Imagine with me the best Jules Verne inspired time travel craft— strapping shoulder harnesses, blinking red lights, whirling gauges, speeding blurs that peel away layers of history. While time travel has yet to be perfected outside Hollywood’s silver screen, I ask that you imagine this journey through vastness of history’s grand memory. Where are we going? Well, medieval England of course(umm, you do remember I’m an English literary geek, right?), and before you begin seeing horned-hat wearing Viking raiders or the knights in full battle garb, I ask you focus your attention on one man. Not the king, not the pope, but Chaucer, Geoffrey Chaucer, to be exact. Now before you start thanking your lucky stars that time travel doesn’t exist, hear me out.
Perhaps, you are familiar with Chaucer’s work “The Canterbury Tales;” a group of pilgrims travels together on a holy journey telling tales and making merry the whole time. So what? A bunch of dry, boring texts that no one except weird, geeky literary people who are like 3,000 years old ever read(again, I’m not old and you have not been introduced to Miller’s Tale or the Reeve’s Tale. Seriously, NON-boring tales).
Now, why Chaucer?
Throughout the tales, Chaucer skillfully critiques the social structure of his England especially the religious structures. He pokes fun at Friar and Summoner’s duties in the church, the way the Prioress eats, the Pardoner’s used car salesmen antics. I mean Chaucer has every right to criticize the Pardoner—the Pardoner is selling pig bones as saints’ bones. Or the Prioress’s gluttony or for that matter the gluttony prevalent throughout the church.
And yes, Chaucer reserves his harshest criticism for those within the church’s infrastructure. Chaucer’s writings acted as mirror for the church to see how she didn’t love the poor, the sick, or the needy. Rather, the church preyed upon these people. Chaucer’s writings clearly reflect the actions of this ecclesiastical group. But the church turned away from this mirror and many other reflecting mirrors, ignoring the choir of critical voices that begged for it to return to its purpose. And so came the burning of the Lollard heretics, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, deaths of those who asked the established church to see herself as she was—cruel, unkind, far from Christ.
Before we begin dismissing this as history or unimportant or irrelevant, let’s return to 2010 and its church. Are we any different? Are we showing any more kindness, love, forgiveness? Consider how those professing to love Christ are willing to burn sacred texts of the Islamic community, bully those in the LGBT community, deny the poor basic health care, or ignore the unfair wages of those in the developing world. We can easily dismiss the critical voices calling for a much needed re-evaluation. We can repeat history, as in Chaucer’s time, ignore those who are critical and choose those who are singing our praises. If the church ignores her reflection in the mirror of criticism, she will continue hurting the already oppressed.
Question: How does the church need to be more open to a critical voice? How can we use criticism to excite positive changes in the church?