An Interview with Grace Hamman, author of Seeing Jesus through Medieval Eyes
GRACE HAMMAN (PhD, Duke) is a writer and independent scholar of Middle English contemplative writing and poetry. Her writing has been published by both academic and nonacademic outlets, including Plough Quarterly and The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. She celebrates the beauty of the literature of the past on her podcast, Old Books with Grace. Grace lives in Denver with her husband and their three young children. Her new book, Jesus through Medieval Eyes, is available for pre-order now.
For Protestant Christians in the US, do you think the medieval period is a neglected part of church history?
Many Protestants have learned, either implicitly or explicitly, that the Middle Ages was a period of superstition and violence in the church. We also hear about indulgences, corruption, and salvation by works instead of faith—and that all these problems were corrected by the Reformation. Understandably, we tend to turn to the Reformers or to the pre-medieval Patristic theologians for spiritual guidance rather than medieval thinkers.
In doing so, we miss out on a large portion of church history and reinforce an unfair narrative about medieval Christians. In reality, some of our modern-day, violent “medieval” associations like witch burning or religious wars were far more common during and after the Reformation than during the medieval period. Contra these simplified stories, medieval Christians loved Jesus and thought extensively, devoutly, and beautifully about him.
Your book includes several depictions of Jesus that are likely jarring to contemporary sensibilities. Which do you think today’s readers will find most surprising?
Generally, medieval Christians were much more comfortable than we are with imagination and figurative language in speaking of Jesus. Two depictions immediately come to my mind. One is the portrayal of Jesus as a knight, jousting the dragon of death in his crucifixion. A medieval preacher wrote down these words in his representation of Christ as a knight: “I am Jesus come to fight / without shield or spear!” Christ the knight is not some Braveheart-adjacent man heroically slaughtering his enemies but a figure of radical courage and nonviolence. Another depiction of Jesus that will surprise readers is the metaphor of Christ the mother. Such an idea may initially sound suspiciously modern. But this medieval idea is grounded in Scripture itself! Medieval monks like St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Anselm of Canterbury noticed the ancient biblical language of motherhood and thought deeply about Christ’s compassion and fruitfulness as mothering attributes. Contemplative writers like Julian of Norwich wrote of the Passion as holy labor, as Christ gives birth to the church. These surprises give us a refreshed perspective on aspects of Christ’s character that we can overlook in our own cultural contexts.
What can contemporary readers learn from looking at the ways in which medieval writers and artists thought about Jesus?
C. S. Lewis calls reading old books “the clean sea breeze of the past,” which can blow through our dusty cultural commitments and personal preferences we have mixed up in our beliefs about God. In our age of rising secularization and polarization, a temptation to reify, domesticize, or overly defend our theological frameworks can be very strong. These writers and artists stir up the glorious mystery of our faith. Christianity is strange. Christians worship a God-man, born of a virgin in a backwater, murdered by the state, who then rose from the dead and floated up to heaven. The passionate language of a nun recognizing Christ as her lover, the medieval narratives of Christ’s life with their vivid reimaginations of familiar biblical stories, and the bizarre depictions of the wounds of Jesus confront us with that strangeness again. The creative witness of medieval Christians humbles me. With their help, I recognize my own limitations in understanding Jesus, myself, and the world around me.
This interview was originally published in the Fall 2023 Zondervan Academic Catalog.
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