My latest interview on Patheos:
Journalist and gadfly, Rod Dreher, loves a good argument. If you read him, as I do, you know he can write and has loads of good things to offer. He pushes boundaries at times, sometimes makes incautious assertions, but you are always forced to think.
This is the second book I’ve read by Dreher. A few months back I read The Benedict Option book. How Dante Can Save Your Life was finished on a flight home late last night. There is much I liked about it.
First, kudos to the publisher for an absolutely stunning design. There’s nothing like real books!
Dreher’s book is full of well-written and insightful observations all while using Dante’s Comedy as his conversation partner.
My only major beef with the book is the Mommie Dearest kind of approach. It’s great to have honesty, but Dreher tells us far too much about the conflicts in his home. At times it felt like a Jerry Springer show in print.
Still, there is much to benefit from in reading How Dante Can Save Your Life.
Click on any picture below to enlarge.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale is one of the world’s best. Unlike Harvard’s collection, you don’t need to wear white gloves. Once we were vetted, we were shocked by the freedom they give to scholars.
Here are a few things we looked at. First, is Jonathan Edwards Bible. Paper was rare, but Jonathan liked to write…a lot. You will see that the small sheet has the passage of Scripture and then two blank pages to take notes on what he was reading. And did he ever take notes! I did somewhat of a quick count of his handwritten notes on Genesis and each page has about 2500 words! On a similar size sheet of paper I write about 250 words.
Jonathan’s wife, Sarah, along with their daughters, made fans. When the fans were no longer of use, Jonathan would take the delicate scraps and weave them into a book where he could write down sermon notes, etc.
Doreen got choked up when she held Jonathan’s Bible in her hands. The word that kept coming to my mind was “humbling” as you see the great effort Jonathan exerted to make sense of God’s Word.
Fabric from Sarah’s wedding dress.
Our dear friend, Dr. Dave Mahan, is the director of the Rivendell Institute (www.rivendellinstitute.org) and teaches at Yale Divinity. Dave set us up with Susan Howe, who is a world-renowned poet. In 2017, she won the Robert Frost Medal for “distinguished lifetime service to American poetry.” Susan was a sheer delight to be with. We spent two terrific hours at her beautiful home in the country. Susan is candid about not being a Christian, but she is captivated by the beauty and respect for language she finds in Jonathan and Sarah Edwards.
I headed over to Yale’s Sterling library and was thrilled to see they have my first book.
Michael McClymond is Professor of Modern Christianity at St. Louis University. Doreen met Mike in college some thirty-five years ago! She had not seen Mike since, but he happened to be at Yale the same time as us. Mike told us about his various writing projects, one of which he happened to remember quoting my book, The Battle for Hell. Mike is a wonderful guy, expert on Jonathan Edwards, and graciously offered to be a resource for Doreen with her book on Sarah.
Check out Mike’s work here: https://sites.google.com/a/slu.edu/michael-j-mcclymond/
The great folks at the Overseas Ministries Study Center made our time fun and fruitful. Many thanks to Dr. Tom Hastings, Pam Huffman, Pam Sola, Michael Racine, Ray Sola, Judy Stebbins, and the ever present help of Chee-Seng and Sharon!
Check them out at www.omsc.org.
I will close with a foodie picture. This is Nica’s Market (www.nicasmarket.com), a terrific and reasonable place to grab a bite (or many bites!) to eat. The guy behind me seems skeptical about my choices, but trust me, they were good.
From Rabbi Evan Moffic:
Consistency is not just practical. It is sacred.
In the Talmud—the ancient book of Jewish laws and wisdom—the rabbis debate the most important verse of the Bible.
One rabbi says it is the Shema. We know that prayer. Jesus quoted it as well. Taken from Deuteronomy 6:4, it reads, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
This is a solid answer. Belief in one God is the foundation of the Jewish faith.
Another rabbi suggests, however, that Leviticus 19:18 is the better choice, Known as the golden rule, it reads, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s hard to argue with this answer.
Finally, another sage gives a third option. He quotes an obscure verse from the book of Exodus.
“Offer one in the morning and the other at twilight” (Exodus 29:39), he says, referring to the daily sacrifice offered by the priests every morning and every evening in the Jerusalem Temple.
What a odd choice! It’s like comparing a toaster’s instruction manual to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The third rabbi’s answer doesn’t even seem to be in the same league as the first two.
Yet, all the other rabbis quickly agreed with this final answer!
What were they thinking? They recognized, I think, that the little things are the big things.
It’s easy to be righteous every once in a while. It’s easy to say we believe in God…or promise to live by the golden rule.
It’s another thing to live our values every day. A rainbow is beautiful when it is in the sky. But it is fleeting, soon forgotten.
The sun, however, rises every morning and sets every evening. Like the motions of the sun, God guides us to make our faith constant and consistent.
Some of you know that we came to Yale so Doreen could begin to do intensive research on Sarah Edwards, wife of Jonathan. Most of you know that Doreen’s first book is on the ministries/marriages of Jonathan/Sarah Edwards, George/Elizabeth Whitefield, and John/Molly Wesley. Doreen’s book is used as a required text by a professor of history and theology at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). It is gratifying to hear how the students appreciate Doreen’s hard work. Here is recent picture of Doreen speaking at DTS.
We usually stop in Dallas on our treks back east. Our wonderfully encouraging friends, Bill and Helen Reeves, welcomed us into their lovely abode on our way to New Haven, CT.
Our first big stop was in Knoxville, Tennessee. Doreen’s sister and brother-in-law live there. I was reminded that we were in the Bible belt when I stepped into the restroom of a Christian bookstore. I guess several biblical truths could work like “Go…and Make Disciples!”
We made it safely to Yale. Here is Dr. Ken Minkema, the Director of The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale. We had a terrific and productive time with him.
I close this log with a few pictures from one of our study locations. These are from the Yale Divinity library.
A peek out our window…
I resonate with these words:
“Whoever meditates on the mystery of his own life will quickly realize why only God, the searcher of the secrets of the heart, can pass final judgment. We cannot judge what we have no access to. The self is a swirling conflict of fears, impulses, sentiments, interests, allergies, and foibles. It is a metaphysical given for which there is no easy rational explanation. Now if we cannot unveil the mystery of our own motives and affections, how much less can we unveil the mystery in others? That is, as we look into ourselves, we encounter the mystery of our own, the depths of our own selfhood. As we sing things like ‘Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings within and fears without, O Lamb of God, I come.’ And having recognized the mysteries that dwell in the very depths of our own being, how can we treat other people as if they were empty or superficial beings, without the same kind of mystery?”
The rest is here:
Commentaries on books of the Bible are not created equally. You have to be shrewd in what you consult. The better ones come in all different types from the devotional to the technical.
My favorite ones are those who combine great care with the text of Scripture, are well-written, and offer many connections to our own time and day. Right now, I am reading one of these kinds of commentaries: Christopher Wright’s terrific work on Jeremiah. It is part of The Bible Speaks Today series (InterVarsity Press). Here is something I pondered today:
“The reign of King Josiah was a time of great religious fervent and national resurgence. It was all very impressive. But what was God’s point of view? According to Jeremiah God sees a people who are a disappointment to God, who are being disloyal to their covenant relationship with God, who are already feeling the shock of disasters that foreshadow worse to come, and who are living in brazen denial and delusion. It is a frightening mirror to hold up to the people of God in any generation, with stark relevance to our own.” (Emphasis added)
Dones are those who still believe in Jesus, but are finished with church. Here is one perspective followed by my own reflection on why Dones exist and are growing:
Satan is not omniscient. He is clever and I’m sure very observant. So if he sees how a certain person always goes for chocolate when they are discouraged, he gains some insight.
Putting your struggles down on paper does not give him any extra power over you because his power is delegated by God. To use Luther’s phrase, “Satan is God’s dog.” Sometimes the leash is given more slack, but he never can do more than God allows. Anything he might “read” on paper he probably already knows by his observations and God’s permissive will.
As C.S. Lewis said we tend to either give Satan too much power or too little. It’s tough to find the right balance, but remembering key teachings in Scripture is the best strategy. And Satanic strategies are what we are not to be ignorant of (see II Cor. 2:11).
Chris Armstrong is a historian who serves as the founding director of Opus: The Art of Work, an institute on faith and vocation at Wheaton College.
The following interview centers around Armstrong’s terrific new book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C.S. Lewis.
Moore: Many will be surprised to see medieval and modern juxtaposed in such a favorable way. Shouldn’t we Protestants move past the superstitions of the Middle Ages?
Armstrong: Well, I just disagree with the premise. So let me answer this way: The superstitions we need to move past are our own modern ones. I take “superstition” to refer to any kind of magical thinking that makes connections between causes and effects where there is in fact no demonstrable connection. Just one example will have to do here: many still believe, against overwhelming evidence, that rational ideologies will work better than traditional arrangements in the realm of statecraft.
What else can we call this but superstition or magical thinking, when this principle of rational ideology has resulted in 20 million killed in WWI, 65-80 million killed in WWII—including upwards of a quarter of a million annihilated by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—plus possibly as many as 85M – 100M killed under the Communists’ attempt to rationalize national life? This is just an extreme example of the case made by James Davison Hunter, that the belief that all our public problems will be solved when the right ideas are accepted and acted upon through political process is not Christian and it is not even truly rational—however much we (modern American Christians) want it to be. This, too, is an instance of magical thinking or “superstition.” It is a belief that does not comport with reality.
Now, were there abominable crusades, inquisitions, and thumbscrews in the Middle Ages—an era which believed that our ultimate answers are to be found not in rationalist political ideologies but in the revelations of an invisible God who came to earth as a human and lived and then died and then lived again? Certainly. Did those sinful errors of a society attempting to “live unto God” cause devastation on anything like the scale of modern superstitions such as those named above? No – not even close. And at the same time, the Middle Ages birthed the hospital and all its associated modes of medical charity; the university and its institutionalized pursuit not only of knowledge but of wisdom for living; the framework of what would become the scientific revolution (by individual believers studying to “think God’s thoughts after him”), and so much more that has blessed us even up to this minute.
Nobody’s hands are clean here, but when “superstition” caused more devastation in the hundred years between 1900 and 2000 AD than in the thousand years between 500 and 1500 AD, then perhaps it’s time to go back and study the light of wisdom enjoyed in that supposed “Dark Age.” I would even put it this way: the only reason we haven’t complete destroyed ourselves as a species is that we’re still living on the fumes of medieval wisdom.
Moore: Your book is permeated with the works and insights of C.S. Lewis. When did Lewis become such a formative figure for you? Would you mention a few of the ways his writings have been most influential?
Armstrong: I’ve known Lewis’s fictional works since I was small – my theologian father read them out loud at the table to me and my younger brothers, along with Tolkien, George MacDonald, and many others. His Perelandra deeply impacted my imagination as a young man, and when I became a Christian in my twenties, his Screwtape Letters balanced some of the wilder theories about demons in my charismatic church with the deeper and more insidious workings of our Enemy (his insight that the devil works as much by keeping things out of our minds as by putting things in by whispering in our ears is an important one).
But it was pulling the thread of his medieval understandings that led me into the depths of Lewis’s more explicitly theological and spiritual writings. I’ve found spiritual works such as Letters to Malcolm, Reflections on the Psalms, and A Grief Observed – along with his letters of spiritual advice – to be nourishing for my own spiritual life.
And I’ve come to the conclusion that the primary reason we find Lewis so illuminating for our faith and life today is not that he is a theological genius or a literary master (I actually don’t think either of these thing is true). It is that he made himself a channel of traditional Christian wisdom – a kind of living repository and transmitter of the tradition.
Moore: We Evangelicals seem to think spirituality mostly means non-material. What kinds of things can we learn from the medieval age about the tactile nature of Christian growth?
Armstrong: There are two ways modern Christians tend to approach living in our bodily, material reality. One might call these the super-spiritual and the materialist ways. They are in some senses opposite, but we fall for both of them. The super-spiritual way is to see spiritual things as higher and better and more important than material things, and therefore to find all our life’s value in what we see as the spiritual realm. In this mode, we understand Sunday worship to be a holy time, where we connect with God in all his truth, beauty, and goodness. But the ordinary, Monday-through-Saturday world in which we live as parents and workers and neighbors—we can find very little meaning or value there.
The materialist way is the way in which we live largely for material pleasures and material accumulation. We may not seriously believe that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But we are quite capable of working long hours to ensure that our families have all the comforts of middle-class life, while falling into subtle idolatry of our suburban lifestyles, and our regular vacations, and good schools and future good salaries for our kids. Oddly enough, this materialism devalues the material world just as much as the gnostic approach. Because, as Augustine taught (and he was the premier theologian for the entire medieval period), when we treat material goods as ends in themselves, we disconnect them from their true value and meaning in God.
The medieval way stands against both of these: Its sacramental approach to the material world understands both that material stuff is not evil and meaningless, and that it is not our ultimate end and fulfilment. Instead, the material has the glorious function of pointing us to the spiritual – to God. God meets us in nature, community, work, art, science. So to live authentically as Christians, we must live in our bodies and our worlds gratefully and with wonder and openness to God working in the midst of it all. This is sacramentalism. And on this point, as on so many others, we may find real help in medieval faith.
Moore: Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory lays much blame at the feet of the Protestant Reformers for things today like our rabid individualism. To what extent, if any, would you agree with him?
Armstrong: I don’t go all the way with this argument, but I will say this: I don’t see how we can avoid the conclusion that the Protestant suspicion of tradition inserted a theological and ecclesiastical crowbar between revelation and community. And that led straight to the radical Enlightenment’s insistence that if we want to know who we are, who God is, and how we can live well in God, our only reliable guides are our own individual reason and experience. If that is really true, then we must believe only what our individual reason and experience teach us, and never the wisdom of our own community, or the wisdom handed down through past communities (which is what the word “tradition” means).
What modern, Enlightenment-influenced Christians don’t fully grasp is that if they really believe that, they must now dismiss not only such “medieval” doctrines as the Trinity, transubstantiation, and the atonement of the God-man for our sins, but also the entire canon of Scripture. For that canon was both formed and passed down in and through human community—as led (the church has always believed) by the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would come after he left, to “guide us into all the truth.” The ball of individualism did indeed start rolling in the Reformation, and now it’s crushing all in its wake. We’ve even reached the point where evangelical seminaries figure they can do without a full-time faculty member in church history to help future ministers connect their people to the Christian past! (No, no personal bitterness or bias here!) And conservative evangelical radio personalities seriously argue that if you read church history or study the tradition, you are endangering your salvation (seriously, I’ve heard it).
Moore: You helpfully correct several misunderstandings Christians have today. One in particular for us Protestant Evangelicals is the important role of the Church’s tradition. Unpack that a bit for us.
Armstrong: I think I’ve just started to answer that, but I’ll add this:
In the book I treat this whole question of evangelical anti-traditionalism with more nuance than I can do here – but I sum up my argument in the term “immediatism.” By “immediatism,” I mean that evangelicals have long believed that the only thing that really matters to us as Christians, in the end, is that each of us can go directly, individually, to the throne of God. Because the ultimate arbiter and authority in our religion is the reasoning of our own individual minds and the experiencing of our own individual hearts, we believe we don’t need time-honored liturgies, doctrinal statements, or church polities or disciplines. We believe we don’t need to read past theologians to interpret and understand the truths God communicates to us in Scripture.
If we had time, we could talk about how unlike the church of the first 1800 or so years – really, including the earliest Protestant churches too – this modern “immediatism” is. But let me cut to the chase: if we are to live well as humans in relationship with God and each other, then we simply do need communal wisdom, both modern and traditional. For we are irreducibly social creatures whom God meets in an irreducibly social way.
From infancy, we are helpless without the love and nurture of others. A human child cannot survive as recognizably human without community (viz: feral children and the Tarzan story). And when God (who is himself a Trinity – a community) wanted to show himself to us, he did not do so through a mere communication of rules and principles to be understood and practiced through individual reason applied by individual will, nor through a mere mysticism to be experienced in the cloister of our hearts and savored in private. He did so through a relationship with generation upon generation of people-in-community – first, as the invisible God in special covenant relationship with the community of the ancient Israelites, and then as the visible God who became Immanuel, the Incarnate, embodied One—living and healing and teaching among the community of first-century Judea, sharing every inch of their humanity.
Thus the kind of individualistic religion we practice in the evangelical movement is inconsistent with the very nature of revelation – the kind of communal God-experience and God-understanding that the Old and New Testaments describe, and the ways that that communal God-experience has been handed down and studied and lived ever since. We are communal beings, and therefore God does business with us through community – and when the community transmits that God-experience and God-understanding from generation to generation, we call that “tradition.”
Moore: What are three things you hope your readers take from your book?
Armstrong: Alright, I’ve been going on too long in answering your other questions, so I’ll be brief here:
- There is such a thing as medieval wisdom.
- We need to reconnect ourselves to it.
- S. Lewis is a very good model and guide for how to do that.
There, how’s that?