Books Received: Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World

By Sheldon

Over the last few years I have been involved in a long-term experiment that concerns the role to be played by lay scholars in a local church community. This began back in 2009 when we were living in the Bay Area. We were attending a wonderful Episcopal Church in Portola Valley. The Rector found out about our respective academic backgrounds in Hebrew Bible and Classics and soon we were conducting seminars and classes in those and related topics on a regular basis.

Wisely, I asked Reverend Mitch if Denise and I could be granted the title of “Scholar-in-Residence.” This was partly as a way of making the position real, and also to give me something to put on my resume, having recently been laid off and starting what would become a six-year sojourn in the savage wilderness of un- and under-employment.  But I digress.

The experiment was a grand success. In fact, it was a much-needed bright spot in a long, hard struggle to find work that eventually forced us to leave the Bay Area and greener pastures in my home state of Oregon. Once there, the gods smiled upon us and I found work. We also found another welcoming congregation at the Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan in Corvallis. I was curious to see if we could repeat our success in California. It seemed a safe bet; this was Marcus Borg’s congregation for most of his adult life, so these people were used to more than the average amount of intellectual stimulation as part of parish life. It seemed a good place to continue our experiment in lay intellectual work.

Once again dubbed as Scholars-in-Residence, we held a number of short seminars, just to get the feel of the place, then embarked on a year-long rampage through the Intertestamental Period and associated literature; the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

But as we worked our way through these offerings, I found myself thinking that it would be great if we could spread not just the classes, but the idea of Scholars-in-Residence as an augment to parish life. More on that in a later post.

While digging into this idea I came across a remarkable document, “Lay Collaboration in the Mission of the Church” by Dominican Priest Michael Sweeney in which he summarizes the history of the role of lay intellectuals and laity in Catholicism and makes some very interesting observations, namely that the laity have not only a responsibility, but are empowered (as far as the church is concerned) to act independently on advancing matters of intellect, art, science, law, medicine, music, etc.–basically anything that contributes to the well-being and dignity of humanity–as an extension of their faith.

All this is a round about way of explaining my interest in this recent offering from Cambridge University Press. It is an examination of how lay intellectuals and artists contributed to the Carolingian Renaissance, a flowering of arts and intellectual pursuits during the reign of Charlemagne (c.742-814). This is something that I had been taught was a mostly monkish achievement, but this new work edited by Patrick Wormald and Janet L. Nelson seems to argue that it drew on a much wider range of talent and individuals.  My hope is that it will serve as a model for expanding a true community of scholars residing in various sacred and secular institutions, learning and teaching in the finest tradition of the medieval universities of Europe. Now, it would appear, that tradition is far older than I had suspected.

Stay tuned…


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