In posts from the evolving “creation chapter” from my forthcoming Getting Medeival with C. S. Lewis, we’ve had a look at how medieval folks’ love for the universe that God made manifested itself in their pursuit of scientific knowledge, and in the “symbol code” they used in their lavish and beautiful works of art. We’ve delved into the sacramental perspective that guided how they interacted with Creation. And we’ve asked why evangelical Protestants separate the material from the spiritual in such harmful ways. Now it’s time for the wrap-up–and hopefully, the payoff for modern readers. First, in this post, we ask what the sacramental principle could mean for us today if we took it seriously. Then we’ll look at the question through C. S. Lewis’s eyes.
What lessons, then, can we carry away from this survey of medieval attitudes to creation? First, that their sacramentalism valued creation neither less nor more highly than it should be valued—a salutary lesson for our simultaneously Gnostic and materialist age. Second, that their theological reading of Creation allowed them to be attuned to God in all of life: work, play, relationships, arts, culture—a blessing to our age of compartmentalization between the spiritual and the material. Third, that this sacramental attention to a creation that everywhere bespeaks its Creator underwrote a medieval cultural mandate, birthing a lavish growth of universities, sciences, and arts—a desperately needed correction to evangelical otherworldliness.
On this last point, I am reminded that the Reformed evangelical historian who pointed out the vacuity of evangelical culture in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll, subsequently found Catholic Notre Dame a much more congenial place to do his cultural work of history-writing than the evangelical Wheaton College. As Hans Boersma concluded in his study of medieval sacramentalism, “only a heavenly minded Christian faith will do us any earthly good.” Continue reading
Continuing with text from the “creation chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, this is the section on the arts:
We’ve seen the creation-focus in the sciences; now the arts. No one saw more clearly how the medieval openness to Creation impacted the arts than the early twentieth-century French medievalist Emile Male. Readers of C S Lewis’s The Discarded Image will be familiar with the themes Male unearths in his charming book The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Third Century: the medieval passion for sorting and ordering information; the absolute subjection to the authority of tradition, especially written tradition; the importance of scripture in forming the medieval imagination. All of these, says Male, deeply influenced medieval artists.
Medieval liturgical arts, like scholastic theology, show us again that medieval predilection for “sorting out and tidying up” that Lewis noted in his Discarded Image. Their carefully worked-out systems of conventional details amounted to a meticulous science of representing the divine through the natural. “Little figures of nude and sexless children, ranged side by side in the folds of Abraham’s mantle, signified the eternal rest of the life to come.” “It is not as rivers that the four rivers of Paradise—the Gihon, Phison, Tigris, and Euphrates—are represented pouring water from their urns towards the four points of the compass, but as symbols of the evangelists who flooded the world with their teaching like four beneficent streams.”
On the theme of what I think can fairly be called medievals’ “Creation spirituality,” Male portrays medieval artists and art as saturated in that sense of the sacramentality of all created things that Gregory the Great passed on to the Middle Ages—the understanding that God is continually communicating to us in everything he makes. Continue reading
I posted recently (Nov. 2) on “Tavern tunes in church music and ‘Why should the devil have all the good music?'” The piece, posted a while back on www.christianhistory.net, used a Canadian Anglican clergyman who calls himself “Elvis Priestly” as a jumping-off point for a consideration of “Christian pop culture.” This is a follow-up, thinking a bit more about how pop-culture presentations of gospel themes can help or hurt the cause of Christ. One of my favorite writers, Dorothy L. Sayers, shows up here with a few words of wisdom:
Caveat Gyrator (Elvis Priestly, Part II)
So you’ve got an evangelistic pop-culture act ready for prime time. Here’s a historical pause for reflection.
Last week we looked behind the recent headlines about “Elvis Priestly,” a Canadian Anglican minister who has integrated a jump-suited impersonation routine into his sacred services. We surveyed a few of the many points at which Christians have co-opted popular artistic forms in order to get their evangelistic message across (Part I: From Oratorios to Elvis).
This week, we ask the questions: how have Christians historically reacted to such forays into popular forms? And how successful have the resulting products been in themselves—that is, as songs, plays, novels, and so forth, quite apart from their message? Of course, we can only touch the surface of these issues. But with Elvis now in the (church) building, this seems a worthwhile use of a few minutes. Continue reading