You might say that old is the new new. As culture commits itself further to its pathological aversion to stillness, and as the American evangelical church betrays its artistic, intellectual, and communal thinness, we should not be surprised that many people are searching for something more. Plastic church and two-dimensional relationships are not enough for those who are desperately seeking a deeper life. There is, I think, a remnant of rooted Christians. It is not a visible revolution, but an invisible fellowship of artists, writers, bloggers, academics, servants, and worshippers.
Chris Armstrong is one of these secret seekers. His Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (2016)—much like his Patron Saints for Postmoderns (2009)—tries to give a resource to root contemporary seekers into the rich soils of the past. As the subtitle suggests, Armstrong uses C.S. Lewis as a primary link to medieval faith and practice.
In the first chapter, Armstrong offers a critique of what he calls a culture of “Immediatism”—a spiritual habit in contemporary evangelicalism that leaves it culturally irrelevant and spiritually anemic. His second chapter will be of great interest to many readers. In “C.S. Lewis—A Medieval Modern Man,” Armstrong shows how Lewis acts as a bridge for us to the very strange land of the middle ages. Lewis remains a guide to that land throughout the rest of the book.
After a defense of tradition as a source of meaning and truth, Armstrong takes a chapter each to discuss Christian thought, morality, acts of service, the human connection to the natural world, the development of heart-felt faith, and the importance of humanness. In each of these chapters Armstrong surveys medieval figures in conversation with biblical texts and modern thinkers. Using C.S. Lewis as that primary contact point, Armstrong uses the medieval habits that we have regretfully lost to touch on points of weakness in the church and world today.
Chris Armstrong finishes with a call to a new kind of monasticism meant to resist twin challenges: on one side, a world adrift in its own cultural myth; on the other side, a church corrupted by the subtle prejudices of the rootless culture. I don’t know who will answer this call, and whether we can integrate the best of monastic life in our urban-embedded lives, but I found this one of the more inspiring chapters. I gained the most from the chapter, “God’s Second Book—The Natural World,” but was pleased that throughout I was being educated in a way that I know mostly second hand.
For me, the particular strength of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians is how we are drawn back to the middle ages—a period foreign to most of us. Working as a professional historian and Christian leader, and using C.S. Lewis as a guide, this book is filled with meaningful ways to deepen life in church, family, and neighbourhood today.
Who is this book for?
- Readers of C.S. Lewis who would like to go deeper into his world. This book can be a warm up to Robert Boenig’s S. Lewis and the Middle Ages (2012) or Lewis’ own The Discarded Image (1964).
- Students of C.S. Lewis at the beginning of a survey of secondary literature. Following the footnotes will allow you to capture some of that conversation (see the Conversational Group Clusters below).
- Evangelical and charismatic Christians looking to root their faith in richer soil. This is really the reason Armstrong wrote the book. A reader in this stream committed to following the trail-markers that Armstrong has left behind can find in it a decade of rich devotional reading, spiritual habits, and acts of service.
- Evangelical and charismatic Christians offering a critique of their own community. This is Armstrong himself, and I am in this camp. Leaders, teachers, pastors, journalists, bloggers, and professors can use this text to help form a substantial new posture before their community of faith.
- Students of American faith movements struggling to understand the great shifts taking place in those communities. I don’t know if there is a lot of these, but future historians will see this period as a definitive shift in American religious life.
- Christians who have always been attracted to art, activism, contemplative practices, and the life of the mind, but have never had a community that supports that kind of expression. There are others like you. You are not alone. The footnotes in this text will help you find the books you will love.
Conversational Group Clusters: Besides historians—the bulk of Armstrong’s dialogue partners—there are certain clusters of people he is reading that you might find helpful in the next stages of your reading.
- Christian writers drawing contemporary readers into the past: Phyllis Tickle, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, Frederick Buechner, Dallas Willard, Bruce Hindmarsh, and Richard Foster
- Experts on Evangelical self-critique: James K.A. Smith, Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Christian Smith, Hans Boersma, Mark Noll, and Ron Sider.
- The Inklings, Friends, and Influences: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, George MacDonald, and (especially) G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis.
- Creative Christians: T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the Inklings.
- Critical writers on C.S. Lewis: David C. Downing, Michael Ward, Paul F. Ford, Andy Barkman, Marsha Daigle-Williamson, and Will Vaus.