Tag Archives: Catholic Church

The Virgin Mary and the greatest thing we can learn from medieval Christians


Madonna of humility by Fra Angelico, c. 1430.

Madonna of humility by Fra Angelico, c. 1430. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The final, trumpets-and-cymbals chapter of my Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis explores a theme that I think can most benefit modern Western Christians, if only we grasp it. This is the opening bit, which starts with a biblical figure who modern Protestants regard with some nervousness as a symbol of Roman Catholicism–the Virgin Mary:

I was working at Christianity Today in the early 2000s, as managing editor of Christian History magazine. After getting a few issues under my belt, I hesitantly offered the suggestion that we do an issue on “Mary in the Christian Imagination.” Though the idea met with more support than I had feared (at that distinctively evangelical Protestant magazine), my art director did hazard the prediction that we would lose readers if we did the topic. Imagine my surprise when in the end, not only didn’t we lose any readers (that we knew), but we actually won the Evangelical Press Association’s award that year for best single-topic issue. This told me we’d hit a nerve with our evangelical Protestant readers. Apparently, there’s “something about Mary,” even for the descendants of Protestant fundamentalists. Continue reading

The principle that enchanted everyday life for the medievals (including the arts and sciences)


The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci

In my last post, I asked, “What separates Protestants from Catholics on the matter of the arts? Why have Protestants done so poorly compared with Catholics?” I hinted that the answer lies in a certain aspect of the medieval heritage – which rightly belongs to all Western Christians today, but which the Catholics have retained and Protestants largely discarded.

What, then, did the medieval church have, theologically, that the Reformation church seems to have lost? What was the bridge from the material to the spiritual world that avoided both Gnosticism and materialism—and fostered the arts as well?

This missing links turns out to be one of the most central theological ideas of the Middle Ages:  the idea of sacramentality. Sacramentality is the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God’s love made visible.

Or to turn it around, sacramentality is the belief that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator, that God is present in and through the world. A correlative of this is that religion is not separated from, or compartmentalized from, the rest of life. It’s not something left for Sunday morning. God can and does manifest himself in and through the creation that he’s made. Continue reading

Where have all the artists gone? Protestant suspicion – and Catholic celebration – of the arts


English: Madonna and child, thought to have be...

English: Madonna and child, thought to have been damaged during the English Civil War, at St Mary’s Roman Catholic church, Brewood, Staffordshire, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the “creation chapter” of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis, after a brief reflection on the opposite-but-the-same Western tendencies that have crept into our Protestant churches – Gnosticism and materialism – I turn to the arts to see how these tendencies have manifested themselves there.

Evangelicalism and the arts

Let’s put a finer point on the issue by looking briefly at the evangelical Protestant churches and the arts. Where are the arts in modern orthodox Protestantism? One author looks at the century from 1860 to 1960 and finds only C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot practicing the creative art of literature to a high degree from an orthodox Protestant stance. During the same period, the Catholics produced an embarrassment of literary riches, from Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Evelyn Waugh. All these, and many other Catholics, were “world-class writers,” and all orthodox Christians. The same seems to be true – perhaps even more so – in other fine arts. Similarly, few evangelicals have excelled in the worlds of television and movies. Indeed, “evangelical Protestants, especially, have not only not shone in the fine arts, they have often opposed such arts or valued them only as vehicles for evangelism, objecting to much of their subject matter.”[1] The author concludes that the problem for Protestants (and the superiority of Roman Catholics) in the arts stems from a difference in approach to Creation. Whereas Protestants often emphasize how fallen Creation and human society are, the theology of the Roman Catholic Church has proved more Creation-positive, and thus more likely to affirm and create images of the world, whether literary or in the visual arts. Continue reading

C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, romanticism, Creation, community, sex – musings on Catholicism and the quiddity of things


Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

Still hammering away at Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Turning now to the “creation chapter.” Here are a few halting thoughts toward an introduction. They won’t appear in the final book in this form, but they suggest some linkages between medieval Western faith and modern Catholicism – in an area Protestants could learn from:

Modern Catholic tradition still draws from the Creation emphasis in the medieval church, which has attenuated in Protestantism.

Lewis picked this Creation-positive spirituality up too. Think of his love of storms, rocks, trees; his laughing exuberance in storms, rain, fog, drizzle (making him the perfect Englishman), as he reveled in “the quiddity [“that-ness,” essential nature] of things”; his use of long walks in the country to recharge himself.

We might see in these things the influence of the Victorian romanticism still lingering especially in literary and artistic corners of the British Isles during Lewis’s growing-up years: that sense of the mystic sacredness of nature itself, the sort of lavish and sometimes dark and even pagan pantheism that made Blake such an odd duck, led the brilliant Catholic engraver Eric Gill to create his frank and shockingly explicit public works of art, and brought the late-19th-century Decadents such as Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde (both of whom became Catholic) down into their pit of muck. Continue reading

What should Protestants think about the Catholic sacrament of penance (confession)?


“The Confession,” by Giuseppe Molteni (19th c.)

Despite my attempts to clarify (what I understand of) Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in my lectures, I always get papers and exam essays from students at my Baptist seminary showing that they are impervious to correction of Protestant stereotypes.

In a paper on the sacrament of reconciliation (penance), a student wrote, “Being founded on a works-based righteousness . . .”

My response:

You haven’t demonstrated this. It is the typical Protestant stereotype. RC theology is officially Augustinian (grace-based), with the allowance that humans participate with God’s grace in that dimension of salvation that we call sanctification. Protestants agree with this point (except for some Lutherans). What we disagree on is the inclusion of sanctification in our understanding of salvation. In other words, RC theology is certainly not “works-based.” In practice, it sometimes leans that way, granted. But we need to be careful that we are dealing with a real (and I agree, flawed) theological stance, not a straw man. Continue reading

Too catholic to be Catholic – Peter Leithart


As one who has heard, read, and appreciated Peter Leithart over the past few years, and who has recognize that Leithart values tradition and values a strong ecclesiology, I was particularly fascinated to read his account of why, in light of those values, he will  not become Roman Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox). I find this, on the face of it at least, a valid objection to a Protestant joining one of these older, closed communions. It seems a reason to pause, however much a Protestant (especially of the frustratingly amnesiac, hyper-pragmatic “evangelical” variety) may wish to affirm the greatness and integrity of much historic catholic theology and practice.

The executive summary of what Leithart argues here is this: true ecumenism is incompatible with joining either Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

Here’s a sampling of his thought on this score:

“Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople?  Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? Continue reading

On pulling evangelicals back from the brink of Catholicism – Mark Galli’s wise words


Holy Spirit

Image by Barking Tigs via Flickr

Mark Galli, I love you as a brother in Christ. As managing editor in the flagship evangelical Protestant publication, Christianity Today, you have presented an impassioned and powerful case for why evangelical Protestants tempted to cross the Tiber and join with the Roman Catholic Church should think twice . . . and then remain in the evangelical fold. While I balk at some of your historical characterizations, I affirm your central point.

A word on those historical characterizations. Mark assert confidently: “Huge segments of the church were bound to the chains of works righteousness before the Holy Spirit ignited the Reformation.”

Really? “Huge segments”? While at Duke University (fountain of all wisdom, funded by tobacco money . . . and surprisingly loyal, in at least many parts of the Divinity School, to the Great Tradition), I learned different from David Steinmetz, the (Protestant) historian of the Reformation at Duke . . . unless, David, I interpreted your lectures wrongly:

Continue reading