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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.

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.

Book Review: Friedrich Nietzsche's Anti-Education

Book Review: Friedrich Nietzsche, Anti-Education

Friedrich Nietzsche, Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions

“Education is dead. And we have killed it.” Or so one might summarize the message of these 1872 lectures on education given by Friedrich Nietzsche, freshly translated into English by Damion Searls. Nietzsche is better known for his later philosophical writings; these invited lectures on education came early in his career, just after his appointment as professor of philology at the University of Basel. While on the surface the lectures are more “occasional” than his later philosophical work, they’re surprisingly relevant critiques of trends in higher education that remain with us today: a hyper-specialization that fragments and isolates knowledge, a utilitarian evaluation of education’s worth, and the subordination of education for state purposes.

The lectures take the form of Nietzsche’s narrating an overheard conversation among college students and older philosopher. (As Alan Jacobs notes, this form makes it difficult to say with certainty what Nietzsche thought about the educational systems of his day, though it seems safe to read them as a mouthpiece for at least some of Nietzsche’s own critiques.) Given the cultural moment in which Nietzsche produced his lectures, the evaluation of German education that emerges is surprisingly pessimistic. The educational reforms in German-speaking Europe during the nineteenth century’s first decades had transformed education. These reforms breathed new life in the moribund German university of the eighteenth-century, reanimating it as a leading institution of knowledge and cultural production in Europe. By the time Nietzsche was writing, the world had taken notice. The latter part of the nineteenth-century saw a swell of British and American students crossing the English channel and the Atlantic, journeying to German universities in order to experience what they considered the greatest institutions of advanced learning in the world.

Yet Nietzsche looks past the rhetoric surrounding German education and aims his critique at two contemporary trends: “the drive for the greatest possible expansion and dissemination of education” and “the drive for the narrowing and weakening of education.” Though on their surface contradictory, Nietzsche argues that these two educational trends reinforce one another to “ruinous” effect (15). As Nietzsche witnesses education expanding to a much wider segment of the middle classes, he critiques a rising mediocrity among both students and teachers in secondary and university education. And the growth in enrollment comes mostly at the expense of more humanistic orientations toward education. Nietzsche laments the loss of Bildung—a kind of comprehensive humanistic cultural and spiritual formation—as an educational ideal, and the rise instead of a utilitarianism that valued education for its instrumental ends, especially the economic, political, and social benefits to the state. With growing technical specialization among the academic disciplines—which Nietzsche memorably terms “scholarly obesity” (47)—comes the loss of synthetic unity and education’s ability to serve as a guide for life well-lived. Nietzsche’s icon for this narrowing was the academic philologist, immersed in the minutiae of parsing Greek and Latin words while completely losing sight of classical culture and (even more importantly) the profound relevance of that culture for the present.

Critique comes through clearly in the lectures; proposals for reform not at all. In later lectures, he longs for an educational system in which individual genius could be produced through submission to intellectual authorities, disciplining “genius” in order to allow it mature and flourish. Only then might the “German spirit” attain the levels of cultural achievement for which Nietzsche and many of contemporaries believed it was destined.

While Nietzsche’s calls for cultural authority and the triumph of the German spirit sound troubling this side of two world wars, nevertheless his educational critiques resonate with contemporary concerns about American higher education. We, too, have experienced a “dumbing down” of higher education accompanying the twentieth-century’s massive expansion of college enrollment. The bachelor’s degree has effectively become little more than prerequisite for white collar work, or, in the words of one recent critic, a “modern day finishing school” for professional life. Utilitarianism likewise seems more rampant than ever. College instructors frequently lament that students—even at top universities—approach their education more as a series of hoops to jump through in order to land the necessary credential for a desirable job, rather than as a process of developing mind and character. And the noisy fights of the last couple of years over “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and the like point to a troubling desire among students that college education be comfortable rather than transformative (which almost always requires some measure discomfort and even pain).

Nietzsche left his lectures unfinished, envisioning no constructive proposal for a way through his contemporary “crisis of higher ed.” We live today in a similar moment, where the crises of higher education seems clear, but the way forward still unknown.

Celebrating 20 years of the Holmer Lecture

Twenty Years of Holmer Lectures

This fall, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior will deliver our twentieth annual Paul Holmer Memorial Lecture. We’re grateful to be able to carry on this lecture series—a true testament to the vision of MacLaurin’s founder, William Monsma.

We don’t have the titles or exact dates for every lecture, but here’s a list of who has given the lecture each year, along with as much other information as I’ve been able to find about the lecture:

1996

1997

  • George Marsden
  • “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship: What Difference Do Christian Perspectives Make?”

1998

1999

2000

  • Bruce Reichenbach
  • “Divine Sway: The Concept of Play in Hindu and Christian Thought”

2001

2002

2003

  • Gilbert Meilander
  • “Begetting Children—Designing Descendants”
  • Delivered November 7, 2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

  • Stanley Hauerwas
  • “Theological Knowledge and the Knowledge of the University”
  • Delivered November 9, 2007

2008

  • David Gushee
  • “Evangelicals and Human Rights: Problems and Prospects for the 21st Century”
  • audio recording
  • Delivered October 3, 2008

2009

  • J. Budziszewski
  • “Kicking Against the Goad: Why Natural Law is Real, Good, and Usually Detested”
  • Delivered October 10, 2009

2010

  • James K.A. Smith
  • “We Are What We Worship: On Sacred and Secular Liturgies”
  • Delivered November 19, 2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015