Monday, May 18, 2015

Medieval Reading Recommendations

In good anti-Hipster fashion, I discovered this piece long after it was published over at the Gospel Coalition. In it, Gavin Ortland notes the occasional trend of Evangelical Christians to swim the Tiber and covert to Roman Catholicism, or the Bosporus and convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. Although it's not the point of the piece, he asks why this is happening:
What's causing this shift? While leaving room for the complex theological issues inevitably at play, I think one significant factor is the sense of rootlessness and restlessness many younger postmoderns feel today. At the heart of my generation is a profound emptiness—a sense of isolation and disconnectedness and consequent malaise. We're aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidity and substance. And it's driving many of us out of evangelicalism.
I think that perhaps he's being too generous. While this may be the publicly-stated reason, the root cause of all apostasy driving those who reject the Gospel is sin and there's no reason not to just say so in the first place. Yes, of course we have to go on a case-by-case basis when discussing individual salvation. And yes the Eastern Orthodox churches are not monolithic in the same way Roman Catholicism claims to be, so we can't make quite the same sweeping generalizations about them (check out Timothy Ware's book for a good overview of Eastern Orthodoxy). And yes this isn't the point of the original post. But it still needed saying...

Anyway, the point of my post is to quibble just a bit with Ortland's list rather than with his explanation. So I should probably get to that...

Ortland provides a place to begin reading theology from the Middle Ages, specifically he mentions the following works:

There is absolutely no doubt that this is a representative list of some of the best theology available between Augustine and Luther. You will certainly be well served by reading these slowly and carefully and being blessed by the wisdom of these Godly men.

But I would suggest that none of these are really ideal works to start with if you're truly new to the Middle Ages. And again to be fair, the category he outlines is that of books he believes "deserve a wider readership among contemporary Protestants." I certainly can't argue that Gavin Ortland thinks these are books that deserve wider readership--and I'm happy even to agree with him that they do need wider readership among Protestants and Catholics alike. Catholics after all have their own problems knowing history (I know less about the Orthodox, so I can't speak to how well they know their own traditions.)

That said, these books are all to some extent more advanced than I'd really be comfortable suggesting as a place to begin learning Medieval theology. Boethius and Anselm are both somewhat dense, arcane, and challenging in their subject matter; while Gregory's subject matter is something most modern Christians aren't used to handling. So as preparatory reading for Ortland's list, I offer this list of (mostly) easier and more accessible Medieval works.

  • The Venerable Bede: Especially his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, as in addition to being as much narrative as anything, it is a wonderful display of how two church structures of equal authority in the Middle Ages peacefully resolved their differences. (More here.His commentaries are also worth a look, though I really recommend starting with the History.
  • Bernard of Clairveaux's On Loving God. This is a devotional classic that stands the test of time very, very well. And while Bernard certainly made some serious theological blunders in his life (who of us hasn't?), this book is not one of them. 
  • John of Damascus: This is the point where my recommendations are subject to the same criticisms I gave to Gavin Ortland's above. If you're trying to catch up on your Medieval reading, you certainly shouldn't ignore the Eastern church. The problem is, most of the writings you'll come across there are just as dense, arcane, and obscure than anything Anselm ever wrote. What's more, they're often so hyper-spiritualized that they can end up being either useless or openly heretical. Really your best bet is to find a good history of the Eastern Church and read that, mining it for good writers and suggestions. (Leo the Isaurian has always been a favorite of mine--for his theology, not so much for his methods.) Nevertheless, with some caution and effort John of Damascus' On the Orthodox Faith is a possible starting place for learning about the Medieval Eastern Church. 
  • Photios: Like John of Damascus, Photios needs to be read with caution and care. But his Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit is a good guide to one of the biggest divides between the Eastern and Western churches.
    And again, I'll add the disclaimer that these need to be read with a good deal of discretion. A good rule of thumb is to read Timothy Ware's history (linked above) and latch on to the names and writings he lists as "Orthodox" but "too Lutheran" or "too Calvinist" or "loosely Anabaptist" as your best sources. But of course, all of those are long after the Middle Ages and so beyond the purview of this post...
  • Christine de Pizan: Treasure of the City of Ladies. This book is not strictly theological, so in that sense it doesn't fit the original post's goal of finding the Gospel in the Middle Ages. And yet, the author is clearly concerned with living well, and we can see that the root of the proposed lifestyle is morality clearly derived in part from Scripture.  
  • Heloise and Abelard: The Letters between these two individuals are spectacular--especially those written by Heloise after she realizes Abelard isn't interested in her. There's really no summary that can do justice to these two individuals, so I'll leave it to you to pick this up and read it. 

So there you have it. My own list of recommended readings from the Middle Ages. Hopefully no disrespect was shown to Gavin Ortlund--I am a fan of the Gospel Coalition and most of what they do, and his work in particular. And I am certainly a fan of encouraging exposure to church history, I just have some suggestions for places to start that differ from his...

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