Hearts And Minds Aflame For Christ: Irish Monks—A Model For Making All Things New in the 21st Century

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


There are uncanny parallels between the times of these medieval missionary monks and our day. The spiritual and intellectual darkness of Europe in their time was staggering and pervasive. Today we do not have the scarcity of learning and education that existed in the Europe of those earlier centuries, but there are parallels and lessons nevertheless.

The concept of truth is being exterminated in the great halls of learning around the world. A deep darkness is settling over our planet. This darkness declares there is no God, there are no absolutes, there is no right and wrong, there is no intrinsic value in human life. Truth is deconstructed into relative bits of data with no meta-narrative to give meaning to life. This darkness has spread from university classrooms into entertainment and news media, into high schools and grade schools, from Columbine to Jeddah to Amsterdam to Prague. It has reached into the highest offices of our land and other nations of the world. Truth not only does not matter, truth does not even exist. God—if He is even there—is irrelevant. This spreading darkness seeks to still any voices that dare to disagree.

The darkness today comes in many forms and is known by many names—paganism, relativism, naturalism, deconstructionism, humanism, secularism. But it is darkness by any name—a darkness that threatens, if unchallenged by the Light, to make the twenty-first century a Dark Age of its own, indeed possibly the darkest century of all. Once again, we need Christians who can bring the good, the true and the beautiful back to a world that has denigrated these and has exalted the evil, the false and the ugly. So there are certainly lessons we can learn from these medieval monks.

1. As Christians we must realize that we are called to a significant role to not only lead individuals to Christ and to guide their spiritual formation but also to transform culture and society, even in our Dark Age. You are not merely a pawn in a cosmic chess game between God and Satan. You can make choices. You can make choices to respond to God’s call for significant service. As Ephesians 2:10 says, you are God’s masterpiece, his work of art, “created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for [you] to do” (NIV). You were created by God to make a significant difference in this world—whether in the home, in politics, in education, in business, in the arts, in law, in the media. It may not be prominent. Your impact may never be publicized, but just as surely as those faithful, humble monks walked with God and quietly invaded and changed their world, you can make a lasting difference in your world.

2. Transformation of culture requires engagement with the culture. Just as the monks of the Roman Church withdrew from society in order to save their own souls, there are many Christians today who retreat and withdraw—and tragically, sometimes, still lose their souls and those of their families. But the Celtic monks chose to pursue both godliness and engagement with their world. They did not retreat. They engaged and transformed their world.

3. We must be patient. Transformation of culture takes time, sometimes generations. Yet the insistence on “immediate results” is constant in many sections of evangelicalism today. Many Christians and ministry organizations who are conscientiously seeking to be faithful to God’s calling are pressured to continually give evidence of their “evangelistic effectiveness” for any given period of time, with the assumption that this is the only activity of Christian value. Yet those faithful Irish monks rarely experienced immediate results nor mass conversions. The monthly or even yearly “successes” they could chalk up were often sparse. But the quiet, steady proclamation and teaching of Christian truth eventually worked. As Marnell expressed it, “The army of Rome could not defeat the Franks, but the army of Christ could, and it was defeat in the name of Christ that was victory for the Franks.”81 When my wife, Teri, and I were sitting in the cathedral at Iona, we were struck by the fact that the place where we were sitting, was there as a result of one man’s obedience to God in A.D. 563. Aim for significance, but work with patience and dream with a long vision.

4. Significant living often requires sacrificial living. We must embrace God’s priorities for our lives and not the normal American dreams of comfort, security and affluence—basically a self-centered life. We must renounce those as life goals. When my son Lance was young, we were sitting in the car at a Dairy Queen one hot summer evening, listening to the deep voice of George Beverly Shea singing, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold.” Lance piped up from the back seat, “But Dad, I’d rather have both.” These poor monks freely chose Jesus—and Jesus alone. They made choices to walk away, often from wealth and comfort and security, leaving their country and their people and their culture, to live in strange and inconvenient and uncomfortable places. And in many respects we are here today as inheritors of their sacrifice, in bringing the Gospel to our forbearers.

5. Your education is a gift that is given to you to bless others, and not for your own pride or wealth. Our calling is to use our education to make a difference for God’s Kingdom. Education is important in God’s kingdom. Well-educated Christians, especially those with graduate degrees, are uniquely suited to be effective in both life-transforming and culture-changing impact.

6. We must communicate with both hearts and minds in our pagan post-modern culture. In some Christian circles today there is a narrow view of what God has called His followers to do in the world. This view, which has gained wide currency in some parts of evangelicalism, holds that the only truly worthy purpose of Christian ministry is to evangelize and plant churches. This truncated view of God’s message and his purpose for our world actually hinders effective evangelism and the full impact of the Gospel on the world, especially in the great centers of culture and education. This myopic perspective reveals a narrow view both of God’s kingdom and of the breadth of impact He calls us to have on the world as salt and light.

Had these Celtic monks brought a truncated message, aiming only for individual conversions, without also teaching and raising the level of knowledge about the world God created, their impact would have been greatly limited. Although their initial results in terms of conversions might have been greater had they focused only on evangelism, the long-term enduring results and historic changes would no doubt have been diminished. Europe would certainly not have been fundamentally transformed in the way that it was. Their efforts would probably have produced isolated individuals following Christ, but without the broad cultural, institutional and societal changes occurring. But in fact, their evangelism was enhanced and more effective, because of the authority with which they spoke on such a wide range of subjects.

Charles Malik, former president of the UN General Assembly and Security Council, made this declaration at the dedication of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College: “Christ being the light of the world, His light must be brought to bear on the problem of the formation of the mind….The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost the world….Responsible Christians face two tasks—that of saving the soul and that of saving the mind.”82

7. Finally, teaching is strategic in God’s kingdom. God has ordained that teaching impacts not only individual lives, but whole cultures and nations as well, as the Irish missions movement so powerfully demonstrates. Education and scholarship—learning and teaching about all of God’s truth and all parts of His world—is a divine calling and should be embraced as a holy task worthy of the Church’s best energies and resources.

The story of these Irish monks should encourage Christian professors and students to be faithful in their academic calling. Education is slow, it is costly, but it is certain to bring change. The impact of our lives, especially as academicians, will not be fully measured during our lives. But if done in humility and accompanied by a holy life, teaching, though slow, has significant, indeed, eternal impact.

My prayer is that the example of these medieval monks will inspire a growing movement of academicians with a global vision—those who voluntarily leave their homeland to teach in other nations. My primary vocation is to motivate and recruit individuals with academic credentials to serve in secular universities around the world through the work of the International Institute for Christian Studies. Thankfully, once again there are men and women who are responding to the call of the living God: a call not to a “Red Martyrdom” with firing squads and torture chambers, but to a martyrdom nevertheless—a martyrdom which compels them to leave parents and grandparents, friends and supportive churches, to leave comfortable homes, to leave academic and professional positions, financial security and emotional fulfillment to teach in secular universities overseas—where, if they were not present, no Christian voice would be heard.

They are leaving all of this to take on a martyrdom in which they die to an easy career path, tenured positions, camaraderie with valued colleagues, comfortable salaries and the warm fellowship of a loving church. In this martyrdom, they die to pride and financial independence by accepting a salary that is not only meager, but which often they have to raise themselves; a martyrdom which sometimes costs them the respect of family members and colleagues who don’t understand doing something as “stupid” as leaving all this, for that—just for the chance to teach in a university in another country. This is a martyrdom, which at its deepest level, can rend the dearest relationship with family and friends who shake their heads in utter amazement, “Why, why would you do this to us—and to yourselves—and to your children?”

I hope that the example of these humble monks will inspire you to follow a truly biblical model for dynamic living and learning: simultaneously cultivating the heart and cultivating the mind; focusing on both living a holy life of passionate love for God, and thinking and learning under the Lordship of Christ, realizing that no subject and not the smallest detail of life escapes his dominion.

Literacy and Scripture and ultimately Western civilization were preserved by faithful and sacrificial Irish monks who spent their lives cultivating mind and heart, salvaging Scripture letter by letter, walking across Europe, preaching and teaching, establishing centers for spiritual, artistic and intellectual growth, and in the process, salvaged a dying civilization—all because their hearts and minds were aflame for Christ. Let us too, in our day, with hearts and minds aflame for Christ, be faithful to treasure truth, transform culture and save both hearts and minds. Christians in general and scholars and artists in particular can model and articulate the good, the true and the beautiful and in so doing, once again “save Western civilization.” We can once again demonstrate that Christ truly makes all things new.

Dr. Daryl McCarthy is the President of the International Institute for Christian Studies. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.