, I had the pleasure of leading the Dorothy L. Sayers reading group, where we read her twelve-part play cycle on the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King. Each week we would read one of the plays aloud, each taking different parts, and then we had two sharing nights—in November (at the MacLaurin CSF Study Center) and January (at Church of the Cross)—where we read one of the plays and led a discussion about the ideas they raised. These were exciting events for everyone involved and hopefully they will stir up more creative ways for reading groups to share what they have been discussing.

Of those who attended, only a few had read The Man Born to be King before, though some had read some of Sayers’s other work. She was a contemporary and friend of both C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, so she is often studied with the Inklings. She wrote within a wide variety of genres so people who have known her through one are often surprised to hear of her others: poetry, mystery novels, secular and religious plays, newspaper articles and speeches related to work, education, the arts and Christian faith, translations of French Medieval poetry, and work related to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

For those unfamiliar with Sayers, I will draw a short biographical sketch: Dorothy L. Sayers lived from 1893 to 1957. She was the daughter of an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, had a marked aptitude for languages from an early age and studied Modern Languages at Sommerville College, Oxford. She left Sommerville in 1915, although women were not actually granted Oxford degrees until 1920, when Sayers was one of the first women to return and claim hers. She was highly gifted and creative, a very loyal and entertaining friend, but also a formidable adversary who was not afraid of a good debate about ideas either in person, in the papers or by letter.

Sayers supported her early writing career by working for the publisher Blackwell’s and later at Benson’s Advertising Agency, where she was personally involved in the famous “Guinness is Good for You” campaign. She started off her writing career with two books of poetry and quickly turned to a new popular genre—the detective novel—and during the 1920s and 30s wrote 14 Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and a number of other short stories. Throughout these novels you can see Sayers’s growing maturity both in style and theme, and toward the end of this period she used her mysteries to explore themes of the importance of vocation, women’s higher education, and the possibility of love and marriage between men and women as equals.

Sayers' London flat

Sayer’s London flat

 

By the late 30s she moved into drama and began writing a number of plays, particularly religious plays for festivals at various cathedrals. Throughout the late 30s to mid 40s she also began writing essays and giving lectures on theological, educational, and work-related topics and became someone the media often turned to for a “sound bite” on the popular issues of the day. It is said that during their lifetimes Sayers was more well-known than her friend C.S. Lewis.

In 1943, Sayers read Charles Williams’s book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice and it changed the whole course of her life. It caused her to first want to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original language and then eventually to publish her own translation that sought to keep the Italian rhyme-scheme. Her essays and introductory notes on Dante are still particularly prized. This work took the rest of her life and she died in 1957 with the Paradiso, the third volume in Dante’s three-part poem, unfinished. The last cantos were completed by her friend Barbara Reynolds, a Cambridge lecturer of Italian literature.

The Man Born to Be King is the collective name for a set of 12 plays on the life of Christ, which were first broadcast over the course of ten months from December 1941 to October 1942. They were meant to be heard and it is moving to imagine a war-time audience turning up the radio for these plays, perhaps just after the news bulletin about fighting at the front.

One of Sayers’s main concerns in writing was to help these same everyday people—who were caught up once again in a World War—to see how the people of first century Palestine were people just like them. They weren’t just characters in a book or frozen in stained glass in a church window, these were in fact REAL people who saw the situation from their own limited viewpoint and interests. She writes,

God was executed by people painfully likes us, in a society very similar to our own—in the over-ripeness of the most splendid and sophisticated Empire the world has ever seen. In a nation famous for its religious genius and under a government renowned for its efficiency, He was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician and a fickle proletariat led by professional agitators. His executioners made vulgar jokes about him, called him filthy names, smacked him in the face, flogged Him with the cat, and hanged Him on a common gibbet—a bloody, dusty, sweaty and sordid business. (from Sayers’s introduction to the plays)

Sayers particularly puzzled over the portrayal of Judas. She was one of the first playwrights to take a psychological approach to his character, as compared to the conniving villain of traditional English mystery plays. Others, like Herod, Mary, John the Baptist, and John the Beloved Disciple, are especially well-rounded and help us see the familiar stories afresh. Jesus himself is vividly shown as both human and divine—a Messiah whose Kingdom is coming not in the military conquest others expected, but through the everyday actions of those brave enough to “love and be ruled by love.”

When the series was first announced, several conservative Christian groups protested the “blasphemy” of portraying Christ on the radio at all, especially a production where characters were to speak everyday English not based on the Authorized King James Version, since Sayers freely did her own translation from the Greek New Testament. In fact, the storm was so severe that a question was even raised in Parliament. Having worked in advertising, however, Sayers knew that such a storm actually went a long way to securing her plays a much larger listenership. And once the plays were on the air, people loved them. Among her biggest fans was C.S. Lewis, who, years later, said that he re-read the plays every year during Holy Week. Maybe you would like to do the same this year.


Editor’s note: If you’re intersted in reading The Man Born to Be King, it’s now back in print through Classical Academy Press. Order it here.

To learn more about Sayers, her work, and The Man Born to be King, Kathryn recommends the following resources:

Recommended Reading on the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien

peace-book-covers

If you’d like to pursue some of the themes and ideas that Joseph Pearce explored in his excellent lecture on “Freedom and Slavery in The Lord of the Rings, or you just can’t get enough of Tolkien, here are the books Joseph was kind enough to suggest (his comments on some of the books follow the entries).

Supplement these books with Phil Rolnick’s recommended books on C.S. Lewis. As always, the links take you to Amazon Smile, where, if you’ve selected “MacLaurin Institute” as your charity of choice, we’ll get 0.5% of your purchase!

This book contains his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories,” his allegorical short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” and his superb poem “Mythopoeia.” Each of these examines Tolkien’s philosophy of myth, which is awash with his understanding of the sacramentality of beauty.

An invaluable resource.

Everyone should read The Silmarillion.

As regards Chesterton’s priceless influence on Tolkien, the chapter on “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy is indispensable.

Recommended Reading on the Inklings: C.S. Lewis

Phil Rolnick - CS Lewis Book Recommendations

 

Last Wednesday, Dr. Philip Rolnick from the University of St. Thomas joined us to give an excellent talk about creation in the theology and imagination of C. S. Lewis. Rolnick’s talk was the first of three in our fall series on the Inklings—be sure to join us next Friday, 11/14 for the next installment: Joseph Pearce on “Freedom and Slavery in The Lord of the Rings.

We’ll post an audio recording of the lecture soon. In the meantime, check out this list of six books that Phil recommends to those of you who are interested in Lewis (and who isn’t?). We’ll add more books to the post as the Inklings series continues.

The link to each book will bring you to Amazon Smile—remember that if you order through Smile with “MacLaurin Institute” as your preferred charity, 0.5% of your purchase will come back to us! Many of these books should also be available through your local public library, as well.

Here are Philip Rolnick’s six recommended books on C.S. Lewis:

  1. Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis
  2. Michael Ward, The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens (a less academic version of Planet Narnia)
  3. Gilbert Meilaender, The Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis
  4. Robert MacSwain & Michael Ward, editors, The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis
  5. George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis
  6. Beatrice Gormley, C. S. Lewis: The Man behind Narnia

We hope you’re able to join us for the rest our series on the Inklings!