ChantWorks presents Fear Not. Host Linda Hoffman speaks with Rachel Fulton Brown, associate professor of medieval European history at the University of Chicago.
Transcript: Fear Not interview. Linda Hoffman with Rachel Fulton Brown, associate professor of medieval European history at the University of Chicago, recorded December 8, 2021
Linda Hoffman: Surveys, studies and polls, oh my. They reveal that amongst our country’s many painful losses over recent decades, the most consequential may be the loss of the knowledge of history. The top underachievers in this painful category: millennials, now the country’s dominate demographic.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a “known world.” This concept came with the understanding that parts of the world had yet to be discovered. It was an important intellectual context… the understanding that there were things we did not know. Today many Americans operate with a dangerous ignorance of history—dangerous because they assume their knowledge is complete.
Today’s guest has given a great deal of thought to the importance of history in today’s world. Rachel Fulton Brown is associate professor of medieval European history at the University of Chicago, specializing in the study of devotion, prayer and the works of Tolkien.
Rachel is also an author and podcaster focusing on Christian studies, including the Virgin Mary and the Middle Ages. She has written for Breitbart news and is a competitive fencer in her spare time. I’ve left so much out of an amazingly rich life. Rachel welcome to the show. Perhaps you can fill in the gaps of your adventures as a Christian believer in the very secular world of academia.
Rachel Fulton Brown: Thank you for having me.
Linda Hoffman: You’ve said that “Medieval history is an exercise in empathy, where we strive to engage imaginatively with a very different worldview. Empathy includes respect.” This differs widely from the arrogance of projecting today’s values back on the past and judging the past according to these standards. How does this challenge of shifting perspectives affect your students?
Rachel Fulton Brown: Well, they seem to enjoy it, in my classes. One of the things that I do in order to help them think about their own perspectives is give them assignments that encourage them to do more imaginative work. I do a lot of exercises where they have to write, basically, effectively historical fiction, that they then have to research very deeply and imagine themselves into the scenarios that they’re trying to understand and describe.
So, I mean I find—you’re talking about millennials and their ability to engage with the past. Most of the time as teachers what we need to do is be creative about how we set that up, right? Because they’re already—I mean, OK, they’re in my classes, so they’re already quite excited and interested in at least studying history. But, you know, one of the things that I’ve tried to do over my career is find new ways to challenge our own sense of what we know, what we don’t know, and how to participate in the past.
I’ve been doing some recent work where I think I can explain better why I came to that practice, but my first my first suggestion is there’s less reason for despair than it sometimes feels. How’s that?
Linda Hoffman: Good to know. How does the legacy of Catholic sacred art and music help stretch the imaginations?
Rachel Fulton Brown: Well, so, if I may, I’ll step back a bit. I was asked the last month or so, the last year, but in working on this in the last month, to do a paper to meditate on the Gospel spoken and written. And this is something that I carried with me over the course of my scholarship, that I, back in the 1980s when I was an undergraduate I had classes in the Scriptures, you know, in the synoptic Gospels, letters apologetic. And the professor I was studying with, Ed Rice, where I was an undergraduate, was very interested in this oral Gospel. He had done a book on the oral Gospel of Mark, and he was very interested in the problem of—I mean the Gospels are written down, but, of course, Jesus didn’t write anything.
They’re written by his followers and they’re written for varieties of audiences, right? And in thinking about this problem of, well, how to go from now, where we’re used to having printed books to then, the Middle Ages, when people didn’t have printed books because the printing press hadn’t been invented yet. How do we bridge that gap of understanding between our world in which we, you know, people say, you should read the Bible, right? The Protestant version of things is that you should have a Bible, you should read it cover to cover and that’s the way we practice.
The medieval tradition, which is much more in continuity with the Catholic tradition, there’s some ruptures there, too, was one where images and architecture and music all come into a sort of holistic experience, right? And when I say—you asked me first, where’s the empathy, where’s the participation? When I’m trying to show my students that medieval pass, I’m trying to get them that, sort of full media world, right? It’s not just the written text that you need to understand if you want to be, sort of educated as a Christian. It’s also the sung liturgy. It’s the architecture that you’re singing those liturgies within, and it’s all of the, you know, altarpieces and illuminated books and so forth that come into it.
As a scholar, that’s been one of my great challenges. How do I show modern, either academics or Christians the richness of that sensory experience, right, from the Middle Ages? Now, can I keep going, is this too long?
Linda Hoffman: No. This is fascinating. I forgot where I was for a moment.
Rachel Fulton Brown: Well, okay so—in your opening statement you said that one of the things we seem to have difficulty with is convincing people that there being a past, Right? And that we, in the modern moment, have this feeling that we know everything, right?
Well, I do tend to make a habit of reading people who’ve been thrown out of the Academy, or have been dismissed for a variety of reasons, and the person I’m reading right now a lot is Marshall McLuhan who was a great Catholic scholar of the media, which because he was Catholic has meant that some of the insights that he brought to our appreciation of how writing, printing, electric communications, affect our experience—have been thrown out the window, because, oh, he was Catholic and that makes him nuts, right?
The thing that he appreciated better than anybody I’ve ever come across is the effect of the electric, right? And the electric comes into—like you and me being able to talk here—all of the kinds of experiences that we have online, whether they’re videos, or recordings, or back to television and radio and things like that. And his central insight was—this electric environment makes us feel like everything is present, right? It’s like there’s this unmediated now we’re constantly participating in.
And that is what I realized conscious or unconsciously I’ve been trying to, both, act within and show the way in which the medieval was already kind of there, right? He has this—the other major image that he uses is this mosaic, right? That the electrical world is one of the juxtapositions of patterns and intensity and presence. That is very much like the medieval world prior to the printing press, so we have this kind of gap between then and now, which is created by the existence of these printed books.
We are in a better position right now to understand the Middle Ages than anybody prior to the invention of the electric light. And that’s a kind of, delightful sort of paradox, right?
Linda Hoffman: Catholic faith explores the mysteries of the human condition with both colorful storytelling and philosophical reasoning. The storytelling can be literary, artistic, musical, architectural, and all at the same time. Has Catholic storytelling been downgraded since 1970? And if so, to what result?
Rachel Fulton Brown: Well, I don’t know why you picked that date, 1970. You know, the primary Catholic story telling that I’m familiar with is of course Tolkien. And he died in 1973, right?
I think, going back to what I was just saying about the media context and the sort of electrical, that I been meditating a lot on the importance of poetry and I have a group online that’s been writing poetry, which we tint specifically as Catholic. And I think one of the reasons that we don’t understand either the medieval tradition, or the Catholic tradition, is we don’t have the practice of thinking in that poetic mode, which is very referential, very symbolic, of lots of juxtapositions of patterns and so forth.
I think we’re actually better at it in the modern moment than we realize if we think about the way in which people engage with materials online—things like memes and images and such like that—the problem is we haven’t been doing it consciously from within the theological perspective of, you know, the incarnation. But the thing of it is, is does matter. Like we’re in this social media moment now, which is giving us lots and lots of possibilities, and there’s an enormous conversation going on, online, among the millennials and the Gen Zs about Christianity. We’re just not tapping into it, typically, as, you know, either academics, or maybe in the more general Catholic world.
It’s like the kids are out there hungry for stories and, you know, the kinds of rich mythology that we get out of the Middle Ages, all of the imagery that you get from the liturgy, and the Scriptures themselves, right? The Scriptures are full of extraordinary imagery, and we are in a moment where it becomes possible to sort of play with that kind of dynamic juxtaposition, and I guess we just haven’t been doing it. I’m not sure why. I’d say, yeah, I’m not entirely sure why. Because the possibilities are there and the media are there for us to be doing it in.
Linda Hoffman: When we look at Medieval illuminated manuscripts, there’s a lot of goofy humor sprinkled in the margins, even when the topic is very serious. Did all this joyful exuberance have a purpose, or was it just doodling?
Rachel Fulton Brown: I say yes! Right? And it’s one of my main themes in my own online presence, right, is the laughter in war that you get from Chesterton. You know, the medieval was mischievous and prayerful, at the same time. And I say within those prayer books, right—the marginalia that most people are familiar with—those are usually hours of the Virgin. Right? They’re books of hours, and you are showing the sacred story in the center of the pictures with the images of the Nativity or the passion or something like that.
People often use them with their Rosary meditation. Right? And on the margins of that is the recognition that, we as incarnate beings, are—you could say relatively ridiculous but God loves us anyway—that there’s it is a kind of playfulness, which fits with, in fact, the deep wisdom of what the incarnation meant. You and I are recording today on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. One of the readings for that feast is from Proverbs 8, right, where you have wisdom delighting before the Creator, and playing before him, and dancing and playing. And I think a lot of that playful imagery that we get in the Marian manuscripts is resonating with the image of David dancing before the Ark, right?
The playfulness of praising the Lord, and being joyous in his presence. Mary is, of course, the new Ark of the Covenant. And so, we dance before her and play before her as David danced before the Ark. That is an example of the kind of example of the kind of layering and imagery that I had to trying to show my own work on the medieval tradition, that I recognize many modern Catholics have heard of, maybe, but they don’t always know how deep that tradition goes—saying things like St. Mary is the Ark of the Covenant. Well, what does that mean? It carries with it all of the other associations, including that of playfulness and joy.
Linda Hoffman: Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” may be the most influential novel of the 20th century. It’s everywhere in pop culture: video games, movies, TV series, fan fiction, Renaissance Fairs, and the list goes on. Why does the Lord of the Rings set imaginations on fire?
Rachel Fulton Brown: Because Tolkien invited it, right, that he says in his letter, this great letter that he wrote to his publisher, or his want-to-be-publisher, that he hoped that in sketching stories he had, he would invite other minds and hands to the practice of sub-creation. Tolkien’s story is all about the creation, I mean going from the Ainulindalë, which is the creation, through the Ainur, these angelic characters, right, and they’re singing. In his understanding, we make, still, in the image in which we are, by the law in which we are made—which is, we are made in the image and likeness of creator, to be sub-creators, right?
And it’s so interesting that Tolkien’s work has the presence that it does in pop culture, when it’s as if the invitation to sub-create takes on even when people don’t appreciate that it’s within a theologically robust framework, right? And, of course, Tolkien was usually, fairly, up front with the fact that he was writing as a Catholic. But in my classes with my students, I’ll be saying that—like he’s Catholic—and they’ll always be saying, “well, we don’t need to be Catholic to like the stories.” And I’m like, “well, that’s true.”
What that says to me is, Catholicism is simply true, and what you’re responding to is the truth, in which you are invited to be a sub-creator, right? And if you want to claim that that fits into some other theological framework—you’re going to have to prove to me that that’s outside the one that Tolkien understood as Catholic, and I don’t you’ll be able to do it. His vision of working within the creation of everything is robust. It’s theologically robust.
Linda Hoffman: What did you not say that you would like to say, Rachel?
Rachel Fulton Brown: Well, the proof is in the pudding, right? And the proof is in whether or not we, as Christians, are able to write with that invitation. And I’ll say, my friends and I, in my Telegram chat, which is an online social media platform, have written a poem in the style of Tolkien and Lewis for children that is a sort of mythical grail quest with animals. And I invite you to visit our website at dragoncommonroom.com to get a taste of this kind of mythical storytelling that I think we, as Christians, are both invited to, and need to reclaim as our true tradition.
Linda Hoffman: We will place a link below the video.
Rachel Fulton Brown: Thank you.
Linda Hoffman: Rachel, you are brilliant. Thank you for coming on the show. I hope we can have you back for another glimpse into your vast knowledge.
Rachel Fulton Brown: I’d love to come back. I feel like, as I understood it, there were only 20 minutes, but those were not 20-minute questions. Those were really hard, those were difficult questions.
Linda Hoffman: OK. If you are agreeable, we will have you back in no short order.
Rachel Fulton Brown: If your audience likes it, I have plenty more where that came from.
Linda Hoffman: To quote my friend Rachel: To admit they were wrong would require re-thinking their entire model of reality. Most people are not equipped with the mental or spiritual strength to withstand that level of horror, so they default to blindness. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is the only way to see clearly. Everything else keeps you trapped in the web of lies that the father of lies has spun around us to make us think we can be like gods.
Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m Linda Hoffman. See you on our next exciting episode of FEAR NOT.
(music, credits roll)
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Host: Linda Hoffman
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Guest selection and coordination: Linda Graber and Diana Silva
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