Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Medieval stupidity? Works-righteousness? Monastic uselessness? Getting beyond the caricatures

We all know medieval people were ignorant, gullible bumpkins who didn’t even understand the gospel message of grace, right? After all, they believed in a flat earth, salvation by works, and a monastic life completely shut off from culture and society. Uh . . . no.

Medieval wisdom and the case for tradition

It’s not easy to make the case for tradition among modern Christians – especially, perhaps, evangelicals. Why did modern Christians leave tradition behind? And why might we need it again?

The material world: good, bad, or . . . ?

How do many modern Christians see the material world? Often in one of two apparently opposite, but equally problematic ways. Here’s the third way that medieval Christians can teach us.

The book is out! So here’s a link to a whole website about it, and an interview clip introducing it . . .

So, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age, with C. S. Lewis is out, as of May 17th!

Check out www.medieval-wisdom.com (description, blurbs, first-chapter download, links to bookstores carrying it). Here’s the first of five clips from a video interview my publisher produced:

Incarnation and compassion

passion medieval imageAnother “mini-post” that wraps up my series from the draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:


A renewed incarnational awareness will also give us a renewed and particular energy toward compassionate ministry, as it did for 12th-13th c. Christians in the “charitable revolution” of those centuries – and indeed in the whole long Christian growth and development of the hospital. But more broadly in all forms of compassionate ministry. Medieval Christians’ acute awareness of the Incarnation was no theologically fuzzy, inward-turned “mysticism.” Especially as they began to enter emotionally into the events of the Passion, that horrific demonstration of God sharing in our embodied suffering, the compassion for Jesus that this stirred in them became “enabled them to perceive Jesus in other humans and to act compassionately for their benefit.” The resulting works of mercy helped build a strong, humane center holding together medieval society. Surely we need something like this again.

We have seen how attention to the humanity of Christ and his presence in others’ humanity encouraged hospitality and pastoral and even medical care, in Benedict’s and the Benedictines’ emphasis on “Christ in the guest,” in the particularity of the seven corporal (and spiritual) acts of mercy, in the specificity and concreteness of Aquinas’s ethical thought, and of course in the history of the innovative Christian institution we now call the hospital.

The Enemy of our souls will do anything he can to raise our eyes from the physical needs of others in a false super-spirituality, keeping us from achieving that incarnational awareness that would pour out from our hearts in compassionate ministry. As Screwtape tells the junior demon,

“On the seemingly pious ground that ‘praise and communion with God is the true prayer’, humans can often be lured into direct disobedience to the Enemy who (in His usual flat, commonplace, uninteresting way) has definitely told them to pray for their daily bread and the recovery of their sick. You will, of course, conceal from him the fact that the prayer for daily bread, interpreted in a ‘spiritual sense’, is really just as crudely petitionary as it is in any other sense.”[1]

[1] Screwtape Letters, letter 27, in Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 263-4.

The Incarnation as the medieval “theory of everything”

Henry Ford, preparing to say "History is bunk!" Ah, if only he'd taken the Incarnation into account . . .

Henry Ford, preparing to say “History is bunk!” Ah, if only he’d taken the Incarnation into account . . .

Well, tomorrow morning I head, early in the morning, to Baltimore for the Evangelical Theological Society meeting and then to England to attend the dedication of the “C S Lewis stone” in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey. So today is the last “live” post from my book Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. 

From here on in, it’ll be one final series of pre-programmed, pre-scheduled mini-posts for a week that run through all the themes of the book and show how they were underwritten by the medievals’ focus on the Incarnation.

Thanks for reading – and in a year(ish) from now, roughly Winter 2015, keep your eyes peeled for the actual published book from Baker Academic.

The Incarnation underwrites every facet of the medievals’ faith we have studied in this book: their high valuation of tradition, their passion for theology, their detailed and intentional morality, their compassionate ministry to bodies as well as souls, their understanding of the sacramental quality of the created world, their investment of emotion into their devotion to the Lord, and their willingness to discipline their bodies in service of that same devotion.

What would happen if we recaptured these medieval values?


By putting the “body” back into our understanding of Christ and his church, we would again see how fitting it is for us to study and value our own traditions. We would recapture the wisdom and truth in those traditions, while never separating this truth from the primary revelation of Scripture – as most medievals understood for most of the Middle Ages!

Tradition is nothing less than wisdom and truth passed down from generation to generation through history. How apt is this? Christianity is at its core not a list of timeless principles or abstract teachings. It is a uniquely a historical religion, based on a historical person and the words of two “Testaments” full of historical accounts.

Nineteenth-century liberal theologians liked to talk about the “essence of Christianity”—usually little more than “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man”—that needed to be extricated from the centuries of errant doctrines and practices of a church that never seemed to get it right. (The problem with this approach, as a wit once observed, is that those nineteenth-century liberals, when they read Christian history, looked down the well of 19 centuries and saw their own faces at the bottom.) But there is no “essence” that is not clothed in history. Christianity is all about the Incarnation of God’s second person as a first-century Jew from Nazareth.

And naturally, then, the New Testament is, again, no philosophical book of abstract teachings, but rather a narrative of a life, a sacrifice, a resurrection—played out on the stage of history. And the Book of Acts and the Letters, following the model of the Old Testament’s “historic” books, just picks up the story from Easter. Tradition is the extension of the story beyond Acts – the continued faithful, often flawed attempt of the church to wrestle with its identity in Christ. When we in effect shout Henry Ford’s foolish jibe—“History is bunk!”—and throw aside the lessons of that history, we are cutting ourselves off at the knees spiritually, intellectually, practically.

“Raiders of the lost Incarnation”: The beginning of the end of my book about C S Lewis and the manifold wisdom of medieval faith

Illumination from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Guelders, ca, 1440. God the Father launches the Dove of the Holy Spirit and the naked Christ child to earth, symbolizing the Incarnation—the moment the Virgin Mary conceived. The fishing nets and traps below make a further reference to the Incarnation, representing the corporeal prison of the soul.

Illumination from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Guelders, ca, 1440. God the Father launches the Dove of the Holy Spirit and the naked Christ child to earth, symbolizing the Incarnation—the moment the Virgin Mary conceived. The fishing nets and traps below make a further reference to the Incarnation, representing the corporeal prison of the soul.


Now we begin what my editor friend Jenn Woodruff Tait calls the “final peroration” (and I call the “trumpets and cymbals”) of my book’s closing chapter.

The whole thrust of Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis has led up to this last, rousing call to my fellow modern Christians – especially those with whom I most closely identify: American evangelicals.

To adapt the blunt phrase of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: “It’s the Incarnation, stupid.”

Yes, the Incarnation of Christ launches the redemptive plan that leads to cross, the tomb, and the resurrection and ascension. But it is more. It is the Creator God entering his Creation. And not only entering Creation, but entering the part of Creation that is us. In the Incarnation, God experiences us from the inside.

This stunning event exalts two things: First, the humanity of Christ. Second, the humanity of humanity – of ourselves. To really “get” the Incarnation allows us to live all of life in light of Jesus Christ, and to affirm our own humanness—our own materiality, our own affectivity, our own rationality, our own cultural creativity.

It wipes away the Gnostic super-spirituality that is a serious problem of modern evangelicalism.

The medievals “got” the Incarnation with a particular acuteness that we can learn from – and it affected everything else they did. It allowed them to value their bodiliness, although not always their sexuality; to value their affectivity; and to value their rationality. It allowed them to value their culture: to keep Word and world, science and religion together.

The Incarnation was the linchpin of their theology, and the linchpin of their spirituality.

We don’t get this Incarnational correction, of course, just from medievals. We get it from Scripture and from Christian tradition – the two thousand year, worshipful, moral tradition of exegesis of scripture.

But Protestants who wish to grasp the Incarnation again are fighting upstream.

To take just one example: In a crucial (quite literally) sixteenth-century moment, a central symbol of the Incarnation was removed forcibly from the church. This was the moment when some zealous Reformers, disturbed by the questionable accretions of a millennium of medieval tradition, went beyond tearing down paintings and smashing statues to take the very body of Christ off of the crucifix. Left behind was only an abstract symbol of a judicial transaction.

The difference between worshiping in a space where there is no body of Christ on the cross, and worshiping in a space where there is a body of Christ on the cross, is that in the latter space, you cannot ignore the humanity of Christ. In that space, your own humanity—bodiliness, affectivity, rationality, community, society, culture—always stands (no, hangs) before you in the person of, the body of, the humanity of Jesus Christ the Lord.

And we wonder why so many Protestants look yearningly across the Tiber to the Roman Catholic Church.

In a sense, this whole book has told the story of what happens when you lose your hold on the Incarnation. But as I conclude, I think of a particularly personal example that has occupied me during the last two years.

Over the past two years I have been involved in founding and running a center for re-engagement between our faith and our work. I remember the moment, while directing this initiative and writing this book, that I realized the link between the two: The reason we have to have such a center is that by losing a vivid sense of the Incarnation, we have lost the sacredness of our own work.

How do we get back to understanding that our very daily work must nourish itself from our identities in Christ? We dwell, focus, meditate on the Incarnation—as the medievals did.

We must once again allow the world-changing miracle of the Incarnation to become, not just a part of our theology, but the beating heart of our theology and our spirituality and the way that we live our Christian lives.

We should get up every morning and look at a painting, a sculpture, an image of Jesus Christ in the flesh.

We should meditate not only on how Christ’s precipitous descent into the flesh and blood of humanity makes possible the sacrifice he made for our sins, but also on how it raises up the value and wonder and splendor of our own humanity. We humans are not explained, in a Darwinian sense, by biology. Not even, in a Kantian sense, by morality. No, we must hear again the truth Athanasius so staunchly defended, the medievals so lavishly celebrated, and modern imaginative writers such as C S Lewis captured again in the only way it really can be captured, apart from worship: in story that speaks to imagination: We were created in God’s image, and when that image was stained and saddened by sin, God became man so that we could become (again) gods—and reflect (again) that image.

Protestant readers in particular—I want you to ask yourself the question I began to ask on that sleepy Wednesday night, alone on the top floor of Christianity Today’s Carol Stream, Illinois offices, across from the Aldi’s grocery store and the MacDonalds restaurant, as I worked on an issue of Christian History magazine about “Mary in the imagination of the church”:

Why do we skip over the Incarnation and downplay the embodied, human Christ, in our theology and devotion?

Must we leave behind entirely the wisdom of the medieval period—the period that birthed both lavish Marian devotion and the Eucharistic theology of transubstantiation, as it attempted to get as close as possible to the physical, embodied Christ? (What, after all, is our questionable theology of an imminent “rapture” but the attempt to recapture that closeness – if only in our imaginings of the future?)

And if we did recapture the wisdom of the Middle Ages, then how could this medieval learning be reflected in Protestant practice?

Renewed emphasis on physical aspects of worship, such as art and architecture?

Openness to affective/imaginative modes of devotion?

Once and for all getting over the fear of so-called “works-righteousness” to live our ethics in compassionate, public (and of course theologically informed) ways?

Reclaiming ascetic spiritual disciplines as practices that, though subject to abuse in the past, hold crucial benefits especially for those of us accustomed to First World comforts and temptations?

All this is worth considering as an “ancient-future” path from weakness to strength.

Why we need something like monasticism again today – part I


Well, I have my computer back, fixed and ready to go again. So, as we cruise down the home stretch of the monasticism chapter from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: Explorations with C S Lewis, we come to a few reasons modern Christians would do well to learn from the medieval monastics:

We need something like monasticism because we are physical beings who need a holistic spiritual discipline

Against the stereotypes, Christian asceticism still holds the body to be a good thing – and Benedict’s Rule demonstrates this, for example, in its close attention to the needs of a sick monk, who should be given more food and more sleep, and of course its strong insistence on hospitality to the stranger and the guest.

We’re talking about spiritual dieting here. And diets that work still allow you to eat things you like, but in a more controlled manner. Christian asceticism is spiritual dieting, not spiritual anorexia. Anorexia is a complete construction of food as evil and disgusting, and an aversion to food. Monks did not believe that marriage and procreation (for example) were evil. They believed that by doing without them, they could train themselves toward a higher good. Continue reading

But what did monks DO all day? The holy routines of medieval monasticism

monks_singing_medieval hymn

What did monks do all day? Columba Stewart tells us in his marvelous little book Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (Orbis, 1998):

The Work of God

At the center of the Benedictine life was the daily round of liturgy called by Benedict the “Work of God” (opus dei). The Rule specified eight such ‘offices’ per day. The first, very early in the morning, was “a comparatively long service of psalms and readings called Vigils.” Then came Lauds [“lawds”] followed almost immediately by four other brief offices during the day—Prime, Terce [“terse”], Sext, None [rhymes with “bone”], an evening office (Vespers) and a brief bedtime office (Compline [“COMP’-lin”]). All told, this amounted to nearly four hours per day spent in communal prayer, during which the monks would work their way through all of the psalms once each week.[1]

Important to the monastic life was the slow, meditative reading of scripture, called the lectio divina. Continue reading

Graced and communal: More lessons from monasticism


If traffic on this site is any indication, it looks like this discussion of monastic discipline is resonating with readers. Today we’re looking at two surprising ironies of the monastics’ way of living: (1) though marked by heroic effort, it was vividly aware that nothing happens without grace, and (2) though born out of a solitary discipline, its best wisdom has always been relational and communal.

A potential objection and the role of grace

Some readers may be nervous about the term “mastery” that I’m using here. Surely that’s the wrong term for the spiritual life. What we’re really after is being mastered by God – isn’t it? Doesn’t this analogy of technical mastery risk making the Christian life a matter of earning salvation by works? When we turn to Bishop Athanasius’s biography of the proto-monk Antony of Egypt, we find the bishop describing the monastic life as being animated by twin energies. This double dynamic, learned from the apostles and early martyrs, consisted on the one hand of athletic, near-heroic self-exertion and self-interrogation, and on the other of God’s gracious help from heaven through Christ—a duality that would shape all future monastic movements. The importance of both of these elements to the Christian life was the key theological point of the book, and the book became the pattern and manual for Christian monasticism East and West, and the compass of correction whenever a monastic group or tradition felt themselves going off course and wanted to return to the purity of early understandings.

In other words, monasticism always understood its human effortfulness as working in synergy with the transformative energy of God’s grace, through which (alone! said the monastics and the main, Augustinian tradition of medieval theology) the monks were saved from sin into blessedness.

Another confusion revealed in our nervousness about this “mastery language” is a confusion between means and ends: of course in the end, we seek to be mastered by God – the question is how we get there. Continue reading