Now, in the interest of full disclosure, most of the Wordhoarders would consider me a Protestant as a member of the Restoration Movement.* The RM is just as guilty of this anti-medievalism, though, so I'm including my folks in this gripe.
Because Protestant denominations so often define themselves against Roman Catholicism, too often the sense of Church history from my Protestant students (here primarily Southern Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and RM Church of Christ) runs something like this:
- The world was created.
- Adam and Eve had a snack.
- Noah built an ark.
- Joseph made a fashion statement.
- Baby Jesus was born of Mary and Santa Claus.
- Some bad people killed Him.
- Jesus came back to life and posed for Renaissance portraits.
- The apostles did a bunch of boring preachy stuff.
- The First Century ended.
- Nothing much happened for a millennium and a half.
- Henry VIII/Martin Luther/John Calvin/John Wesley/R.C. Sproul was born.
- I was born.
- The End.
OK, now, leaving aside the whole issue of Eastern Christianity, essentially, this is saying that anyone who was born in the Medieval Era isn't just a heretic -- they don't count at all (I find this particularly puzzling among the Episcopalian students, since as I understand it, they accept the idea of Apostolic Succession as descending down to them rather than Rome). We then immediately discount any Christian thinkers that pre-date the Reformation.
Augustine? Ignore him, he's Catholic. Aquinas? Ditto. Tertullian? Origen? Anselm? Catholic, Catholic, and Catholic. C.S. Lewis -- Ah, a Protestant! He's OK!
This isn't to say that there isn't Protestant academic study of medieval Christians ... of course there is, and a lot of good stuff. This is to say that in popular Protestant thought, the Middle Ages were either a time when nothing good happened for the Church, or when everything that happened was Catholic. I get papers saying things like this: "During medieval times the Catholic Church had some crusades against muslims" -- the tone of which implies that the Crusades are part of Catholic history specifically, but somehow not part of Christian history generally. It isn't just unpopular stuff like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition that get shoved off on the Catholics, either. I find that popular Protestantism gives the Catholics credit for the good stuff too, like monastary libraries.
Maybe it's just my Restoration Movement way of thinking, but that grates on my nerves. The medieval Church is a wonderfully lively creature, full of all sorts of fascinating movements and thinkers ... and we descend from them, Catholic and Protestant alike. When I see the medieval Church, I see the most powerful force for reform in human history. Within itself, the Church was writhing with reform movements, spawning various orders and movements that give rise to the Church today.
I suppose I also see American history much as the same. Thomas Jefferson's famous "wall of separation" seems to me ridiculously superfluous -- like asserting that we need a wall separating the land from the sea. The Church in America has been a reforming force of moral authority against the State just as it was in the Medieval Era. Abolition, Prohibition, the New Deal, Civil Rights, nuclear disarmament, Right to Life -- all of these garnered their support, to some degree, from the Church. Just as in the Medieval Era, the Church is no monolith, with movements sometimes pushing for reform in one direction, and sometimes in another; Garry Wills will push one way, James Dobson another. The State will try to resist both, but will not be able to avoid being transformed.
Of course, there are plenty of Protestants out there who would consider Catholics not just separated brethren, or heretics, but fully-fledged Hell-bound apostates, and aren't likely to accept my Restoration Movement attitudes. In that case, can't we at least say that "Roman Catholic" doesn't really take on its modern meaning until the Reformation? Do we have to condemn ALL medieval Christians to the dustbin of history (and the Cosmos)? Can't we at least claim the Lollards? Or the Celtic Church?** Was the last proto-Protestant Paul?
The gripe is a bit of a chimera: It has a head of Restoration Movement attitudes, a body of protest against general ignorance of the medieval Church, and the tail of irritation with popular Protestant culture. I suppose it says as much about my own academic prejudices as about the Church.
*The reason for the awkward wording there is that I would not call myself Protestant because the RM is all about rejecting denominational barriers -- so while my Catholic brothers would probably call me one of the "separated brethren," I'd just call myself "Christian," and them too. Still, the RM grew out of Protestant denominations, so the worship tends to look rather Protestant. In this case, the RM is afflicted with the same medieval trouble I'm complaining about in Protestantism generally because of those historical origins.
**I mean, the Celtic Church has got really cool art, you know.