A Medieval Mind?

Those who know me (or, more to the point, those who know that many of my “medieval instincts” were instilled by Sherri Olson at the University of Connecticut) will know that I can sometimes be a bit sensitive about the modern tendency to use “the Middle Ages”–or “Medieval Times,” or the ever-popular “Dark Ages”–as a convenient catch-all for “things that we think we’re better than.” I like to think that I’m not fanatical about this–I do generally manage to differentiate between the harmless anachronisms of The Pillars of the Earth or the silliness of A Knight’s Tale and the real and damaging habits of mind that equate “Middle Ages” with either “benighted” or “magical,” i.e., the “dark” and “light” myths of Medieval history.

Obviously, a preface like that means that I’m about to get on a soapbox on a high horse on another soapbox. Today, it’s about last week’s New Yorker article on Michele Bachmann–or, more specifically, about the responses to that article.

For those who missed the article itself: Ryan Lizza, a political writer who has done a number of profiles of political figures for The New Yorker, spent some time on the campaign trail with Minnesota Representative and current Republican/Tea Party Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and wrote a history of Bachmann’s religious philosophy as part of his profile of her. He focused (among other things) on her admiration for Francis Schaeffer, a conservative Evangelical Christian theologian who is most well-known for his book A Christian Manifesto and, within the Evangelical community, for a documentary series titled “How Should We Then Live?” As Lizza writes, “In the films, Schaeffer…condemns the influence of the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Darwin, secular humanism, and postmodernism.” Bachmann has cited this series in her speeches as a “profound influence on…my life.”

Predictably, this has led to responses from Bachmann’s critics and from academics (with some sizable overlap between the two groups) railing against Bachmann’s (or Schaeffer’s) worldview as “medieval.” The response “Michele’s Medieval Mind,” authored by Laurie Fendrich and published on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website on August 11, is a typical example.

Fendrich’s essay offers the following summation of Schaeffer’s work:

“To Schaeffer, the secular humanism born in the Renaissance marked a wrong turn for humanity. The solution to the twin modern problems—meaningless lives and moral relativism—unleashed by the Renaissance lay in returning to the absolutism of the Christianity that ruled Europe before the Renaissance. (Never mind that, up until the Reformation, all of Western European Christianity = Catholicism.)”

Fendrich errs in several particulars here. It is, for instance, incorrect to cede that Schaeffer’s desire for a return to a pre-Reformation Christian absolutism is informed by anything like a full understanding of the historical periods involved. Schaeffer’s work expresses a nostalgic impulse for an imagined and somewhat idealized past; it doesn’t necessarily attach to recognizably historical fact. That this is a defining quality of reactionary thought (such as that represented by Schaeffer’s anti-humanism) is perhaps self-evident, as has been suggested by work reflecting on other lost and lamented pasts, such as Svetlana Boym’s reflection on post-Communist Russia’s romanticization of the Soviet era in The Future of Nostalgia (2002) or Dennis Walder’s dissection of the aftermath of Colonialism in Postcolonial Nostalgias (2010). Indeed, Schaeffer’s own work argues for a more historically-minded Protestantism (note that Schaeffer does not suggest a return to Catholicism), but also looks forward (as all nostalgic literature ultimately must) in How Should We Then Live? to enjoin his readers to speak out against “authoritarian Government” (256). That Schaeffer’s particular brand of Christian thought should become a standard of one of the leaders of the Tea Party suddenly makes a great deal of sense–but not if one dismisses his theology as mere backward-looking primitivism.

Further, Fendrich’s blithe reduction of pre-Reformation pan-European Christianity to a simple equation suggests, one hopes inadvertently, that medieval Catholicism is reducible to a historical singularity–one orthodoxy practiced with equal assiduity and scrupulous uniformity across a continent and a millennium. This is so far from our knowledge of medieval Christianity as to require no further refutation, though a brief survey of medieval history, literature, philosophy, art, architecture, or any other subject would provide a preponderance of evidence.

Fendrich continues: “Liberals see only irrationality, anti-intellectualism and stupidity in Schaeffer’s ideas—most obviously, in his criticism of the Renaissance.”

My own status as a politically liberal medievalist (who actually finds a great deal to admire in medieval European intellectual life) apparently doesn’t fit into Fendrich’s preference for simple binaries. More significantly, Fendrich makes the same error made by many in academia, and by extremists on both ends of current American political discourse, in assuming that views in opposition to their own can only be arrived at from a position of ignorance (willful or inadvertent) or “stupidity.” Schaeffer was far from ignorant, stupid, or anti-intellectual–he was, in fact, a intelligent, well-read religious philosopher whose worldview was arrived at from different premises and conclusions than those of a modern secular humanist. To differ from the received orthodoxies of the intellectual majority is not inherently to be “stupid” or “anti-intellectual”–a fact, incidentally, that any medieval university (and not a few monastic colleges) would have been able to teach by example.

It’s important to note that Fendrich never revisits or modifies this characterization, and,  as we will see below, later explicitly allies herself with the liberal viewpoint. This is, at best, unfortunate. To resort, or appear to resort, to insults in characterizing Schaeffer’s philosophy demeans the seriousness of the modern Evangelical movement in whose name Bachmann claims to speak. Further, it ill serves the intellectual purposes of Fendrich’s essay to lower herself to name-calling (even through the transparent trick of ventriloquizing those slurs through straw man “liberals”) and thereby to miss the opportunity to engage Schaeffer’s ideas and to demonstrate by argument the flaws in his thought.

A second example of Fendrich’s too-easy binary: “Yet the Renaissance is poorly understood if it’s confined to celebrating such geniuses as Michelangelo, Raphael or Leonardo, or to talking about how the age “freed” man from the shackles of medieval religion and thought. In opening the way for modern natural science, for political systems (like democracy) that are based on individual rights of man instead of the divine right of kings, and in making it the responsibility of human beings to construct their world, it was, in a word, scary.”

Note that the ironic-distancing quotation marks in Fendrich’s first sentence appear only around the word “freed”–not around the shackles of medieval religion and thought.

Fendrich concludes her essay:

“I agree with liberals who find Michele Bachmann a dangerous politician figure who would make an awful President. Anyone who would say, as she did, in the spring of 2009, “I find it interesting that it was back in the nineteen-seventies that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama—I just think it’s an interesting coincidence,” thinks that correlation is the same as cause-and-effect. This is the kind of Medievalism that is really scary in a modern political figure.”

Fendrich proceeds from a number of assumptions throughout this essay, but by far the most damaging is her acceptance that Schaeffer (and Bachmann) are more or less accurately living according to a medieval religious philosophy. Her criticism of Schaeffer, then, begins from a false substitution-by-analogy–Schaeffer is to postmodern secular humanism as medieval is to Renaissance.  One can argue that Schaeffer’s wrong for a number of reasons, but if one proceeds from the assumption that he is ‘irrational,’ ‘anti-intellectual,’ and ‘stupid’ why then assume that he’s correct in allying himself to a previous historical period? To put it simply, why assume that Schaeffer is correct only insofar as he asserts a “medievalness” to his philosophy? To do so is, at best, to be guilty of the same sort of faulty correlative deductions that Bachmann herself makes.


1 Comment

Filed under Early Modern, Medievalism, Pop Culture, Religion

One response to “A Medieval Mind?

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