Selections: Becoming Charlemagne


We think of the dark ages as a epoch of great violence. And while this is true, the same could be said of any era of history, including the contemporary. Violence, though it can be fought with the willpower of peace, is always going to be a facet of life on terra firma. And yet, the dark ages seem to be especially straddled with this understanding, formed in the collective, unconscious memory of Western civilization. The truth is far more complicated, however, and through the darkness and fog of distant terror, a light can be seen.

It is the light of the Carolingian renaissance.

What it Is

Becoming Charlemagne is the 2006 non-fiction book by Jeff Sypeck, a professor of medieval literature at the University of Maryland. The title is apt but, in a way, pleasantly misleading. By using his knowledge of the era, Mr. Sypeck presents the decades leading up to the coronation of Karl, king of the Franks, as the first Roman emperor in a thousand years, becoming what some consider to be the first European as well as the father of modern Western civilization, as a straightforward story. Thus, it is also the story of how the rex francorum became Charlemagne, the fierce medieval king of legend, whose influence still affects us.

How it Relates to the Hearth

For me, one who is deeply attracted to the imagery and idea of the pax francorum, this book is foundational. By identifying and presenting the history of what happened on Christmas day in the year 800 in such a straight-forward manner, the author also peels away a number of unnecessary embellishments that have accrued over the centuries and have poured themselves over this monumental figure. At the same time, we are provided with a fresh pair of glasses to view the Carolingian renaissance in it’s original context. And at the end of the book, I would say it does show the glory of this oft neglected moment in Western history, while still maintaining a neutral enough tone for one to draw their own conclusions. Therefore, it should be nabbed by anyone who considers themselves a medievalist and one who seeks the warmth of the hearth.

Fun Fact

I believe, in an interview, this book was originally conceived as one written for children, about the journey of an elephant named Abul Abbaz, who made his way to the court of Charlemagne. In fact, a good portion of the final stretch of this book goes into the actual history of this event, confirming it’s authenticity.

Selections: Jars of Clay


The early 1990s was one of the most productive, wonderful periods for the Christian arts. While Christian music is still produced and is powerful, it is but a mere echo of what was happening twenty-something years ago, when Christian acts were putting out songs that were somehow ending up on the greater pop music stations (Sixpence None The Richer comes immediately to mind). In retrospect, it may even be described as a golden age or renaissance-but this is not a historical analysis. This is a highlight of a specific album, from a specific band, one that may even have truly been at the forefront of this rebirth.

That band was Jars of Clay and this is about their first album.

What it is:

Jars of Clay was a band coming out of Nashville, Tennessee, having met in college in Greenville, Illinois during the early 1990s. For the most part, they have kept the same lineup and have continued to put out albums, the latest being 2013’s Inland. Their first, self-titled album, which came out in 1995, is my favorite album of theirs and also the point of this selection, though I also like Much Afraid and The Eleventh Hour.

How it Relates to the Hearth:

Now, I know that everyone’s hearth is unique unto themselves, but when I think of a soundtrack to go with the formation of your interpretation of the hearth, I can’t think of a better place to begin than here with the first Jars of Clay album. The music presented here, especially on the songs Boy On A String, Flood, and Blind is such a rich, warm, acoustic sound, full of stringed instruments and deep, sober ambiance. And despite what you may have gathered from my opening paragraph, this type of music wasn’t found solely in the Christian music scene; in fact, it was greatly shown off to the world via M-TV’s Unplugged series of performances, such as Alice In Chains, The Cranberries, R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, Nirvana, et cetera. The fact that this music blossomed during the post-grunge period is probably not a coincidence either. But what’s weird is this type of music really didn’t carry on too much longer past the mid-nineties, and as far as I can tell, it wasn’t prevalent during the 1980s either. Not even Jars of Clay really continued this style past their early albums, which is why I’m solely talking about this first album (though to their credit, it still shows up here and there). Whatever the reason, it doesn’t change the power of this first album. I want to highlight the song Blind in particular; recall my statement that the hearth is a realm of both darkness and light (point seven, specifically). This is the defining song for that point in the Manifesto, the prime melody for that mood of both light and dark. Nay, in full disclosure, I believe I wrote the Manifesto of the Hearth while listening to that song and the entirety of this album itself.

Another important aspect as to why this is the quintessential hearth sound relates to the apparent beliefs of the band itself. In a later interview with NPR, which I remember hearing on it’s original air date, the band spoke of how they choose subtlety in expressing their Christian beliefs in order to make their music more accessible. I think this directly relates to my belief that the hearth shouldn’t be constricted by the ideals of dogma, that the hearth should be an inviting, neutral place in order to foster personal relationship, faith and the producing of art.

If all of this interests you, then turn off the lights, light some candles, grab some wine and go listen to Jars of Clay.

Fun Fact:

The band takes it’s name from the Bible verse 2 Corinthians 4:7:

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”