Ocean of text

Risingtidefallingstar (4th Estate) is Philip Hoare’s third book about the sea, and he writes, ‘Sometimes I think I can only think of the sea’. But this is not a book about summer seaside vacations. Rather, he swims no matter the weather, and writes about the cold, storms, drownings, shipwrecks, and about the eccentric authors and artists (Woolf, Plath, Shakespeare, Jack London, and of course Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson) who, like himself, were mesmerised by the mystery and vastness of our oceans. He trawls through literature and the biographies of artists to fish out water-related anecdotes, some of which are decidedly feverishly strange, such as Stephen Tennant’s retreat to his extravagantly decorated, ocean-themed country house where he hardly ever leaves his bed and asks, ‘Do people still think of me in London?’.

Themes run like currents through the ocean of text – Cape Cod, Thoreau, World War I, Lord Nelson, seals, whales, The Tempest, Shelley and Byron, wild fashion, forbidden relationships, suicides, David Bowie. The language of the sea infiltrates his observations of other things. Second-hand books are described as being ‘stranded’ on a shelf. Hoare is a literary and cultural beachcomber. Every bit of flotsam catches his attention. He suggests that the dream of astrophysicists is to find a planet almost entirely made of water. He describes the splendour of fin whales feeding, but is not too delicate to describe dead, washed-up animals. He picks up a deer skull from the beach and buries it in his garden, antlers protruding.

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Overworked printing presses

Martin Luther was already one of the most written about figures in history even before this year’s 500th anniversary. Now we are flooded with new biographies and histories of the Reformation, perhaps in emulation of the overworked printing presses of Luther’s day, but this is a blessing, as historians are still enriching our picture of these events.

One positive of all this new writing is that it draws our attention to the fact that it wasn’t simply Luther’s Reformation. Carlos Eire, in his massive yet engaging history of the two hundred years surrounding Luther (Reformations, Yale Uni Press), argues not only that it is better to speak of Reformations plural but that they were ‘a long time coming’. Luther lit the bonfire others had compiled. Eire puts Luther into the wider context of an old world giving way to a new one, with the discovery of the Americas, a rise in literacy and piety, the new technology of moveable type for printing, and a rise in the power of the city state, all of which, except for America’s discovery, directly accelerated the Reformation.

Andrew Pettegrew prioritises the new printing presses in his book Brand Luther (Penguin) for their part in the success of the Reformation, as they allowed for the brisk dissemination of Luther’s ideas. Luther brought in a new era of writing for the masses, and while Heinz Schilling writes in his biography of Luther (see below) that opponents in Rome were not as slow to catch on as is often said, Luther’s books, written increasingly in the language of the day, sold by the cartloads.

The people were so receptive to the message because, at one level, humanism was creating scepticism of some of the superstitions and traditions of the Church, while refocussing on the Bible itself. At another level, reaction to the noticeable corruption, extravagance and spiritual ignorance of both the Church’s hierarchy and many of its clergy was already leading to grassroots reform and renewal.

Peter Stanford

Peter Stanford, in his very accessible biography from a Catholic but sympathetic angle (Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident, Hodder), suggests also that although the Council of Trent was supposedly anti-Lutheran, its Counter-Reformation agenda of education for clergy and removal of excesses ended up channelling Luther anyway. Eventually, Vatican II would endorse the worth of the laity as the ‘people of God’, mirroring Luther’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Stanford further suggests that Catholics should be thankful for Luther, and notes that Pope Benedict stated Luther’s idea of grace alone for salvation was essentially correct.

One of the first off the ranks with his biography (Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, Yale), Scott Hendrix, as do other biographers, points out the context of Luther’s colleagues, friends and family, and how a man painted as a lone visionary was challenged, moderated and supported by this network. Hendrix also questions Luther’s later view of the life-changing thunderstorm, arguing, not without plausibility, that while the parallels to Saint Paul’s conversion made for a good story, Luther was likely at least contemplating the monastery when he made his vow.

Lyndal Roper

Luther’s personality has been the subject of plenty of hagiography, to be contrasted with the hostile psychoanalytical treatments that were trendy in the later twentieth century. Nowadays there is more balance, sympathy, and overall much admiration. In Lyndall Roper’s biography (Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, Random House) and in German historian Heinz Schilling’s comprehensive biography (Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, Oxford), at the pinnacle of the recent biographical heap, is careful consideration of Luther’s upbringing and education, and how the perilousness and superstitions of the Harz region’s mining industry, as well as the general medieval mindset of an ‘enchanted’ world, contributed to Luther’s feelings of being continuously spiritually beset.

These days there is also more awareness of the multidimensionality of Luther’s personality. Stanford argues against the caricature of Luther as ‘depressive, punitive, pious, unbending’. Hendrix notes that contemporaries praised Luther’s patience and listening skills, though he could also be impulsive. Luther had an earthy humour, and was practical and moderate, evidenced in his approving attitude to church images and music. Though when it came to food and beer, perhaps Luther was not moderate enough.

This stands in contrast to the Swiss Reformers, who (even though they also can be unfairly caricatured) tried to create the perfect society on Earth. Luther instead emphasised freedom, which is where he was perhaps at his most radical, even beyond those in the Radical Reformation camp. Luther was realistic about our deficiencies and thought grace, and not more rules, was the answer. Eire notes, however, that it is the Swiss tradition that has ultimately had more influence globally, considering the USA’s history. Eire suggests cheekily that Calvin is responsible for much of the Enlightenment, and atheism and our secular society, because of his emphasis on reason. (Luther was happier to live with paradox and contradiction.)

The legacy of the Reformers, and the history of Protestantism, where, strangely, people of such widely differing beliefs still identify themselves against Catholicism, is explored by Alec Ryrie (Protestants, Collins). He argues that it is the passion of the individual’s relationship with God, without the mediation of human authority, that is the centre of this movement and that its ideas, and, interestingly, its patterns of migration, have created our modern world.

Plenty more books on the Reformation tackle specific areas, including yet more reappraisals of Luther’s theology. In 1517 (Oxford) Peter Marshall explores the reception of the 95 Theses. Unlike, say, the US Declaration of Independence, Luther never intended them to be a revolutionary document. Marshall concludes that the actual nailing was a myth, but contemplates how important they have been in history and legend.

Prominent English Reformation scholar Eamon Duffy’s Reformation Divided (Bloomsbury) reminds us that the Reformation was not confined to the continent, and that in the UK it forged its own distinctive path, both complementary and often conflicting with that of the European Reformation, and that the whole was never straight-forward and predictable.

The kirk, the hill and the lighthouse

Mariner, Malcolm Guite, Hodder & Stoughton

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the tale of an adventurer, a traveller and his epic journey, reckless acts, a descent into an earthly hell, rescue, a kind of baptism, prayer, the path home, the growth of wisdom and the desire to share that wisdom. The hero is a sailor, but it may as well be Coleridge himself. Writing when he was young, Coleridge seems to have a premonition of what would befall him; the drama matches the ensuing drama of Coleridge’s own life, with his marriage and financial troubles, and his opium addiction.

It is Malcolm Guite’s contention that scholars have missed the religious significance of the poem, not only in its symbolism, but in the way it echoes Coleridge’s own spiritual journey, as he sets off full of hubris and is humbly reduced to prayer and rescued from near-death by the grace of God. While it is good to recognise, as John Milbank does, that Coleridge, like many of us, changed his views over his life, Guite makes a case for Coleridge’s significance as a spiritual writer.

Coleridge is sometimes pegged as a skeptic, sometimes due to the perspective of his biographers (as in the case of Richard Holmes), but he was as immersed in faith as in other areas. In his youth he was part of an ill-fated radical Christian community, and it was not an anomaly when he wrote a letter to a friend with 3000 words on the Trinity. He was particularly interested in prayer, or, let’s say, prayer featured significantly in his life, and in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Guite tells us, the mariner’s prayer is the pivotal point on which the poem moves from despair to redemption.

The poem is also a Romantic response to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, which, according to Coleridge, like dissection, kills the thing it explains. It is not that Coleridge was against reason; he believed in a hidden, Platonic, spiritual world that had explanations beyond the scientific ones, and that an immersion in nature helped uncover. Furthermore, nature was simply God’s good creation and to delight in it was a complement to reason, not a rival. This is a very Christian vision of the world. We see this synthesis in the beginning and end of the poem, when the mariner notes the kirk, the hill and the lighthouse of home, which Guite suggests stand for faith, nature and the life of the mind.

The poem, according to Guite, also has much to say about our own times, just as Coleridge thought the ancient literature he so enjoyed had much to say about his. Guite sees in the lines ‘water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’ a metaphor for our consumerist society, where we have material abundance but a soul-destroying dislocation from nature and subsequent crisis of meaning.

(Reviewed for Crosslight magazine)

Had his principles

Thomas More: A very brief history, John Guy, SPCK

As well as the anniversary of the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses, this year marks 500 years since the release of Thomas More’s Utopia, a justifiably famous work of science fiction and surprisingly radical critique of More’s hierarchical society. More of course is equally famous as Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, and for refusing to support Henry’s divorce and break from the Catholic Church. No wonder, explains John Guy, an expert on this period of history, in his new, short summary of More’s life (one of a series of short religious lives from SPCK) as More had just fired off broadsides at Martin Luther, at the behest of Henry, the ‘defender of the faith’. When Henry made his dramatic U-turn, More could not follow.

More had his principles. He was a ‘lawyer who loved justice’, a combination perhaps rarer than it may seem, and More might have seen in his service to Henry the possibilities for contributing to society’s stability. Certainly his fight against Luther was underpinned by such, as was Utopia. Indeed, More’s loyalty to the Catholic Church was more for civic than theological reasons. For More, heretics were as good as thieves, who put themselves above their community. Guy cautions us that, distasteful as it seems to us today, More’s heretic hunting was to him a service to society, not to mention a job requirement. Anyway, the religious and the civic were then not the separate categories we recognise today.

More was not a fanatical, crude follower. He was well-educated and with his friend Erasmus chuckled over Greek satire, from which Utopia borrows in its critique of power held disproportionately by individuals and used for their personal gain. So opposing Henry was true to form, and More did so as long as he was able. He saw the wider Reformation in the same light, as driven dangerously by individual conscience, at the expense of centuries of tradition. (That some of that tradition was dubious was perhaps beyond More’s vision. Or – more likely – he ignored the imperfections for the sake of civic unity.)

It is a testament to More’s contentious place in history that Guy spends as much time in this short book on More’s legacy as on his life. In Protestant England More was vilified as a traitor. Rehabilitation occurred with Robert Bolt’s play, which portrayed More as consistently principled. What Bolt got utterly wrong was the place of individual conscience in More’s thinking – this was exactly what More opposed in Luther and Henry. Partly influenced by Bolt’s portrayal, More was rated in the 1970s by The Times as more inspiring than Shakespeare and Churchill, the epitome, ironically, of Protestant values, and only corrupted by ‘popery’. On the Catholic side, he was canonised, and John Paul II made him the patron saint of politicians.

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall de-rehabilitated More, and he became the obligatory cartoon villain, even if Mantel understood better than Bolt More’s loyalty to the Catholic Church. It makes for good fiction, but the trouble with historical fiction is that the line between history and fiction gets blurred. Guy does acknowledge the uneasy fit of More’s supposed principles and his powerful political role, but suggests this is exactly why More was wary of entering Henry’s service. Utopia had hinted at the conflict between pragmatism and idealism in public life, and he had put off working with Henry because he knew of the compromises it would involve. In the end, it was his lack of compromise that sealed his fate.

The good-hearted side of colonialism

In his day Albert Schweitzer was a supernova, as famous as Gandhi, Einstein or Mother Teresa, but his star has dimmed somewhat today, not the least because his work in Africa as a doctor is now seen as paternalistic – a good-hearted side of colonialism. He was a Lutheran, but a liberal one, influenced by the Enlightenment, who studied philosophy and theology and famously wrote about the historical Jesus. He also famously turned his back on an academic career to study medicine and apply his skills in the African jungle. There he not only built (literally) and ran a hospital, but also wrote best-selling books about his experiences. He was also a famous organist and organ builder, and wrote a biography of Bach. In 1953 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Nils Oermann describes all this in his slim Albert Schweitzer: A Biography (Oxford), with the concision to be expected when covering the ‘life, thought and work’ of someone who did so much. While not shying away from Schweitzer’s faults, Oermann suggests Schweitzer remains an inspiration because he was a genius with a practical side, able to put his intelligence to good use.

A pencil rather than a computer

The World-Ending Fire, Wendell Berry, Allen Lane

The Amish have been something of a joke among the non-Amish for many years – examples of backward-looking, technophobic eccentrics who will eventually be eclipsed by modern life. Or so the theory goes, but it is becoming more apparent that the joke is on the rest of us. The Amish are starting to seem like the sensible ones, as they are operating in a manner that is, importantly, among other things, sustainable (that contemporary buzzword).

In a similar fashion, novelist, poet and essayist Wendell Berry has been preaching his brand of back-to-basics philosophy, a mix of what we might crudely call conservative and radical, for decades. A self-described ‘crank’, a critic of technology and the idealism that comes with it, a Kentucky farmer who uses horses instead of a tractor, and a writer who uses a pencil rather than a computer, he has been criticised as an unrealistic Luddite, but the problems of the Western lifestyle that he has articulated for so long are becoming so increasingly obvious, despite the willful blindness of some, that the solutions he proposes, or at least the lifestyle that he advocates, can be the only answer.

It is somewhat depressing to note how long he has been writing on the same subjects. Far beyond the disputed issue of global warming, he has been writing about issues of pollution, extinction, large scale farming, pointless materialistic waste, urban ugliness, the tyranny of corporations and their lackey politicians, and the hollowing out of communities. If this sounds like an indictment of the Right and their followers – and make no mistake, it largely is – he is also a critic of radical causes of the Left that, he says, aren’t radical enough. He is critical of calls for widespread change that eschew personal responsibility, or focus too narrowly on one issue, or end up in self-righteous pontification. And he critiques a modern libertarianism that confuses freedom with individualism, at the expense of tradition, culture and family.

Berry is a conservationist, but for the places where people live, and this book collects decades of essays that amount to, as he says, more-or-less one argument: we depend on nature, which is not something that can be sealed off in order to be preserved. A national park, good in itself, surely, does unfortunately give the impression that we have to reserve pristine countryside as a trade-off for the ability to inevitably pollute and exploit the countryside where human beings live. The hopeful side of Berry’s prophetic writings is that he insists human beings can, have and must live in harmony with their surroundings. Nature is something with which human beings must interact with reverence and care. We must be able to produce food and shelter, in our local communities and in a way that means our descendants will be able to do the same. He is a critic of an economy based on false premises. He criticises economics where economic rationalisations are the final arbiters. He is critical of agribusiness that is reliant on long-distance fossil-fuelled transportation, of quick fix chemicals, of the myth of endless growth, of profit and greed ‘debited to the future’. He doesn’t blindly reject technology, but proposes a more sceptical approach: asking if the technology is necessary, and environmentally sound.

There are alternatives. Unfortunately, they involve hard work, giving up particular pleasures, recognising that our present Western lifestyle is unsustainable. I say ‘unfortunately’, but part of Berry’s point is that a return to slower, more local, more meaningful ways of doing things actually increases our health and wellbeing.

It is an insight that is being recognised in the West; in pockets, unfortunately not widely enough, but it is there nevertheless, in unlikely places such as inner suburbs where recycling, growing your own vegies, buying less, appreciating craft rather than mass-produced junk, are embraced. Berry agrees that change begins at home, that too often movements based on ideology become wayward and dictatorial. That if we are to have hope for the future, we must start with ourselves. And starting with ourselves, we need to look to our neighbours to collaborate with, and to counter the individualism and sense of hopelessness in the face of enormity that modern society presents.

(A shorter version of this review appears in the August issue of Crosslight magazine.)

The era of belief, not just belonging

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, Carlos Eire, Yale University Press

You don’t want to drop this massive book on your foot, but you might like to lug it back home from the bookshop, as it is a history of the period that is wide-ranging and careful. It seems ridiculous to say this about a 700-plus page book, but its author, Carlos Eire, also has a knack for summary, enlivened by anecdotes and well-chosen woodcut illustrations, meaning the narrative never gets bogged down.

Eire speaks of reformations plural because, as scholar Eamon Duffy says in his recent book on the English Reformation, the progress of reform was anything but linear. There were many conflicting movements happening at once, pushing and pulling.

Additionally, historians no longer point to Luther’s 95 Theses as the start of the Reformation. Luther merely lit the bonfire compiled by others. Eire’s book is so large partly because – to switch metaphors – he carefully points out all of the features of the medieval edifice as it stood before the Reformation knocked it down.

There were cracks in the structure as a result of Renaissance humanism, which promoted a ‘return to the sources’, a more scholarly analysis of scripture (and other texts) in the original languages. Though the Church was often enthusiastic about this, it did undermine claims for the inerrancy of the Latin Vulgate, not to mention various non-biblical doctrines and practices that had built up over centuries.

Although it is hard to judge the extent of belief in the period because religion was so intertwined with society as to make it almost meaningless to speak of religion as a separate entity, there was an enthusiasm amongst laity for spiritual revival (as is evident from the case of Savoranola), coupled with rising literacy and a distaste for the excesses of the Church’s hierarchy. What is also clear is that a renewal of piety and theological controversy ushered in an era of belief, not merely belonging.

Eire eventually narrows down to monastic practice, and Luther’s eventual rejection of the elitism of monastic practice. He shows how mysticism, Augustine, the Renaissance, faith over reason and conciliarism (the movement within the Catholic Church that questioned the centralisation of power in the figure of the pope) all contributed to Luther’s particular brand of dissent. Eire deals with Luther in only a couple of chapters, moving briskly on to how Luther’s Reformation quickly ran away from him. He battled left and right, both the intransigence of the Pope and a host of radicals, from hair-splitting theologians to violent peasants who, Luther said, misinterpreted him.

Fragmentation seems, in hindsight, to be inevitable once Luther and his fellow Reformers were understood to be advocating for the freedom to interpret Scripture in the light of conscience. Except that people weren’t free – Protestants persecuted heretics as much as Catholics. It could be argued the Reformed branch was the most zealous. Luther emphasised the spiritual, and contrary to his fiery image, was reasonably relaxed about everyday life. The Reformation of Zwingli, Calvin and the like was all-encompassing, and, says Eire, considering the US, probably more influential globally than Luther.

On the Catholic side, there were much-needed reforms, especially in education, and also a renewal of practices Calvin and company deemed superstitious. Calvin, much more than Luther, dismantled the world famously described by Max Weber as ‘enchanted’, and Peter Brown as ‘porous’. Ironically, considering his puritanical reputation, here Calvin sowed not only the seeds of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ but also the seeds of modern doubt.

We can see how the focus on the individual and a splintering of views made room for those who doubted or who were openly hostile. This situation, says Eire, led to the need for new modes of unifying peoples, leading in turn to our secular society and the marginalisation of religion as merely one aspect of life, and a private one at that.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church)