A world of our own – by Chris Stirewalt

Tapestry of the Apocalypse (Photograph: Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.)

“Most of what we know about the [Middle Ages] is unpleasant. Once the existing fragments are put together, the portrait that emerges is a mixture of relentless warfare, corruption, anarchy, an obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable callousness.—William ManchesterA World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Spirit and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age, 1992.

I often find books to be companions for periods of my life; volumes that comfort or delight me in difficult seasons, inspire me to be a better version of myself and, at times, point me in the right direction.

For about a year this book has been William Manchester’s A world lit only by fire.

Manchester, a journalist-turned-author and teacher, wrote two of the most popular and acclaimed military biographies of all time: American Caesarabout Douglas MacArthur, and The Last Lion, about Winston Churchill. Manchester was a scholar and, as the three volumes and about 3,000 pages of his work on Churchill suggest, very complete. But he still managed to retain the hard-hitting, pugnacious style he learned while working with HL Mencken at The Baltimore Sun.

I came back to Manchester and A world lit only by fire– an attributed but mostly unread book from my college days – after coming across his fantastic WWII memoir, Goodbye darkness. Manchester’s writing in all of his works benefits from the perspective of an enlisted Marine who was nearly killed during the American assault on Okinawa. A biographer of great men, he maintained a uniquely American perspective on power and its uses – which nowhere shines more brightly than in Manchester’s book on the making of the modern world.

When it debuted in 1992, A world lit only by fire was a departure from the commercial blockbusters of the Churchill and MacArthur books and its first huge hit, The death of a presidenthis journalistic chronicle of the assassination of President John Kennedy. A world lit only by fire was a New York Times best-selling, but not the kind of book that 5 million dads have slipped down their Christmas stockings or stuck in a bow for Father’s Day. Here is the world’s most popular military biographer, writing a cultural and philosophical history of life from the 1300s to the 1700s.

But the book also didn’t satisfy the historical academy, which sniffed out some of the conclusions it jumped to and some of its storytelling license. Medieval and Renaissance historians are few and often steeped in strangeness. One can only imagine their outrage when they see a popular historian and biographer of macho men arrive in their rarely visited corner of the university.

What Manchester achieved, however, was of lasting value, especially to a people like us, living at the end of one era and looking dimly to the next.

I know why Fire traveled with my thoughts during these many months. Manchester was inspired by the underrated story of Ferdinand Magellan, whose stoicism and drive proved the world was round, even if his arrogance kept him from seeing the return journey. But the central figure in Manchester’s story is not a scientist or an explorer, but a man of faith: Martin Luther. To properly tell the story of the fall of Rome, the devastation of the Dark Ages, the decadence of the Renaissance, and the dawn of the Enlightenment, Manchester had to become a master of church history.

Manchester is certainly no Lutheran, mocking the sage of Wittenburg for his fascination with flatulence and defecation (“the most anal of theologians”) and generally rolling his eyes at the intense pieties of the reformers. But it took a non-believer (or however Manchester defined its own relationship to the eternal) to write a lucid history of how Christianity created, saved, nearly destroyed, then redeemed again The Western world.

I would be much more likely to extend the benefit of the doubt to fellow Reformed Christians of old who might seem like heroes of the faith to me but dangerous Calvinist fanatics to others. John Knox laid a cornerstone of my fathers faith and he had a totally awesome beard but I doubt The first trumpet blast against the monstrous regiment of women will soon climb the bestseller charts. Manchester spares neither Catholic nor Protestant, nor dwells on doctrinal considerations. He doesn’t seem to be rooting for anything other than civilization.

As the future Roman Europe took shape in the 4th century, it was hit by two massive explosions. One of the southern empire carried with him the gospel of the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. The message that ricocheted around the Mediterranean and eventually through the official arteries of Imperial communications and politics would go on to alter the course of human history like no other idea ever has.

But from the east, a more urgent devastating force was taking shape. I say this wisely, knowing that the Christians would go on to kill far more of their co-religionists than all the Romans and their lions ever dreamed of. Christian’s cruelty and brutality against Christian in the 30 Years’ War and the other bloody purges of the time would put Caligula’s darkest desires to shame.

But even so, what came from the east was without any redeeming beliefs that could be salvaged after the slaughter. The arrival of Christianity in Western Europe saved a place for mercy in the human heart and often sacrificed for human survival. Think of the monks of Ireland persisting in the face of Viking raids and keeping alive the light of learning and literacy.

What came from the east at the dawn of Christianity were the Hunnic hordes and the kind of nightmarish slaughter that still haunts our collective psyches. The Huns ricocheted off the Great Wall of China, turned west and devastated the Germanic tribes of Europe. In desperation, these tribes agreed to face what had been the world’s top predator, the Roman legions.

When the Huns crossed the Volga in 375 into what is now Ukraine, they began to slaughter or enslave all the peoples of Northern and Western Europe, not to mention the unspeakable horror suffered by the Slavs. It was just 50 years after the Council of Nicaea set the limits of the Christian faith as we still know it. Christians still say the same words “We believe in one God”, written when Attila was in the 19th year of his bloody reign.

Christians saved the Western world. The institutions the church raised from the ashes and grief after the fall of Rome and the rise of the Huns were the keepers of the light that Abraham Lincoln would later call Earth’s last and best hope. But just as the Romans had done during their centuries of rule, Christians became hopelessly self-centered and decadent, as was fully expressed in the debauched Borgia papacies. This is not a book for the delicate, let me tell you. Fortunately for you, dear readers, I continued despite these headwinds.

I live in Washington. I know all about decadence. Here, I am not talking about the bacchanalia of the imagination of television series and new members of Congress, but rather the decadence of people who feel excused from their duty on earth: to toil. “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the earth, since it is from there that you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.

Potomac fever is the belief that somehow the power in this life – another term, another better date, another contract – can banish death and loss. The Romans had known it well, even if they had ignored the warnings. Thank God, then, that Christianity is all about memento mori. The arrival of the printing press 584 years ago – a shorter period than the dark ages that Manchester laments – allowed people to read the Bible and understand this alien way of looking at death, love, duty, joy, suffering and sacrifice. The news had been good, but the transmission had been scrambled for about 40 generations.

You all know how it goes from here: the Lights break out and people begin to understand themselves as individuals with God-given freedoms. Freedoms, one might say, inalienable. It wasn’t a well-handled thing, but we can draw a pretty clear line from Jesus to Paul to Augustine to the Reformers to the Founding Fathers to our own very crazy ideas of what it means to be human today.

The book is with me all the time now because it’s very clear that we live in times very similar to the one Manchester wrote about. I’m not talking about the murder hordes and orgies (unless you judge by TV). I mean a time when we walk through a door between the ages.

This carries an additional obligation for me as a Christian, but also for all people who enjoy and cherish the rights and duties carved out of the chaos of seven centuries of real tragedy. Manchester, even with his arched Mencken eyebrow, would still admit it.

[Author’s note: I should give my eldest son a double byline on this column because he helped me figure it out on the way back from vacation. I should give my youngest son a triple byline because he had to listen to us doing it. We talked and argued about the parallels and differences of the Christian experience now and 1,500 years ago.  We also were repeatedly defeated by voice-to-text technology and Apple’s iOS platform. He was right, but I am louder.]

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