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It Takes a Monk to Save a Civilization

  • Ben House,
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Art historian and critic Kenneth Clark wrote, “It is hard to believe that for quite a long time — almost a hundred years — western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.” Skellig Michael is a rocky island located off the southwestern coast of Ireland. It was one of the outposts of early Irish Christians, who in the 5th and 6th centuries rescued European civilization.

This took place in a time when the old order and power of the Roman Empire had completely disintegrated and when illiterate, pagan, barbaric hordes, who were devoid of understanding the Greco-Roman heritage, were rearranging Europe. While Greece lay in ruins and Rome was being pillaged and plundered, the best of their accomplishments were preserved only in books.

But books too are perishable. Great libraries, like that of ancient Alexandria, were vulnerable to destruction, and with the destruction of books, the knowledge, thought, and poetry of whole cultures were subject to extinction.

For a time, about all that stood between the preservation of European civilization or its descent into a true dark age was a hardy band of Irish monks who were dedicated to copying books and evangelizing people. Usually we think of the Irish as the victims of colonization and oppression. In their later history, English policy toward the Irish ranged from trying to absorb them to trying to obliterate them. Just as the Emerald Isle is on the edge of Europe, so the Irish have been on the edge of the progress and forward tug of history — most of the time.

Although there was never a time when Irish armies occupied Europe or Irish leaders dominated the councils of power, there was a time when Ireland did save civilization. We recognize the name of Patrick, but most know little about his successors, like Columcille and Columbanus, who spread the Christian message beyond Ireland to Britain and then to continental Europe. Thomas Cahill’s book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, is a delightful account of this history.

Two things were done primarily by the Irish during the 5th and 6th centuries. First, they carefully copied and preserved the books that fell into their hands. Latin literature would have been lost without the Irish; furthermore, as Cahill points out, “there would have perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage thought.” Second, they established monasteries all over Europe that were devoted to preaching, teaching, and ministering to the local populations. These two activities point out the way for Christians to take dominion over the future.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who teaches history at a junior college. He was bemoaning the fact that his college students could not locate key American cities on United States maps. I smiled and said, “Well, my tenth graders are struggling to understand Augustine’s City of God.” Literature has faced extinction in our own era, but in a way different from the past. In the ancient world, rare manuscripts were destroyed; in our age they have been crowded out by the abundance of technology and paper and by philosophies of education that oppose knowledge. But in Christian school and homeschool settings, books have been rediscovered.

There have been some useful textbooks written in the past several decades since the Christian education movement emerged. But more important, students are now reading books in the junior high and high school levels that I never read even in college. I repeatedly learned about the Federalist Papers, but only after I taught in a Christian school did I begin actually studying the Federalist Papers. At its best, much of my education seemed to better train me to watch Jeopardy! or to play Trivial Pursuit than to think.

In this modern reformation, Christian educators debate whether it is best to read the ancient pagans or the early church fathers. Further debates occur between those who favor Cromwell’s secretary, John Milton, and those who favor the Italian Catholic poet Dante; advocates for Shakespeare lock horns with devotees of Spenser; and some even assign Hemingway and Faulkner to the disgust of those who prefer Tolkien and Lewis. We more eclectic types try to assign them all. But the debates continue amongst Christian educators. In language, disagreements break out over whether to teach Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or some modern language. Even logic teachers differ over whether you begin with fallacies or syllogistic validity. Isn’t this great? Isn’t this fun?

In the Christian education community, we are producing a generation of graduates who are well read in Greek and Roman classics, Patristic theology, Reformed treatises, the Great Books tradition, the Medieval Trivium, and much more. There is no uniformity imposed by a statist decree telling these students what to read and telling teachers what to teach. Instead, we are experiencing the rise of a generation of thinking students, who have traveled all over the intellectual globe. They will have achieved Mortimer Adler’s ideal of having read the best ideas that men have thought and written. In one sense of the word, they will be Renaissance men and women. But in another sense, because they are viewing these books through scriptural lenses, they are Reformation men and women.

Imagine an iron-sharpened generation of people who go beyond Trivial Pursuit to actually discuss issues. Imagine political debate where Christians grounded in Hamilton’s and Madison’s views of the Constitution are sparring with other Christians holding to Patrick Henry’s objections to the Constitution. Imagine your children fighting over whether Calvin or Augustine was the greatest theologian. Imagine young people who will be in awe of us who lived in the same era as Rushdoony, Van Til, and Bahnsen.

Some of us struggle to resist watching the evening political talk shows. When we give in to the temptation and watch the shows, we rejoice in seeing conservative Christian spokesmen locking horns with liberals in debate. Such a witness and voice is good, but a few Christian ideas touted by talking heads squeezed in between toothpaste commercials in a national debate will not change the culture. Books will do that.

Today’s Monasteries

Likewise, churches will change our culture. Churches should strive to be the monasteries of today. Monasteries are not well understood in our culture. We picture drab, dark places where hooded monks went about singing chants. Instead, monasteries were centers of Christian activism. J.O. Westwood describes monasteries as

schools, all the way from kindergarten to university, hospitals, hotels, publishing houses, libraries, law courts, art academies, and conservatories of music. They were houses of refuge, places of pilgrimage, marts for barter and exchange, centers of culture, social foci, newspaper offices, and distilleries. A score of other public and practical things were they: garrison, granary, orphan asylum, frontier fort, post office, savings bank, and general store for surrounding agricultural districts. We carelessly imagine the early monasteries as charnel-houses of cant and ritual — whereas they were the best-oiled machines for the advancement of science, the living accelerators of human thinking, precedent to the University of Paris.

Referring to the works of the monks in the Middle Ages in his book The Making of Europe, Christopher Dawson said, “The greatest names of the age are the names of monks — St. Benedict and St. Gregory, the two Columbas, Bede and Boniface, Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus, and Dunstan, and it is to the monks that the great cultural achievements of the age are due, whether we look at the preservation of ancient culture, the conversion of new peoples or the formation of new centres of culture in Ireland and Northumbria and the Carolingian Empire.”

Christian churches actually are doing the work of monasteries today, without the baggage of some of the errors of the Medieval time. Christian churches and voluntary agencies provide the best social services for our society today. Without endorsing President Bush’s program for aiding faith-based organizations, it is reassuring that the national debate recognizes that Christian organizations are the most effective means of dealing with poverty, drug abuse, and family problems. Christians are the ones providing the educational reforms (at no cost to taxpayers), music instruction, marriage counseling, English language instruction, and other needs of society.

There remain those churches that are merely stained glass edifices open to the public only for a few hours on Sunday mornings. But, some great Christian works are being done in places that do not look like traditional churches. The news coverage of the recent hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana and surrounding states could not help but highlight Christian ministries to the evacuees.

The greatest events going on in our day are not happening in cabinet meetings at the White House or in caucuses on Capitol Hill or in executive board rooms on Wall Street. Civilization is being saved by faithful pastors, dedicated Christian teachers, moms and dads who are teaching their children about Jesus, small name book publishers, newsletters, magazines, and websites dedicated to Christian causes, and to a host of other Samaritan-type works happening across the land.

Thomas Cahill contrasted the Romans, who were unable to save or salvage their once grand civilization, with the Irish saints, who changed the direction of history. Cahill says, “The twenty-first century, prophesied Malraux, will be spiritual or it will not be. If our civilization is to be saved — forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass ‘in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind’ — if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.”

We could spend a lot of time bemoaning the legion of dangers to our republic, our civilization, and our way of life. Hillary just might get elected in 2008, the economy might implode, and gay marriages might become the rage. Congress might not pass and the president might not sign some mythical piece of legislation ending all bad things and promoting all good things. Don’t despair. Instead, teach a Sunday school class, support a Christian school or mission work, buy some Christian books, give away some Christian books, go to prayer meetings, witness to someone, encourage a faithful minister, and pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Arend van Leeuwen’s book Christianity in World History ends with this note: “We live in a time of crisis: and krisis is a biblical word. In the Bible it signifies ‘judgment’, but along with that, ‘justice’ and ‘salvation’. The Servant of the Lord ‘will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice (krisis) in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his torah,’ (Is. 42:1ff.; Mt. 12:18ff.).” Holding on to a few acres of rocky and jagged islands, Christians once persevered for a century, laboring to see the faith spread. We here in this land have so much more.

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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