Patron Saints for Postmoderns: Ten from the Past Who Speak to Our Future
By Chris R. Armstrong
IVP, 249 pages, $16
How is a Christian to situate himself or herself in the sprawling, untidy history of the saints? In an effort to answer—for himself and for the reader, one suspects—Chris R. Armstrong has produced an engaging and sometimes frustrating little book. His task is a worthy one. Making sense of Christian history as a living resource, peopled not with venerated abstractions but men and women as alive and individual as you or I, seems critical at a time when storytelling and imitation are more the province of secular entertainment than sacred order. Armstrong helpfully shows how narrative and representation bring order to our understanding of Christians past, present, and future.
This he does by recounting the lives of ten notable Christians, not all household names, who “speak to our future.” The vision holding the group together comes from Dorothy Sayers, the prolific British writer whose final, crowning effort was a wartime translation of Dante for the Penguin Classics series. For Sayers and Dante, Armstrong argues, humans are incarnate images—beings who, in both sin and virtue, are what they represent. We understand our relationships to one another and to God by narrating them in speech and deed. Our narrations are, by degrees of approximation, imitations of Christians and of Christ himself.
It is a relief that Armstrong shares this wisdom without speaking academese. But, too often, he slips into the newspeak of PC box checking. His patron saints “learn diversity,” “break down barriers,” even “keep it real.” At least Armstrong successfully suggests that these rote phrases conceal deeper, Christian truths. Armstrong’s insistence that we are all equal in our “brokenness” left this reader especially uneasy. Squarely addressing sin, communion, and the human condition does not require such pop-therapeutic language. That our human nature may be radically incomplete, even depraved, does not mean that we humans are, and should think of ourselves as, crippled patients. This caution notwithstanding, Armstrong’s is an accessible, instructive book with much to say about the realism at the heart of postmodernity rightly understood.