Back to School (Virginia Tech)
Medieval History

Back to School (Virginia Tech)

Classes start up again here on Monday. This blog, in some ways, was created as a reaction to the events of 4/16, when, in conversations with colleagues, I began to see eerie similarities between Seung Cho's violent rhetoric and the violent rhetoric underlying and inspiring the First Crusade in 1095. In the essay that followed, printed first in our local Roanoke Times but since modified a bit, I tried to give a hopeful message and make the point that Cho's violence (not ALL violence) was aberrant, even if ultimately understandable. The message that Cho was trying to get across had its roots in a violent, aggressive brand of Christianity that is not considered mainstream anymore, although it still exists (the Liberty University bomber who called himself a "soldier of Christ" on his Myspace page and wanted to kill Fred Phelps in honor of Jerry Falwell, for example, was not exposed until after my original piece was in press). And yesterday, there's an interesting article in The NY Times Magazine on "The Politics of God."

It challenges us, I think, to recognize the importance of political theology -- not just in dealing with political Islam but also what its role is in modern Western society. In general, it's a very good read, especially considering that it's a condensed version of an entire book (more probably, at least the Introduction to that book). He also offers a (n entirely appropriate) warning that the developmental path the West has taken isn't necessarily to be replicated.

I have some quibbles with his characterization of the Middle Ages (of course) though, not so much in what he says but in how he says it. Conflating 1000+ years of history into a PP is problematic but I think he hits the nail on the head, especially how late medieval society seems to collapse and begin eating itself, more concerned about internal coherence than external enemies. This is an apocalyptic moment too and one that only enhances his argument, I think. The problem, however, is the last sentence in that PP -- "It was madness." No, it freaking wasn't.

That sentence almost subverts his whole point in the essay. Madness implies incomprehension. It implies that this is something we, moderns, don't find illustrative of our current condition. But read my first PP in this post. That kind of violence, that kind of tension between "us" and "them" is all too common today, as is the rhetoric/ language that underpins it. Lilla provides plenty of examples in the rest of his essay. Yet, the Middle Ages are still "other," strange, different, dark. My point? If only the Middle Ages were so different.

UPDATE: Christopher Hitchens at also has a reaction to Lilla's article. He argues exactly the opposite of me -- that modern society should be given more "credit" for shaking off God/ religion. I think Hitchens argues too far (surprising, I know) and essentially agrees with Lilla's main point, and one that I too won't dispute -- that man now has a choice in whether to believe in God or not. That very fact -- that choice -- is indeed something amazing and without precedent in human history and it does seem to be a particular historical accident of the West's.

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Medieval History