Monday, May 20, 2013

Three books worth reading

I purchased three books on Amazon which I read mostly on my iPad, but they sync across devices so I can pick them up here in my home office, or while standing in line at the grocery store, on my iPhone.

I have finished two, and have just begun the third and, to me, most interesting [and difficult].

First: another tour de force of historical research and analysis by Eamon Duffy:

Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition  sub-titled Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations.

This book operates on two levels - its primary goal of understanding the English Reformation, and on a secondary level Prof. Duffy discusses the issue of subjectivity in the study of religion.  To address this second point first, Eamon Duffy is a practicing Catholic, noted in his academic work for his mostly successful revision of interpretations of the Reformation in England.  The traditional tale says the Catholic church by the 16th century was corrupt, and although Henry VIII did not have pure motives, Catholicism was merely waiting for a push to collapse in on itself.  Duffy, along with other revisionist historians, managed through a veritable deluge of finely research evidence, to show that the English reformation was not a popular movement.  He also demonstrated that Catholicism in England was deeply rooted in the cultural landscape.  Later revisions of the revision have modified this but have left untouched this basic premise.  G.W. Bernard, for example, has to some extent rehabilitated Henry VIII's religious opinions in favour of the reform, and Nicholas Tyacke has demonstrated the popularity of the reform in certain parts of Britain - well, I should say, England... as the reform seems evidently to have been popular in Scotland and Wales.

In Part I, Prof. Duffy deals with this secondary issue, in Part II, he presents his usual close study of material  evidence.  The third section,  however, is worth reading all on its own.  Here  he gives three holistic analyses of John Fisher, Thomas Cranmer and Reginald Pole.  There is much written about the famous [or if you are an English Catholic, infamous] first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, but very little on Fisher or Pole.  They usually play stock figures and supporting roles in this play.  I am, myself, a great fan of using biography to make great social movements in history understandable.  I began that practice years ago in a course I taught once at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario. In Religion and Society in Canada, I described the cultural turn in mid 19th century Canada by giving a  lecture or two comparing John Strachan, Egerton Ryerson and Ignace Bourget.  So, perhaps I am biased over the quality of this third part of Duffy's book, but this is my blog!  I suggest that if you read just this part of the book, you will come out at the other end with a more profound understanding of the Reform in England than you will by grappling with material evidence, documents, psychological studies of Henry VIII, or the politics of the time.

To give you an overview [you will actually have to read this yourself, if you want more], the English Reformation, unlike that in the German-speaking lands, was a complex of motives, but was more like the process of Reform in Scandinavia.  That is, it owed more to the desire for independence from Rome by the monarchy, than it did to agreement with the theological positions of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, or Jean Calvin - or indeed the so-called radical reform movement.   The English Reformation is often decried as being lightweight theologically, but was more intense in that regard than the reform in Sweden, for example, which was also driven forward by the monarchy.  The English reform was comfortable with the culture of England at the time.  Duffy does not point this out, but his years of research into material religion both before and after reform show a land where religion was tactile and sensory rather than ideological or theological in the scholastic sense.  This explains a lot about the future nature of the Church of England, even to the present day.  Anglicanism world wide is less about theology and more about the 'feel' of faith.

Second:  The Reformation:  A Brief History by Kenneth G. Appold

Dr. Appold is an open advocate of the Reformation.  Some of the reviews of this book praise it for dealing with the 'reformations' rather than the traditional view of the 'Reformation' - but I don't see it.  While he does deal with some interesting areas seldom presented in histories of the Reforms - Scandinavia and Hungary, for example - the meat of the book discusses the reform movement in German-speaking central Europe as though nothing else existed.  He does not follow the traditional pattern of dealing only with theology, or perhaps to be fair, treating theology as though it was the whole of the Reforms - he goes deeply into the culture of pre-reformation Europe and how the reform movement was received by all aspects of European society then - from 'peasants' [ a term that jars on me] to ruling aristocrats.  For someone new to the study of this profound cultural shift, the sections of his book on Luther, Zwingli and Calvin are superb.  The book should be read in conjunction, however, with Duffy's work above - as Dr. Appold ignores the Reform in England entirely - in all of Britain for that matter.  This lacuna is deeply puzzling as one cannot truly see the 'Reformation' as 'reformations' without including the peculiar case of England.  He deals fairly with the issue of Catholic reform, but not in the deeply motivated fashion he does with the magisterial reformers.  His short work would have been improved if he had included a short section matching that by Duffy on the influence of personal belief on one's work.  Dr. Appold too often takes his personal preferences as representing self-evident truths, rather than the subjectivity which is an inevitable part of all historical research and writing.

Third:  Rethinking Secularism, edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Jeurgensmeyer and Jonathan VanAntwerpen.

This is a collection of essays on secularism, secularization, religion, faith and their complex interrelationships presented by a coterie of scholars:  sociologists, anthropologists, historians, etc. I have only just begun reading it, but it is a must read for anyone interested in the current state of thinking on this topic.  I do like a term introduced in the first and introductory essay:  secular imaginary - that is, the idea that the nature of the world about us is imagined in a fashion that looks at cause and effect in isolated categories - isolated from each other - and not in a holistic sense.  Thus if you are working in finance in some way  or business, you would come to grapple with the markets without reference to faith, or if you are in the medical field you study biology and disease and surgery without reference to faith.  In other words, your daily life is lived without considering faith in any practical sense.  Well, I won't say more as I am not even finished reading this first essay, let alone the whole book.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Even in Turkey

Turkey, the only secular Islamic state [secular:  defined as the separation of the institutions of government from religion - NOT as the lack of religious faith] has moved to block this plot, but it is troubling, nonetheless

Plot to Murder Patriarch of Constantinople

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Martin Luther and Tim Berners-Lee

I published most of this post on my other blog on writing - but it belongs here also..... the only change I have made is to add this brief note and to the title.

I am reading the Reformation: a Brief History by Kenneth G Appold. In the current section he is describing the sources of his radical re-interpretation of Christianity. The author goes on to describe the political manoeuvrings around Luther - why he was at first ignored, then the politics of bringing him to trial, or at least debate. This occurred between the time of the posting of the 95 theses in 1517 and 1521, when Luther was excommunicated. In this period a pamphlet war was engaged.

What this all says to me is two factors had changed - one the rise of individualism and the other the necessity of reading and of relatively cheap material to read. Reading is an essentially individual activity - this is not to say it is necessarily private - one can read out loud, one publishes [as here] for others to read. But writing and reading are the dissemination of internal, personal and individual thought.

The Protestant Reformation is usually, and quite sensibly, approached as a revolution in religion - but it can be seen from another angle if you turn it on its side. The Reformation was a cultural turn from the mediaeval world of communal and oral life where what you knew, you knew because others said it to you and you said it to others as you lived your life in a small community. Learning was also visual and tactile. Words and sight and touch moved in a dance of reinforcement, integrated into the oral and communal life of people.

The Reformation is the label historians of religion stick onto a cultural change in western Europe - religion being integral to culture and culture to religion [I use the term 'culture' here in its anthropological sense, of course, as the 'total way of life of a people'].

Reading and writing came to the fore for a growing class of intellectuals in that broad, other cultural movement called the Renaissance. The dissemination of ideas now rocketed off in all directions with the new technology of communication called the printing press, movable type, and paper. This new form of mass communication could not be contained by the old 'powers-that-be', at that time aka the 'Church'. I will here give the standard 'historian's caveat' - this did not all happen at once - the 'Church', now much constrained and limited to far fewer lands than before [well ... and another caveat - European lands, because at this same time, the old religion was busily establishing itself in the Americas and on other continents]. Anyway, this did not all happen at once because there was not to be one Reformation, but rather, 'reformations' - Luther's ideas dominated the northern German and Scandinavian lands, but other Reformations took hold - those of Jean Calvin most importantly, but also the state reformed Catholicism of England, and the small persecuted groups of so-called anabaptists.

Again my point in all this is this cultural turn came out of a perfect storm of multiple changes. The change that interests me here, in this blog, is the very change I am a part of in the 21st century -the communications revolution. To put the Reformations in a modern mode - Luther's ideas went viral - and just as ideas spread via the internet today, were altered and changed as they spun there way across western European society.

Those who defended the old ways - principally what we today call the Catholic Church, or the Roman Catholic church, which until the ideas of Luther went viral, simply, 'The Church', was changed - adapted to the new reality of a war of words and of control over communication.

So too today, email, instant messenger programs, YouTube, facebook, twitter, Linkedin, cell phone cameras, self published eBooks, website, ftp..... I have probably missed something here - constitute the technological drivers of another cultural revolution not seen in the world since the printing press and movable type and paper.

What is the 'church' today? Well for a writer such as myself, it is the legacy publishers, the academic presses, peer review old style, copyright law. What is the Reformation (s) today? Smashwords, Creative Commons licensing, the world wide web [not to be confused with the internet - the WWW is a part of the internet], experiments in online peer review for academics [for example, the History Working papers project ] , wikipedia.

Who is our Luther? Probably, Tim Berners-Lee who created the first web page and convinced his supporters at CERN where he then worked to give it to the world and built into it the protocols that prevented any one 'church' [as in big computer company] from owning or controlling it. The essence of the WWW is that it cannot be owned or controlled and this philosophy still very much has driven all the changes that I write about in this blog.

All this is something of a personal irony for me, as I am a Roman Catholic - but the double irony is I belong to the Church of Rome, not by birth, but by my individual choice. There is a triple layer of irony also - I belong not through cold reason - an intellectual assent to theological fact, but because I am also an heir of the Romantic movement and enjoy the wafting scent of faux mediaevalism and of even older memories stretching back to the world of imperial Rome.

Ah well, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee and to the technological revolution that brought about computers and the internet, I am liberated to choose and write as I will - but thanks even more so to the much older cultural revolution of the early modern era, the essence of which is the rise of the individual and individual ideas.