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Mystics, Monastics, and the Moderns Who Need Them – ChristianityToday.com

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In recent decades, evangelicals studying faith in the Middle Ages have done much to recover its variety and richness. Yet a popular perception persists of this period as a “dark age” of artistic and cultural stagnation. In Jesus through Medieval Eyes: Beholding Christ with the Artists, Mystics, and Theologians of the Middle Ages, Grace Hamman, an independent writer and scholar, brings this era to life for contemporary believers. Greg Peters, professor of medieval and spiritual theology at Biola University, spoke with Hamman about her efforts to make medieval Christians better known and appreciated.
What made you want to write this book?
The idea first came to me during the COVID-19 season. I had just had a baby and left the academy, and I was feeling sad about leaving medieval literature behind and not knowing what was coming next. I started thinking about how I could make space for people outside the academy to encounter medieval literature in a nonintimidating way. This paved the way for a series on my podcast, Old Books with Grace, where I explored the various ways medieval folks speak about and portray Jesus. From there, I figured I could keep running with this theme. I didn’t want to stop.
In the book, you examine seven images of Jesus as seen through medieval eyes. Do you have one or two favorites?
It’s hard to say! But one that comes to mind is the image of Jesus as a mother. Medieval contemplatives like Julian of Norwich and Marguerite of Oingt were riffing on a preexisting monastic tradition of depicting Christ in this way. To modern Christian ears, this can sound vaguely New Age or slightly heterodox. But the image has deep roots in Scripture, such as when Jesus speaks of himself as a mother hen (Matt. 23:37). It also shows up in the imagery of the Bible’s wisdom literature.
Monastic writers really enjoyed this image and tried to think about what it means to exercise compassionate authority. And then mystical writers like Julian ran with it in a beautiful way that changed how I think of the nature of God’s love and of myself as an embodied creature. It’s taught me about humility and embracing the gift of limitations in my role as Christ’s little child.
The appeal of another image—Jesus as judge—surprised me, because I had dreaded writing about it. It’s hard to think of infinite justice and everlasting mercy as belonging together. But medieval people drew upon this image in interesting ways, in both their art and poetry.
One of the most challenging images for evangelical audiences might be Jesus as lover. How, in the context of today’s hypersexualized culture, can we best understand medieval portrayals of our desire for Christ and his desire for us?
This was another chapter I wrestled with a lot. These images are firmly rooted in Scripture. And they were incredibly popular themes in the Middle Ages. Medieval writers were picking up on all this language in Revelation, Song of Songs, and the Gospels that depicts Jesus as a bridegroom or a lover. I took this as an invitation to understand why they used it so enthusiastically and why it feels uncomfortable in today’s hypersexualized culture.
It’s important to hold tight to the metaphorical nature of Jesus as lover. We get into trouble when we try to map it too neatly onto bodily functions or what’s going on in the bedroom. There was a kind of universality to this image. Studying the medieval era, I saw that it wasn’t just for women or for monks and nuns who had sworn off marriage. All kinds of people were picking up on it.
I think this is because the intimacy and desire of lovers goes beyond what the language of friendship can express. There’s a nakedness and vulnerability involved, where nothing is left hidden before God, and yet he loves you just as you are, with all your creaturely idiosyncrasies. This desire is so overpowering that it culminates in the Cross and the Resurrection. There are beautiful medieval poems where Christ is depicted as a knightly lover, wounded for his bride. Many of us have had unfortunate experiences in youth group with the “Jesus is my boyfriend” mentality or something similar. But medieval imagery has a real and surprising tenderness that resists that kind of unhelpful sexualization.
Are there other medieval images of Jesus you wish you’d included? Why?
I wish I had done more to explore the image of Jesus as baby, because medieval people were very interested in how God could come to earth and grow and develop just like other human beings. There is a long tradition of medieval artists portraying Jesus looking like a little man rather than a little baby—not because they didn’t know how to draw babies but because they were genuinely pondering the strangeness of God in this form.
Throughout the book, you raise certain criticisms of the contemporary church. How do you see medieval Christianity illuminating our current challenges?
When I think of the contemporary church in relation to medieval Christianity, I do worry that we’re at risk of a certain arrogance. There’s a constant temptation to think that our era of Christian history is the era that’s finally gotten the gospel right.
Of course, this temptation appears in the Middle Ages as well—as it has in every era of church history. But medieval writers often spoke of literature—whether that was theological, practical, or poetic—as a kind of mirror. You look into it, and you see yourself in a different way. Pride and arrogance are hard to spot, because naturally we think we’re right, about faith and other matters. But when we look at other time periods and read deeply of their literature, we begin to catch some of the ways we’ve grown too rigid or complacent in our views of God and ourselves.
In medieval literature, I sometimes see a temptation for believers of that time to use Jesus or make him look too much like themselves. But this is a temptation that’s still powerfully at work today. We can instrumentalize Jesus to get what we want in both public and private spaces. And we can domesticate him to the point where everything we do is good because we think Jesus is like us and we’re like him.
C. S. Lewis once said that reading literature from the past is like a clean sea breeze blowing through our musty minds. There’s a refreshing sensation, in reading medieval writing with an open mind, of beginning to uncover things you’ve taken for granted about the world.
Ultimately, how do you hope that readers will respond to this book?
On an obvious level, one thing I hope is that the book will help people love Jesus. I am always encouraged when I see how deeply other people love Jesus, either in the present day or in the context of Christian history. I want readers to see the church in action in imperfect times and imperfect places, just as it is today.
For me, this project was a school of love. I already loved the medieval church because of my studies, but that love only grew while I was writing the book. I hope readers get a glimpse of the beauty there to behold.
Then, I really hope they’ll go read something medieval for themselves! Try picking up a translation of Julian of Norwich or of Thomas Aquinas’s beautiful prayer book, or go look at some medieval art. Take advantage of the blessing of encountering these voices from the Christian past.
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