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Christianity saved Medieval England. It’s ruining modern America



In the chapter called “English Monasticism,” in her little book, “England Before Elizabeth,” the Harvard and Cambridge scholar, Helen Cam, celebrates the “renaissance…of arts and letters” the Christian monasteries brought to Dark Ages Britain, starting with the Roman monks who came to Kent in 597, and culminating in the 12th century, when “the monastic impulse reached a force never known before or since.”

Prior to the coming of Christianity and the monks, the scattered kingdoms of the British island—Northumberland, Kent, Wessex, Mercia, Wales, Anglia—were more or less continually at war; as pagans, they had inherited the fading remnants of the Roman occupation, which ended in 407, when Constantine III removed his garrisons forever and returned to the Continent. Without Roman protection from “barbarians” such as the Danes and Swedes, villages and towns became fortified enclaves, isolated from one another behind walls and moats. Christianity was slowly spreading, but in arts and letters, the British isles remained laggards, compared with their distant relatives in Normandy, Italy and Spain.

The monks lit up the British skies with an amazing burst of creativity. “In the pagan and barbarous England…[monasteries] became…centres of learning, art and culture.” This period—from the seventh century onward—saw the rise of Gregorian chants, Christian poetry, the Lindisfarne Gospels (715-720, among the greatest illuminated manuscripts),

the gold and silver crafts of the monks of Ely, and of course the beginnings of the great cathedrals. “The story of monasticism in medieval England is one of high achievement,” Cam concludes.

How fortunate Europe was to have communities of Benedictines, Cistercians, Carthusians, Dominicans and other orders, who, while conservative in their Catholic beliefs, liberalized learning throughout the isles. Contrast that with today’s evangelical Christians in America (and abroad). From them, we see no advances in art, in music, in literature, in architecture, or in any other creative, humanistic endeavor. We see, instead, the opposite: a shutting down of learning. The medieval monks always were eager to expand their knowledge. Modern evangelicals are eager to censor knowledge, preferring instead to use the straitjacket of religious ideology to misinterpret the world.

It’s sad, very sad, how a religion as progressive, creative and extraordinary as Medieval Christianity has degenerated. Perhaps it’s inevitable: all things follow an arc of birth, ascendancy and decline. Christianity, of course, went on, in the Renaissance, to contribute some of the greatest artistic creations the world has ever known: the Sistine Chapel, the music of Bach, the paintings of Leonardo and Raphael. This was still a living, breathing, vibrant Christianity, one that yearned to express God’s mystical love through the physicality of beauty.

Alas, modern Christianity, at least in its evangelical form, has thrown all that away. Could anyone seriously describe evangelicism’s role in America as fostering “a renaissance in arts and letters”? What is the opposite of “a renaissance”? A “dark age,” I suppose, which is what fundamentalist Christianity is seeking to impose on our once thriving liberal democracy.

Religions, let us remember, do indeed die: gone for the most part are the beliefs of the Egyptians, Sumerians, Romans, Greeks, Celts, Aztecs and Incas. Gone, too, is the People’s Temple, Jim Jones’ disastrous cult in the jungle. American evangelical leaders understand that their movement is on its last legs; religions of superstition cannot survive in nations of education, prosperity and creative culture. This is why the evangelicals are turning to new founts of ignorance and poverty, particularly in Central Africa, to keep their cult alive. Only where the people are deprived of knowledge can demonstrably false beliefs be propagated.

Christianity will not fade away anytime soon; even the Catholic faith may experience a burst of growth, under the remarkable leadership of Pope Francis. But American evangelicism seems doomed, despite its last flickerings in the trailer parks and mega-churches of red states. Our arts and letters will continue to come from liberal, fair-thinking creators who—let’s face it—tend to be Democrats.

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