Today the church celebrates King Edmund—not the clever lad who becomes king in Narnia—but St. Edmund, ninth-century King of East Anglia. St. Edmund’s story does have a rather Narnian feel, what with its wintery battles, wolves, and pirates, and it’s a story worth remembering.
Edmund lived in a time when the status of Christianity in England was still very much unsure. After Roman occupation of Britain ended in 419, the island was plagued by ethnic, political, and religious conflict. The pagan Anglo-Saxons invaded, pushed Celtic Christians to the west, and virtually destroyed the church.
The church in England was revived under Pope Gregory the Great, whose missionaries evangelized the pagan Anglo-Saxon rulers and drew them into alliance with the church. Roman missionaries were necessary because of the ongoing ethnic rivalry in England. Embittered Celtic Christians refused to evangelize the Anglos, so Gregory had to send missionaries like the Benedictine monk St. Augustine of Canterbury, who in the year 597 converted King Ethelbert in Kent. The once-pagan conquerors began to become Christian.
Two and a half centuries later, by the time of Edmund, the Anglo-Saxons had been thoroughly Christianized. Edmund was raised a Christian, and through the support of the Christian clergy became King of East Anglia. He strove to be a model Christian monarch, devoting his time and resources to proper worship, Christian learning, the administration of justice, and care for the poor.
Our time is characterized by information overload, hot takes, and a preoccupation with the immediate. What’s more, there seems to be a growing consensus that history needs to be left behind—that the past has nothing to teach us. In this moment, why read old books? What, if anything, can we learn from the voices of the past?
Watch a conversation on these questions with Alan Jacobs, Elizabeth Corey, and Paul Gutacker in honor of the recent release of Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. In this his latest book, Dr. Jacobs suggests that listening to the past offers wisdom we didn’t know we needed—and might even help us live less anxiously.
Brazos Fellows is pleased to make this recording available in partnership with the Liberating Arts project, a public conversation on the value of liberal arts education in our present moment. Be sure to check out their website for other insightful conversations on these questions.
Today the Brazos Fellows had the privilege of learning from Allison Brown in our Course of Study. Allison is a PhD student in the Religion Department at Baylor University, where she is studying church history–specifically, sixteenth-century resistance theory and gender. Today she led our exploration of the history of the formation of the New Testament canon, helping us grapple with the remarkable story of how the writings of the apostles came to be the Christian scriptures we read today. It was a fantastic discussion.
Allison and I also sat down for a round of “Five Questions in Ten Minutes.” We talked about all sorts of great reads–from Jane Austen, to Dorothy Sayers, to various books on the Reformation–as well as the thinkers who have most shaped her own life and work. Listen here:
Over at The Anxious Bench blog, Dr. Andrea Turpin, a recent guest instructor of ours, reflects on teaching the Brazos Fellows and how this relates to C.S. Lewis’ insights on the value of education even during crises:
On October 22, 1939, C.S. Lewis ascended the pulpit of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. From there he delivered to the university’s students his now-famous sermon “Learning in War-Time.” It was, of course, quite an extraordinary time to be a college student in England. Less than two months earlier, on September 3, the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany after Hitler had invaded British ally Poland.
Lewis addressed the elephant in the room: why bother going to college when the nation is gearing up for a massive war? For one thing, young Oxford men might very well be called away to fight. For another, in Lewis’s words, “Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”
I thought of this sermon a couple weeks ago when I taught a Brazos Fellows seminar by Zoom during the first week of social distancing. (Chris Gehrz also thought of it the next week in conjunction with blogging at the Anxious Bench.) Brazos Fellows is a Waco-based postbaccalaureate program for vocational discernment in the context of Christian community and theological study. The fellows and I were discussing a historical theological debate—the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 1900s, to be specific. It would have been easy to say that there were rather more important things to have been thinking about at the moment.
But I was really excited to teach the material. I am convinced that the issues of biblical interpretation, personal piety, and social justice raised by that past controversy are just as relevant today. Lewis had argued that learning should continue in war-time, even—or even especially—about things not related to the war. So I commented that likewise, as a sign of hope, we would continue learning about weighty matters not directly related to the coronavirus.