Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern ChristiansChris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (2016)

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.

Armstrong patron saints for postmodernsAfter 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?

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

  1. Christian writers drawing contemporary readers into the past: Phyllis Tickle, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, Frederick Buechner, Dallas Willard, Bruce Hindmarsh, and Richard Foster
  2. Experts on Evangelical self-critique: James K.A. Smith, Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Christian Smith, Hans Boersma, Mark Noll, and Ron Sider.
  3. 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.
  4. Creative Christians: T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the Inklings.
  5. Critical writers on C.S. Lewis: David C. Downing, Michael Ward, Paul F. Ford, Andy Barkman, Marsha Daigle-Williamson, and Will Vaus.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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11 Responses to Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention, and giving us a sense of it by reviewing it in this way! (I write before trying the films…)

    A couple different things, lately, brought to my mind the booklet-length introduction to Lewis’s OHEL contribution (started as a guest-lecture series in 1944 and published as a 558-page book – not counting the bibliography and index – in 1954), and especially the passage on how an ordinary 16th-century person may have experienced the “series of ecclesiastical revolutions and counter-revolutions” in England, then (pp. 38-40 in original hardback and photo-reproduced 1973 paperback) – including, “We may well believe that such a man, though baptized in the Old Religion and dying in the New, did not feel that he had, in any clear sense, either committed apostasy or undergone a conversion.” The whole introduction is, indeed, repeatedly interesting on the complexities of novelties and continuities, then.

    One of the things that got me thinking about this was Johan Huizinga’s Nederland’s beschaving in de zeventiende eeuw (1941: published in 1968 in a translation by Arnold Pomerans as Dutch Civilisation in the Seventeenth Century), where he rather similarly looks at how much the 17th-century Netherlands were in continuity with preceding mediaeval history, despite various changes, some great at once, others growing in importance with the passage of time (and how in distinct ways they differed in this from various other contemporary nations).

    The other was an interview with the German emeritus Philosophy Professor, Robert Spaemann (very little of whose work I know, with Wikipedia saying, “not yet widely translated into languages other than his native German” – though he looks in many ways Lewis-compatible/complementary). Talking about the Roman Latin liturgy, reformed/regularized (if I may so put it) in the 16th-century, and still available for use today, he said (if Google Translate is properly helping me with the French), “Changes must be so slow and imperceptible that everyone coming to the end of his life, has the impression that he still uses the same rite as that of his childhood, though this rite has in fact changed.”

    Lewis’s reading for pleasure, his reading for getting a degree in English and to teach it – and its context, and his ‘reversion’ to the Church of his baptism and youth by inner ‘conversion’ to theism first and then to Christianity, seem to have combined to ‘give’ him the senses of the continuities of the Middle Ages with the Renaissance and of living continuities with both of which he was a part.

    It sounds like this book can help others to realize those living continuities (without failing to see and ponder changes as well).

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  2. Brenton, what a pleasure to log on today and see this here. Thanks so much for taking the time and words to do this. I hope I’ll have a chance to visit you soon in the land of Green Gables, golf, potatoes, and the warmest waters north of the Carolinas.

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  3. Thanks Brenton, this will be my next read.

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  4. Extollager says:

    Lewis listed these things for “explicitly religious reading” in a 20 April 1945 letter: Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, Lady Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, Hooker, Thos. Browne, Herbert, Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, Bunyan, William Law’s Serious Call, and Butler’s Sermons. But only the first two are medieval.

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    • True, Extollager, but what of it? He recommended other medieval readings in other letters, and used others in his own spiritual life. Further, never in the book suggest that Lewis limited himself, in his spiritual reading, to medieval authors. Nor does my book limit itself to the category of “spirituality,” as if that were the only area in which we can learn from medieval Christians (though many do seem to think that) – I also turn to ethics, theology, compassionate ministry to the sick, ascetic disciplines, and many other areas of medieval wisdom and practice. But maybe I misunderstand the point of your response.

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      • That should have read “never in the book DO I suggest . . .”

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        This is a bit over a year after writing the St. Athanasius intro., and I’d think part of the point on Lewis’s part, whether explicit or implicit, is, as there, continuity and what is common, between such in various ways diverse writers – including more ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ writers, and others. Lewis is probably very Hookerian in this, though he goes beyond Hooker in his openness to the ‘breadth of the mediaeval’ (so to put it). (Wesley’s reprint library offers another interesting point of comparison, here.)

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      • Dale Nelson says:

        I was offering information of interest for its own sake–no criticism of your writing crossed my mind, Chris.

        Dale Nelson

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        • Got it – sorry for the misunderstanding, Dale. I certainly appreciate the “catholicity” – both in terms of Christian tradition and in terms of period – of Lewis’s spiritual reading. I find David Downing very good on this subject. I wish more church folk knew of it, and followed Lewis’s example in this practice!

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            The intro to republishing all the separate broadcast-talk volumes together as Mere Christianity is a good example of, and contribution to this – perhaps, a sort of variation on the St. Athanasius intro for a wider audience.

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  5. Pingback: 2016: A Year of Reading | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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