Tag Archives: Books

In which C S Lewis meets the “bookish people” of the Middle Ages and shares their love of old books with new readers


A Roman Missal - the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A Roman Missal – the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A few posts ago, we looked at C S Lewis’s youthful disdain of the medieval period. When at Oxford he had been faced with the thoroughgoing (if heretodox) supernaturalism of two friends who had become converts to Rudolf Steiner‘s mystical Anthroposophy, he had thrown his hands up in despair: “why–damn it–it’s medieval!” Such ancient superstitions, he had snorted, had no place in the modern mind, guided as it is by the light of clear-eyed reason.

Little did this self-described “chronological snob” know that he would soon become not only a scholar of medieval literature, but in fact one of the foremost modern exponents of that thoroughly supernatural ancient and medieval faith: Christianity. Before long he was urging his readers to read two old books for every new book they read, for the latter are still untested (and often simply wrong).

Near the end of his long, Boethian career as a “traditionerfor a dark and amnesiac age, Lewis compiled and refined the notes from twenty years of Cambridge lectures on medieval culture, and published them under the title The Discarded Image.

Here, with great and obvious affection, Lewis described medieval people’s passionate allegiance to the “traditioned” (passed-down) written word. The subtext throughout was clear: If only we moderns could catch this same lovesickness for the past: How much wiser we would be! Not, he clearly warned, that we should swallow whole the errors of past thinkers. But that we should let their ancient wisdom correct our own:

the Middle Ages as time of “traditioning”

In Discarded Image (a compendium of lectures he gave at Cambridge), Lewis shows us that medievals trusted implicitly historical texts as the repositories of God’s truth. He notes “the overwhelmingly bookish . . . character of medieval culture,” elaborating: “When we speak of the Middle Ages as the ages of authority we are usually thinking about the authority of the Church. But they were the age not only of her authority, but of authorities. . . . Every writer, if he possibly can, bases himself on an earlier writer . . . preferably a Latin one.” He distinguishes this impulse both from the “savage” (primitive) community, in which “you absorb your culture . . . from the immemorial pattern of behavior” and from the modern West, in which “most knowledge depends, in the last resort, on observation” (that is, the empiricism of the scientific method). “But,” he concludes, “the Middle Ages depended predominantly on books,” despite lower literacy rates than much of the modern world enjoys. (DI, 5)

Lewis also shows that medievals saw truth not just in Scripture and explicitly Christian tradition, but also in the words of the Pagan philosophers and the works of Greco-Roman culture—indeed far more the Roman than the Germanic authorities [note: “For one reference to Wade or Weland we meet fifty to Hector, Aeneas, Alexander, or Caesar.” (DI, 8)].

For the medieval person, tradition was not past but present. And it was not merely intellectual—some card-file of truths that one dragged out in an argument. It was a matter of the heart. Continue reading

C S Lewis: You can, and must, teach a new church old books


C S Lewis and an Old Book

C S Lewis and an Old Book

These days I’m posting from the Tradition chapter of “Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis.” The past couple of days have been dedicated to Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). This post begins to look at what he proposed to do about this syndrome of amnesia.

Lewis’s solution to the detachment from tradition in modern society

In his Cambridge lecture (“De Descriptione Temporum”), Lewis insisted that we needn’t think of history as nostalgia or slavish following of past wisdom. He reminded his listeners of the freeing effect experienced by those in therapy who surface and deal with forgotten elements from their individual pasts. Similarly, he argued, “I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. It is the unhistorical who are usually without knowing it enslaved to a very recent past.”

“Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past . . . because we . . . need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods. . . . A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.. . . .”[1] Continue reading

Education for the heart: A “Lewisian” reflection from former Christianity Today editor-in-chief David Neff


education heartOne of my favorite pedagogues these days is James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College. In his series-in-progress entitled Cultural Liturgies, he argues that human beings are not primarily thinking animals but must be regarded instead as “desiring animals.” Head knowledge, especially head knowledge gained from an instructor who is “teaching to the test,” is aimed at the wrong part of the moral anatomy to make good citizens. We need a pedagogy that “aims below the head,” says Smith, in order to help students rightly order their loves and desires.

. . .

The kind of close reading advocated by Lewis meets what I believe is an innate desire for self-transcendence. “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own,” Lewis writes. He compares close reading with love, with moral action, and even with the fundamental act of learning. “In love we escape from our self into one another …. [E]very act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place .”

Thanks, David Neff, for your reflection on education today. You (and C. S. Lewis and James K. A. Smith) hit the nail on the head.

Continue reading

Shipping unwanted theological books around the world: The Theological Book Network


Folks, something very, very good is happening in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with potential to impact the Christian Church worldwide. Two articles in a city newspaper explain:

KENTWOOD — Talking amid shelves of books in a warehouse littered with huge boxes of even more books, Kurt Berends offered one perspective on the work of the nonprofit organization he started four years ago: “We’re waste removal.”

Of course, that’s only half the story. The real magic of Theological Book Network comes in turning academic trash from U.S. libraries into treasure for under-resourced areas in other parts of the world.

The small but growing operation takes unwanted books from U.S. schools and ships them to schools in Africa, southeast Asia and eastern Europe. Continue reading

Book- and library-lovers take heart: Five myths about the “Information Age”


the map division room of the New york Public l...

The map division room of the New York Public Library

H/t to my librarian-professor friend Jennifer Woodruff Tait for alerting me to this cool article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It should warm the hearts of all book-lovers. Oh, and it’s by Robert Darnton, historian of the book. Yes, there is a field of scholarly study called “history of the book”–and a fascinating one it is! Darnton, you need to know, penned one of the all-time best book titles: The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. Doesn’t that make you want to read the book?

Some snippets from the article:

1. “The book is dead.” Wrong: More books are produced in print each year than in the previous year. One million new titles will appear worldwide in 2011. In one day in Britain—”Super Thursday,” last October 1—800 new works were published.

2. “We have entered the information age.” This announcement is usually intoned solemnly, as if information did not exist in other ages. But every age is an age of information, each in its own way and according to the media available at the time.

Continue reading

Ancient and medieval memory techniques described in a new book: Moonwalking with Einstein


My wife Sharon and I have been interested for some time in the techniques medieval folks used to memorize huge amounts of information. These revolve around the use of imagined space–“the memory palace.”

Here’s just another instance of how ancient and medieval people in fact knew stuff–practical, scientific stuff–that we don’t. It’s just one more way we can learn from those who have gone before. If you don’t believe me, then check out the brief video on this Amazon book page. And then perhaps check out the book. I’ll be doing that myself.

Good to know that Leadership Journal is in the hands of People Who Read Dead People


If someone has been dead for a while and his book is still in print and widely read, then it’s probably worth reading. And, if we’re honest, there are precious few books written by Christian authors today that will still be read in 24 months, let alone 24 years. I want to use my reading time to immerse myself in powerfully formative material, and not just flash-in-the-pan trends. Does this mean I never read living authors? No, of course not. But if they’re not dead, I like them to be pretty close. I can usually trust that they’re not going to waste what time they have left on this earth writing sappy Hallmark card sentimental Evangelical fluff.

So says Skye Jethani, senior editor of Christianity Today International’s Leadership Journal. I’m sure hanging around LJ executive editor Marshall Shelley, son of the late great church historian Bruce Shelley, has reinforced this commendable preference for history. Whatever the case, it’s good to know that the editors of this important evangelical magazine are inclined to judge the faddish, voguish, trendy, flashy, evanescent words of self-proclaimed leadership wallahs at the bar of history. Vive l’histoire!