Monday, June 27, 2016

Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians- Chris R. Armstrong

May 17th 2016, Brazos Press
Print, Ebook and Audio

Many Christians today tend to view the story of medieval faith as a cautionary tale. Too often, they dismiss the Middle Ages as a period of corruption and decay in the church. They seem to assume that the church apostatized from true Christianity after it gained cultural influence in the time of Constantine, and the faith was only later recovered by the sixteenth-century Reformers or even the eighteenth-century revivalists. As a result, the riches and wisdom of the medieval period have remained largely inaccessible to modern Protestants.

Church historian Chris Armstrong helps readers see beyond modern caricatures of the medieval church to the animating Christian spirit of that age. He believes today's church could learn a number of lessons from medieval faith, such as how the gospel speaks to ordinary, embodied human life in this world. Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians explores key ideas, figures, and movements from the Middle Ages in conversation with C. S. Lewis and other thinkers, helping contemporary Christians discover authentic faith and renewal in a forgotten age.
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As someone with a strong interest in Medieval History and Philosophy this book appealed to me. I did have reservations about the subtitle and subject as a Protestant (I know a strange mixture- Protestant and Medievalist), but I strive for a better understanding of my period, so I requested this book from Netgalley and then acquired the Audio edition for listening to 'on the go'.
In some ways, I did now know what to expect. Perhaps a misguided 'Emergent Church' pastor gushing over prayer Labyrinths and meditation whilst just hijacking some quotes from Lewis to back up some seriously dodgy theology and dubious practices.

Instead, I was for the most part quite pleasantly surprised. The book provides a comprehensive overview of Medieval Intellectual and religious tradition, covering everything from the growth of the Universities, to the medieval notion of charity which went hand in hand with the establishment of Hospitals and institutional medical care.
On the way it challenges many deeply held myths and misconceptions about the period. The notion that Medieval people were backwards and ignorant, that science and learning were in terminal decline, that the Middle Ages were all about violence and torture- and even the notion that they believed in a 'works based gospel'.
Personally, I really go in for anything that challenges such ideas, as I firmly believe the Middle Ages has been vilified and badly misrepresented. Some of the usual suspects responsible for a lot of the misinformation today were Humanist scholars and writers of the Enlightenment era- as well as sadly some Protestant theologians.

C.S.Lewis is set up as our guide for the exploration of the time- for not only his works, but his whole worldview and mind-set was steeped in the Medieval. Lewis described himself as a 'Dinosaur' who spoke the language of classical and Medieval Learning. Well if he was a 'dinosaur' then he was a frightfully good and useful one, in the opinion of this Medievalist.
I particularly appreciated the quotations from Lewis and his fellows such as G.K.Chesterton about needing an 'intimate knowledge of the past- so set against the present' and as a foil to Chronological snobbery- to assuming that everything 'current' and 'modern' is good, and everything 'old' or 'Medieval' is bad.

More importantly, these men believed that a person could not be a proper scholar of the Middle- Ages until they thoroughly immersed themselves and 'imaginatively indwells the mind-set of the period, complete with its thoughts, feelings, circumstances and characters'. To not only be a scholar but also an 'experiencer' and ’re-enactor' of the age.
I found myself not only agreeing with, but also being inspired by such insights. I believe such an approach is vitally important to study of the Medieval (or any) time period. I am always saying 'Don't judge the past by modern standards, or expect it to measure up to it', but Lewis said it first and better.I now really want to crack open my copies of Augustine, Anselm and Boethius that are sitting on my shelf.

The only points that I did not agree with were some of the author's ideas about how to implement medieval traditions and ideas today.
After setting out the intellectual, rational and moral basis of these traditions it seemed strange for a person to seemingly show favour towards the a few moddern practices such as lighting candles and centred prayer as 'worship aids', or the worst extremes of the Charismatic movement with its flair for all things ecstatic and frankly weird.
I am very suspicious of such practices as Lectio Devina being incorporated into church practice today. I can understand medieval monks repeating passages from scripture to commit them to memory when they did not have their own copies- but we should not seek after mystical experiences, and particularly those which involve altered states of consciousness.
Nor did I agree that the 'Charismatic movements' of America in the twentieth century represented some kind of Golden Age, or point of reference that we should use medieval mystical practices to return to.
I don't think rolling around in laughing hysterics or imitating animals as we see television videos of people doing at places like the notorious Toronto Airport Church is doing the church any good and somehow, I don't think Medieval people would approve.
Would it not be better instead to learn something from the Medieval approach to Reason- which was not seen as the enemy of faith, but the defining aspect of God's creation of men, or social responsibility?

Mr Armstong certainly has a point about the importance of discipline, and the over-emphasis on 'immediatism' in our own time. I'm all for not dismissing anything Medieval as bad and unchristian, but I would be mindful about incorporating everything the author recommends into Christian life. Let us instead follow the advice of the Medieval, and use our reason and discernment rather than leaving our brains at the proverbial church door.

I would recommend for anyone who is a fan of C.S.Lewis, and interested in the Intellectual Milieu of the middle Ages. I would also recommend to anyone interested Medieval History who does not understand it, and still believes some of the misconceptions and Hollywood version. It will totally change your thinking.

I received an E-book version of this book from Brazos Press via Netgalley for the purposes of review, and purchased the audiobook of my own volition. I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions expressed are my own

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Audiobook Review- The Preacher's Bride- Jody Hedlund

Oasis Audio, January 2011
No matter the sacrifice, Elizabeth Whitbread would serve a wounded family. No matter the danger, John Costin was determined to speak God’s word.
Neither expected to fall in love. As enemies threaten to silence Costin - and those close to him - will following their hearts cost John and Elizabeth everything?

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I must say first off, I really, really wish American authors would take the trouble to familiarize themselves with the governmental and political system of Great Britain and its history before writing anything that involves it in their works. I could say the same thing of social structures and heirarchy as well. I'm serious. This is meant to be a slightly modified version of the story of John Bunyan set a shortly after the end of the English Civil War.
Yet, throughout the two different sides are often defined in religious terms as the'Anglicans/Royalists' versus the 'Puritans'. The first problem is that the English Civil War, and the divisions on each side were not as clear cut as that. It was as much about politics as religion.
Not all of those who fought on the side of Parliament were Puritans, and nor was everyone in the nobility and gentry was on the side of the King. Most were, yes, but many of the poorest in society were also on the side of the King as well.

It annoys me intensely when groups of people or individuals are defined as 'good' or 'evil' on the basis of thier class, religious or political affliation.
This was very much the case here- all Anglicans and royalists were pretty much represented as evil, and most of the Puritans were really good and Sachharine sweet. I just think such depictions are naive and unrealistic, especially for Christians.
Now I will admit that Oliver Cromwell did a lot of good things, and the puritans had a lot of things right and were acting according to the parameters of acceptable behaviour at the time but they were not perfect- and they were not right about everything. Some historians argue that Cromwell ended up being as much of a tyrant as the King he deposed.

It also annoys me intensely when Britain in the seventeenth century (and even later) is described as if it were still some kind of backwards, Feudal state, in which there were Nobles, and peasants, and no social mobility. That is nonsense.
Feudalism died out by the end of the fifteenth century, and there were plenty of wealthy Middle Class people who were not of noble birth or background. Some of them were better off than the gentry, and it was possible to rise through the ranks......and seriously, I am beginning to wonder if some people have even heard of House of Commons.
Parliament does not consist just of the King and the House of Lords. Not all judges were nobles, nor were all lawyers. In fact most of them weren't.

Getting over that rant, this was a fair story and interesting- but incredibly frustrating in a lot of places. The historical background, and the use of court transcripts and quotes from the figures the characters were based on gave some authenticity- but the setting did not always feel 'real'. Another reviewer mentioned that it dealt with real issues that were faced by people of the time, such as child mortality and starvation. This is true, yet there was also a lot of reliance on unnecessary violence, or the threat of violence physical, and usually against the female characters, sexual violence.
The villain is almost ridiculously exaggerated in his badness, always leering, groping, or looking lecherously at Elizabeth. Can't authors think of anything els? What with that and all the beatings, domestic violence, assaults, attacks, or mentions of attacks, a flogging, two incidents of arson, and one brutal murder. Well you get the idea. It’s all a bit much, and I don't buy the argument that its 'historical realism'.
To say that is to make out that all past societies except America were quagmires of unbridled violence, abuse, corruption and lawlessness. There was law in seventeenth century Britain, there was a judicial system and a criminal justice system, and as others have again pointed out I very much doubt that the villain would have been able to get away with the things he did-especially since he was so obvious about it.

There was a positive Christian message, and the development of the relationship between the main characters was well-written (although there was a little too much fluffy Romancey type stuff for my liking. Kissing, touching, thinking about the former......) but I really did not enjoy this as much as I could have done.
It could be that it did not always ring true felt too forced, or that it was just wrapped up in too much melodrama. I've had similar concerns about other works by this author, and so it may just be that her style does not appeal to me.

So in a way I'm glad I listened to the audiobook. One can barely help but admire the courage and commitment of Bunyan and wife, but this was not a story I cared for all that much. I wonder if there are others, or a non-fiction work that would appeal to me more.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Ashes to Ashes- Mel Starr

Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton # 8 
Lion Fiction/Kregel, Septmeber/November 2015
Paperback and Ebook, 224 Pages

Master Hugh, Kate, and their children attend the Midsummer’s Eve fire. The next morning Hugh hears the passing bell ring from the Church of St. Beornwald, and moments later is summoned. Tenants collecting the ashes to spread upon their fields have found burned bones.

Master Hugh learns of several men of Bampton and nearby villages who have gone missing recently. Most are soon found, some alive, some dead. Master Hugh eventually learns that the bones are those of a bailiff from a nearby manor. Someone has slain him and placed his body in the fire to destroy evidence of murder.

Bailiffs are not popular men; they dictate labor service, collect rents, and enforce other obligations. Has this bailiff died at the hand of some angry tenant? Hugh soon discovers this is not the case. There is quite another reason for murder . . .

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Although I’m a Cadfael fan, this was the only other Medieval Mystery series I had read until recently. I did recently make a foray into another popular series by an American author, but I prefer this one, as the other seemed a little too OTT.

There is something constant, comfortably reliable about The Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton. Those who have read other books in the series will expect not to find any deep political intrigue in the series, set as it is in fourteenth century rural Oxfordshire, with only occasional visits to the county town. Rather it focuses more on the lives and actions and concerns of more ordinary people, and tends to adopt a slower, gentler pace. The stories usually also involve the exploration of some moral or spiritual theme- as Hugh is a sympathiser of John Wycliffe.
Again, this is a detail I appreciate, considering that many works like this have characters who can be rather too modern in their outlook and attitudes, instead of seeing things the way people at the time might have done.

Some of the previous titles in the series (this is the eighth) have been a mixed bag, but I think the last three have been consistently good, exploring some local drama or family conflict alongside the crime. I for once appreciate how the author incorporates aspects of social, legal and medical history into the stories. Of course, the protagonist and sleuth Hugh de Singleton is a surgeon, and always gets at least one medical emergency, but there’s usually something else too. In this one, it’s a property dispute involving the inheritance of a manor. As I am currently researching Medieval Legal records relating to landholding, it was something that I could relate to and understand.

I did notice one historical error, a reference to the deposition of Edward II as having occurred 62 years before. The story is set in 1369, which would place the event in 1307, but that was the year Edward came to the throne, not the year of his deposition, which was 1327. Such mix-ups do happen, I just hope the quality of the stories and the underpinning research is not slipping, as I also noticed a few terms and phrases that seemed a bit too ‘American’ like ‘I was some taller’.
My only other issue was that I did not feel justice was entirely served, but Hugh was hampered by circumstances in this case, not being able to prove that certain parties were involved. That has happened before, in other mysteries, and I guess it could be a reflection of real life.

Other reviewers have mentioned that some of stories seem to be getting a little bit repetitive, and I am inclined to agree (Hugh gets beaten up again, when going home alone in the evening after investigating- really should have learned not to do that by now), but that did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. I think it may have something to do with the rather narrow geographical setting, and cast of characters. I hear, however, that the next book may be set in France, which might add a new and interesting dimension. I’m just glad that there is going to be at another book, as I had heard this was to be the last one.

I would recommend to lovers of more ‘cosy’ and light medieval mysteries, those who are interested in the period, and of course as those who are already following the series.

I received a copy of this book free from the publisher in the hope that I would write a review. I was not required to write a positive one, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Audiobook Review- The Daughter of Highland Hall- Carrie Turansky

 Edwardian Brides #3
October 7th 2014, Tantor Audio

Eighteen-year-old Katherine Ramsey travels to London with her family to make her debut into society and hopefully find her future husband. Her overbearing aunt insists that she must secure a proposal from a wealthy young man who is in line to inherit his father's title and estate. But Katherine questions her aunt's plans when she gets to know Jonathan Foster, a handsome medical student and strong Christian who is determined to protect the poor and vulnerable in London's East End.
When a family scandal puts a damper on Katherine's hopes for the season, she has time to volunteer with Jonathan, caring for children in one of London's poorest areas, and romance blossoms. Katherine's faith grows, and she begins to envision a different future with Jonathan. But when Katherine's work in the East End puts her in danger, Jonathan distances himself from Katherine to protect her. A wealthy suitor reappears, and Katherine must choose which path to follow.
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I really did not enjoy this book as much as the prequel 'The Governess of Highland Hall'. That's not to say it was awful. It was readable, and interesting to see Katherine's character develop, and there were some good subplots with minor characters, and period details. However, I had a number of problems that result in the lower rating.

For one, I noticed a few Americanisms. One character talks about 'fall', when the correct Britishism would be Autumn, and two or three times they talk about 'pulling back the drapes'- when a British persion would say 'pulling back the curtains'. Most of the Americanisms were in the narration, as before, but I felt that more come out in the character's speech this time, and they are not correct for the setting.

My other problem with with some of the religious content. Don't get me wrong, I have absolutely no objection whatsoever to Christian content or a Gospel message in a book from a Christian publisher. It goes with the territory for goodness sake, but I don't think it was well-delivered in this book- it came across as preachy and heavy-handed.

Finally, the attitude towards marriage and social expecations on the part of some of the characters really got on my nerves. I don't get on with stories in which families are vilified for arranging marriages for thier children, or partners in arranged marriages are vilified simply because it is arranged. I saw some of that here.
In one passage for instance Katherine learns that a friend is engaged to an unpleasant individual who had leered at her at some social engagement or another, and she's like. 'Oh wouldn't it be so awful to be married to someone you don't love just to please your family'! Its just a trite, silly cliche.
It does not end there however. Even though Katherine goes to London for the season in the hope of finding a partner, its fairly obvious who she's going to end up with from the outset. When she starts preaching to her aunt about how she does not want to marry for money or status but for love and a 'meaningful relationship with God'. Well, it was just painful- even worse when the book basically ends by reminding the reader. 'Isn't that so much better then having lands, wealth and a title'?

I also have concerns about the sort of messages that are being conveyed in books like this.
Throughout the story Katherine's aunt is set up as a bad or negative character for 'controlling her life' because she wants her to find a suitable husband amongst the aristocracy. I could not help thinking that she was being vilified unfairly, when she clearly spelled out her reasons. She promised Katherine's mother (her sister) that she would ensure Katherine married well. So what's the crime in that?

One more prominent example comes at the end of the book, when Katherine encourages a fomer suitor to marry the girl he likes, even though his parents would never accept her, as they consider her unsuitable and would cut off his income.
So basically she thinks he should go against his parent's wishes and turn his back on his inheritance to follow his heart. Yeah, all very romantic, but I am reminded of those passages in the Bible that talk about obeying and honouring parents.

I think that too many of these Romance books over-emphasize individualism and 'following the heart', which is presented as following God's will, whilst shunning the advice and wishes of parents or authority figures. I don't think that's always a good thing.
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