Unintended consequences

Rebel in the Ranks, Brad Gregory, Harper One.

The Reformation might be sometimes thought of as, yes, creating the proliferation of churches we see today, but otherwise as concerning religious matters that have little relevance for the majority of society outside the churches where believers still cling to dogmatic nitpicking.

But for Brad Gregory, the Reformation is still with us, as it ultimately created the individualistic society with pluralist views that often cannot be reconciled and that flare up in so-called culture wars. In this, Rebel in the Ranks is a distillation for popular audiences of his large and important The Unintended Reformation. This latest book is one of the many publications to ride on the coattails of the Reformation anniversary and tell Luther’s story, but its point of difference is Gregory’s insistence on and elaboration of what the Reformation means for the world today, beyond the life of the church and the state of the soul.

Unlike current, often atheist, champions of the Enlightenment who think the modern world began then and everything before was impenetrable dark ages, Gregory traces modern pluralism and freedom back to Luther’s questioning of the Catholic Church’s authority (triggered by his deduction that indulgences simply had to be money-making charlatanism), and its replacement with the individual’s right to interpret Scripture. Luther would not have put it that way exactly, and the word ‘unintended’ recurs in Gregory’s narrative because Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers would throw up their hands and ask ‘how was it come to this?’ if they surveyed the modern separation of church and state, the decline of public Christianity, the compartmentalisation of spirituality and the freedom to even reject religion altogether. Instead of the spiritual penetrating deeper into the everyday (as it arguably did for a few years), the opposite has occurred.

It had to, in some respects, because the affirmation of the right to believe what you liked was, ironically, the only way to hold society together, after the horrific wars of religion that accompanied the Reformation. And, although this history is complex, Gregory suggests that overall as religion gradually became a private matter it was not Enlightenment values that took the driver’s seat, but consumerism, led by the Dutch Golden Age. Religion, Gregory decides, lost out to money.

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