Tag Archives: history

C S Lewis and chronological snobbery: “Why–damn it–it’s medieval!”


Old-books-on-shelves-001Lewis was born to save the modern world from trashing its traditions – both Christian and classical. Once he had converted from his own “chronological snobbery,” he quickly found a vocation in recovering tradition for others. This is the second post from the “Tradition chapter” of Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis. The first is here.

For an idea of how Lewis viewed the power of tradition, we turn to his answer to the Christian Century magazine when they asked him, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The wording of that question is crucial. They asked not “what books did most to influence your style?” or “fire your imagination?” or “give you templates for your own writing?” etc., but rather “what books shaped your vocational attitude and philosophy of life.” As we see in the preface to Sister Penelope’s translation of Athanasius’s De Incarnatione, retitled “On reading old books” in later anthologies, and even more in his De Descriptione Temporum address at Cambridge in the Fall of 1954, nothing more triggered for Lewis “the place where his deep gladness met the world’s deep need”[1] than the modern abandonment of tradition. I mean his sense that in abandoning tradition, the modern world had dealt itself a grievous wound, which only his Christian faith kept him from seeing as inevitably fatal.

Lewis was perhaps the best prepared person of his generation for the task of appreciating and passing on the wisdom of past generations to those yet to come. Continue reading

. . . in which C S Lewis’s Screwtape explains how “historicism” has rendered the past useless to modern scholars


C S Lewis's demon Screwtape, writing about how much he just LOVES "historicism"

C S Lewis’s demon Screwtape, writing about how much he just LOVES “historicism”

Today I begin posting from the “Tradition chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis – or as I’m now less flippantly inclined to call it: Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis.

Though this is not the opening of the chapter, I’d like to start with Lewis’s take on the “presenting problem” when the church begins talking about tradition in the 20th (and now 21st) century:

Lewis states the modern problem

The situation we find ourselves in, where we would even have to defend tradition as a good thing in the Christian church, dates back to Lewis’s day and beyond. In his famous lecture to the Cambridge University audience assembled to witness his installation as the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at that university, Lewis described his own mid-20th-century European setting as one of cultural darkness and amnesia, and himself as a kind of dinosaur—one of the few left in that dark age of wars and rumors of wars. He described himself as a specimen who still spoke the native language of the old Christian Western tradition as a native, and who could thus be a precious resource for a society and a culture that had drifted far from its moorings in the Great Tradition of Christianized Greek thought.

Lewis found this change diabolical, and he made this clear by putting it in the mouth of the senior demon in his Screwtape Letters: “Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.” The infernal realm had accomplished this, Screwtape continued, by making “the Historical Point of View” into a scholarly dogma. Continue reading

Jazz, entrepreneurship, and tradition


Keith Jarrett

As an enthusiastic jazz fan and an appreciator of business entrepreneurship, I enjoy watching folks make it up as they go along. Nothing affirms my sense of human beings as “co-creators” with God (a favored term of that great co-creator, J R R Tolkien) more than listening to the swooping, soaring melodic lines of a skilled jazz musician. Nothing hits me more powerfully with the great practical power of creative thinking than seeing an entrepreneur take the germ of an idea and spin it out into products, services, jobs that turn raw materials into something of value to the world.

But as a historian, I am reminded that when true jazz musicians hear an improviser who has not studied the traditions handed down through generations of jazz men and women . . . they shake their heads and turn away. And when veteran businesspeople see a young wannabe rushing out to potential consumers without proper understanding of their needs, or building financial castles without grounding in economic knowledge and financial principles . . . they wince, knowing the inevitable failure that will follow.

So why can’t the American church learn this lesson? Why do we keep rushing to and fro launching all our creative ministries, church growth strategies, and grand “missional” plans, unequipped with even a basic acquaintance of those giants whose shoulders we are standing on? What is it that, unlike any other craft or business on earth, leads us to think that we can ignore history and still succeed? Why do we think we can bypass 2,000 years of wise thinking (and lessons learned the hard way) about the Gospel, about what it is to Be The Church, and bring our fevered plans about how to “Do Church” to fruitful reality?

OK, flame off. As you were. I’m going to go think about New Years Resolutions . . . AND the Great Cloud of Witnesses.

And by the way: R.I.P. Dave Brubeck–one of the greats. And long live Keith Jarrett (pictured above), a living legend and influencer of a whole new generation of skilled, creative players.

How to write, and not write, a history paper


A manuscript of Bede's, Historia Ecclesiastica...

A manuscript of the Venerable Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum

Trolling through some old material from my days as a Duke preceptor (teaching assistant), I find the following advice on papers I gave to Susan Keefe’s CH13 one year. Re-reading it now, some 15 years later, I find that students still have much the same issues when writing history papers, and I still recommend the same solutions. Some of these problems and solutions apply to any humanities paper, or any paper at all. Some are more specific to history.

[Point 1 of my notes had to do with a specific paper they were working on, so I’ve deleted it]:

2.  Key issues in papers.

a.  A certain distractedness; a tendency to drift from the question asked, or the topic at hand.  Given an assigned question—or in the case of your research paper, once you have established your own topic, question or thesis statement, make sure that everything you write relates to that question.  Cut everything out that doesn’t.  Don’t worry about running out of things to say; any given historical question—at least at the level we’re working—has had countless books written about it. There’s far more than enough material for a single paper.

—Watch out for getting caught up in the vivid details about the lives of those you write about; details that are compelling and fascinating, but don’t relate to the question.

—Look with particular suspicion at your first page.  Often “huffing and puffing,” getting the engine going, giving background material that only vaguely relates to the topic. Continue reading

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!

Celtic spirituality: What’s real, and what’s usable?


Christine Sine, over at her blog, has offered the following list of some distinctives of Celtic spirituality that lead her to embrace it.

  1. Central to Celtic spirituality is incarnation and an intense sense of the presence of God.
  2. A belief in the thinness of the veil between this world and the next.
  3. Importance of little things – no task is too trivial to be sanctified by prayer and blessing
  4. All of life flows to a rhythm of ebb and flow reflected in the natural world.
  5. A strong sense of sin and of the presence of evil forces in the world resulted in a strong recognition of the need for penitence which often led to austerely ascetic lives.
  6. Celtic Christians adapted well to the culture in which they operated

For explanations, expansions, and examples under the individual points, see the full post.

While I think these are wonderful values, I wonder (as with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s article posted on earlier) on what historical grounds we can conclude that these traits (and the sub-traits noted by Sine) were in fact true of Celtic spirituality. Robert Webber pointed out in his The Younger Evangelicals that the whole movement to appropriate Celtic spirituality has been on shaky ground historically (I don’t have the book handy, so I can’t look up the reference).

Again, I am not dismissing Sine’s list (though some of the qualities listed seem true of many other Christian traditions besides the Celtic), just as I appreciate and support many of the values expressed by Wilson-Hartgrove. What I am asking is that before we re-appropriate supposed facets of past Christian movements, we do our historical homework.

Also, this is not an area of expertise for me, so I’d be interested to hear comments from readers on this one.

Johann Gutenberg’s imprint on history, and God’s imprint on Gutenberg


Guess I’m feeling controversial these days. Here’s another post that wanders into contested territory: the theological interpretation of historical events. It’s my take on Johann Gutenberg.

I’m interested here not so much in the way Gutenberg changed the world with his invention of the printing press, or the way his invention really made the Reformation possible . . . That’s all textbook stuff.

But did you know that Johann was something of a huckster–and that many of the first documents printed on his press were those indulgences that so troubled Luther? Or that he pushed so hard to get his invention up and running that he overextended himself financially and lost all profit from it? Or that in the wake of this personal disaster, he seems to have turned to the begging friars–the Franciscans–becoming a lay camp-follower?

In other words, there was more to this guy than we learn in the textbooks, and I think his story provides great grist for theological reflection:

A God’s-Eye View of Gutenberg
The rise, fall, and redemption of the Father of the Information Age.
By Chris Armstrong

August 24, 1456. On or near this day, the great Bible from Johann Gutenberg’s press emerged complete from the bindery in Mainz, Germany. Few events merit the breathless statement, “and the world would never be the same!” But the creation of the first book printed with movable type is one of them. Thinking about this event and how it has contributed to the spread of the Gospel around the globe, I muse, “God surely worked through Gutenberg!”

But then I hesitate. Historians, even Christian ones, don’t like to say too much about where the finger of God descended to do this or that on earth. Continue reading