Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The spirit of '76

One of the problems I've been wrestling with in writing my current chapter is the disappearance of a vocally Christian Left in American politics since the 1970s, which I think is symptomatic of a whole series of wider issues. In the process, I came across this poster, from the great moment of the American evangelical left, the Carter campaign of 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the presidency off the back of the evangelical vote.

A little ironic in retrospect, I give you. But: that is actually funny, isn't it? And deliberately, slightly self-parodically funny. The Obama campaign in 2008 could have used a little of that kind of humour. So my question: where did the funny go in American politics? The religious Right isn't given to self-mockery, though the broader Right is certainly capable of top-notch satire. And the Left tends towards earnest and rather dreary righteousness.

I am afraid that my hunch is that, although I really like that poster, it is a sign that things were already going wrong for this constituency. It is the sort of thing produced by people who not only know that they can look a little bit ridiculous but, crucially, who even look a little bit ridiculous to themselves. It's clever, sharp and nuanced, but that's not the kind of thing that ever got anyone up on a barricade.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

More from Vancouver

I thought I was done blogging the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, but the session on Early Modern Women's Writing in the punishment slot (8:30am on Sunday) was too good not to notice: I think probably the all-round best panel I attended.

I'm accustomed to expecting great things from Kate Narveson, who didn't disappoint, in her account of how several early seventeenth-century women produced Bible collages which constructed a very particular view of God - emphasising his comforts, care and (it seemed to me - Kate didn't put it this way) his maternal qualities. In doing so they clearly constructed the God they wanted, needed or had encountered, but did so on the irrefutable grounds of the bare scriptural text.

Paula McQuade, whose book on catechisms is stuck in editorial limbo but must surely emerge soon, was also as humane and insightfue and as ever. He sense that the act of catechesis could be and often was a profoundly intimate moment in family life, and in particular between mothers and children, is worth holding on to. As she points out, the stereotype of catechesis as a repressive and disciplinary process simply is not supported by any significant evidence from the earlier period, even if some Victorians felt that way.

Victoria Burke's work is newer to me, but she was talking about a text I thought I knew, namely Elizabeth Isham's autobiography from the 1630s. What she revealed, however, was the extent to which Isham is, quietly and unfussily, making herself into a scholar in this text: not just referencing an enormous amount of reading, but processing it critically and testing her emerging views against various authorities and against Scripture. She began by suggesting that Isham's work is intellectual rather than conventionally devotional, which is clearly the case, but she ended up demonstrating something rather more important: that this was devotion by the means of intellectual labour. It's quite a trick.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

SCSC Vancouver

The Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in Vancouver has been as fun as ever this year, even through the mental fog of an eight-hour time change. 

There have been highlights from some of the usual suspects. Natalie Mears pointed out that, irrefutably, that the spate of adoring monuments to Queen Elizabeth I in early seventeenth-century London parish churches weren't attempts to send subtle messages to James I - not when there were far better and cheaper ways of sending messages to him than by building monuments which he would never see.

Jon Reimer revealed his newly discovered copy of a book by my old friend Thomas Becon, which proves that Becon really did feel bad about having recanted his evangelical faith in 1543. And Nick Thompson is not only tackling Stephen Gardiner's ding-dong over clerical celibacy with Martin Bucer, but pointed out along the way that Gardiner was labelled 'Anglican' by his hosts in Louvain. Well, sort of, anyway.

But the real treat at a conference is the chance to hear the people you don't yet know, and in this category the one I am most excited about is Harriet Lyon, a second-year doctoral student in Cambridge, who gave us a first glimpse of her work on the way the dissolution of the monasteries was remembered. I've been droning on about the importance of the dissolution for years, and so I'm naturally pleased to see someone tackling this: but she's also doing it with real creativity, thinking about how it's managed in historical writing and how the economic impact of it is processed in the generations that followed. It's genuinely innovative work and I'm excited to see where she takes it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The happy Klan

Reading about 20th-century American Protestantism, I come across an excellent and disturbing book about the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which emphasises the organisation's commitment to Protestantism as a core value.

I had always thought of the Klan as kind of conservative and reactionary. Apparently I had underestimated their ambition. They seem to have thought of themselves as optimistic, forward-looking and even in a sense progressive, allied as they were with the great progressive cause of the day (Prohibition) and opposed as they were to retrogressive forces such as Catholicism (priestcraft and intolerance) and to racially inferior groups (Jews and African-Americans) who would drag America backwards. They were also keen on intra-Protestant ecumenism. Onwards, to a paradise of united Protestant racial purity!

And they thought they were winning. This macabre image doesn't just show a Klansman sitting on the dead body of American Catholicism, which he has defeated. He is, incongruously, visibly happy and optimistic about it. Who knew you could get a smile out of one of those hoods?

But apparently I have been misreading the hoods themselves. In the original, 1860s Klan the white robes were said to symbolise the vengeful ghosts of the Confederate war dead. In the new, cheerful, forward-looking Klan of the Twenties, a brighter and more edifying alternative was preferred. These were, the Klan now declared, the white robes of the righteous, as in the book of Revelation, symbolising purity of conscience as well as, they hardly needed to add, skin colour. And we were told that the hoods were not in fact to conceal murderous cowards, but so that humble Christians might not be seen to take the credit for the Klan's godly works, but instead anonymously give the glory to God. As the Exalted Cyclops of Texas (I am not kidding) wrote in 1923:
Who can look upon a multitude of white robed Klansmen without thinking of the equality and unselfishness of that throng of white robed saints in the Glory Land?

Who indeed. How could anyone possibly think of anything else?

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Turning ontological

One of my preoccupations is the difficulty of how the discipline of history – in its modern, quasi-scientific, secular garb – can engage seriously with profoundly different worldviews. Given my own interests, I am thinking in particular of how history can deal with the religious faith of past societies and individuals, and do so without condescension or dismissiveness. But the point applies more widely. I tried to address some of these issues in the introduction to my most recent book, although the best extended consideration of it that I know remains Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Hearing Things.

So when I see an article in the new American Historical Review,* in which the ancient historian Greg Anderson argues for an ‘ontological turn’ in which we take the reality of what he calls other historical ‘lifeworlds’ seriously, I ought to be delighted. And in many ways I am. I am certainly very stimulated by it (as you can tell). Much of what he says seems like obviously good sense, especially if, like me, you tend to think that all history is in the end history of mentalities. And, indeed, if his description of some of the crudely anachronistic histories of ancient Athens is fair, I am kind of shocked that respectable scholars are still doing that sort of thing.

So why does the whole thing leave me feeling a bit queasy?

Anderson is rightly critical of history-writing which takes what he calls a ‘God’s-eye, “etic” (outsider)’ view of the past, urging us instead to inhabit those past worldviews. But he does not directly address the problem which seems to me fundamental here, namely that historians do not inhabit the past. We inhabit the present. And this is not a liability. Very good historians can sometimes inhabit both past and present, stretching their minds to multiple worlds. But the point of doing history is not to inhabit the past for its own sake, but to understand it from the perspective of the present, to make it intelligible to the present, and to use all the resources we have (necessarily, present resources) to interrogate it. Historians are, at best, the conduits between ages. We need to have a foot in each one.

Failing to recognise that we ourselves are and must be rooted in a particular historical moment, pretending that we and we alone can transcend our historical particularity and inhabit other worlds – that seems to me the ultimate ‘etic’ viewpoint.

Instead, should we not recognise that our present and its knowledge can bring real value to reading past societies? Take, for example, an event in ancient Athenian history which Anderson does not mention, the plague of 430 BCE. It seems to me historically sensible to use modern ideas such as germ theory in order to analyse that event, even though they were not part of the ancient Athenian ‘lifeworld’. Sometimes we just know stuff they didn’t. And naturally, they knew stuff that we don’t. The point of a historical conversation with the past is surely that both we and they are allowed to bring insights to the table.

I am also a little troubled by the sealed, stable ‘lifeworlds’ that he implies, a bit like native reservations, in which exotic peoples can be admired in their pristine habitats. It is not simply that modern ideas can sometimes be powerful analytical tools for examining past societies, but also that past societies themselves were not stable. I kept expecting Anderson to talk about my old friends Herodotus and Thucydides, whose views on this particular question seem to me relevant. Herodotus, famously, used divine agency as an explanatory tool in his Histories. A generation later Thucydides, very deliberately, refused to do so. Without getting into who was right, that suggests that the ancient Athenian ‘lifeworld’ was pretty plural and unstable. Perhaps the truisms Anderson lists – gods, land, demos and household – were not so universally held. In particular, perhaps the women, slaves and other voiceless peoples of ancient Athens did not accept them.

I think Anderson would respond that this is part of his point: that lifeworlds are contingent and fluid, and that this extends to our own. But this troubles me too. I mean, he is right, obviously. But one of the plainest features of this essay is its distaste for modernity. His description of the modern post-Enlightenment lifeworld – materialist, secular, anthropocentric and individualist – reeks of disapproval. Fair enough, you might say, although I am not sure quite which variety of collectivism and supernatural agency he would like us to adopt instead. But his final line, that an ontological turn in history may lead us ‘to imagine less exploitative, more equitable, more sustainable lifeworlds of the future’, gives the game away. That’s not a historical project, it’s a political one (and is profoundly presentist, ransacking the past for what it can give us). Historically, studying the past can reveal to us how deeply contingent, and indeed weird, our own society is: although I think he overdoes the present’s absolute exceptionalism, a little narcissistically. Whether that makes us want to critique the present, or, alternatively, to consider how lucky we all are nowadays, is a political matter. A perfectly legitimate one, but if you’ve a constructive critique of modernity to make, let’s have it openly stated, not assumed and framed as history.


*Greg Anderson, ‘Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:The Case for an Ontological Turn’ in American Historical Review 120/3 (2015): 787-810. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The 'Tyndale' Erasmus MS: update

Earlier this year I wrote about the discovery of what appears to be a manuscript of Tyndale's translation of Erasmus' Enchiridion. Now comes the very welcome news that the British Library has managed to raise the funds necessary to keep it. Thank you to whoever the donor was. And anyone who wants to look at the thing for themselves simply needs to go to the BL, request Additional MS 89149, and form an orderly queue.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

JEH: A very British apocalyptic suicide cult

The new Journal of Ecclesiastical History (vol. 66 no. 4: Oct. 2015) has the usual range of treats, and as usual I will arbitrarily pick out those that appeal to me. The most memorable single line is from Jeremy Morris’ splendid treatment of nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics who went on tours of continental Europe, and whose religion was profoundly shaped by them. The previous neglect of this subject is a grave comment on the insularity of so much English scholarship. Jeremy rightly could not resist, however, pointing out that even some nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics shared that insularity. W. F. Hook, the energetic, creative vicar of Leeds and later dean of Chichester, had this to say of his one trip to France:
I am heartily sick of Paris; hate France, and think Frenchmen the most detestable of human beings. In three weeks I hope to be in dear old England, and never shall I wish again to quit her shores.
It’s only a shame we couldn’t get that one into print in time for the Waterloo anniversary earlier in the year.

            That’s very British, but it’s not a suicide cult. For that we have to turn to, for me, the most revelatory article in the issue, Sam Brewitt-Taylor’s wonderful piece on the British Student Christian Movement (SCM) in the 1960s. It’s well-known that in the 1960s, the SCM turned towards political radicalism and imploded, going from dominance of the student Christian scene to near-collapse and subsequent irrelevance in only a few years. The usual explanation is that it was trying to hitch itself to the bandwagon of 1960s political activism in an attempt to stay relevant in a secularising age, and in the process got sucked under the bandwagon’s wheels. My interest was piqued. I was a member of the rump SCM group in St Andrews in 1993-4, a group which, though tiny, was high-powered (its alumni include an SNP MP, indeed one elected before the mammoth 2015 intake – hello, Eilidh). They were a lovely group of people, who made my own liberal-evangelical convictions seem terribly staid.
            Brewitt-Taylor’s piece shows that the SCM’s collapse was not a hapless accident but almost wholly self-inflicted. It was taken over by what can only be described as an apocalyptic cult. These radicals, inspired by Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’, believed that God was at work in the secular world and its transformations, and that Christians should therefore abandon all the outward trappings of Christianity and throw themselves into socio-political activism. Like any classic Christian apocalyptic movement, they overread events in the world around them, mis-reading (as we can now say from a safe distance) subtle shifts and ambiguous movements as absolute changes of cosmic significance. The drift of students away from Christianity meant that it was ‘totally irrelevant’ in a world that had ‘no room for religion’. Likewise, they saw signs of the kingdom of God in the rise of revolutionary movements across the world, from student demos to Algeria and Vietnam – and even, though they really should have known better after 1956 and especially 1968, in the Warsaw Pact countries.
            The result was a movement which openly disparaged traditionally Christian activities and advocated revolution. Naturally, most of its Christian members (especially its female majority, who like many women at the time recognised that they weren’t invited to 1960s-style revolutions) simply left. Those who hung on were often uncertain what they should actually do to usher in this postmillenial kingdom. As they subsided into a series of consciousness-raising workshops, the movement sank out of sight.
            The tragedy of this – for that is how I read it – is that the leadership knew what they were doing. They expected to lose much of their membership and their income: these were prophetic, self-sacrificial acts, laying down their institutional life for the sake of the Kingdom. As with most suicide cults, however, the dramatic act of self-immolation didn’t produce the desired results. At least this time, instead of ending in a literal bloodbath, it ended in a commune in a draughty Gloucestershire manor house which wound up for lack of funds in 1977.

            The SCM was many good things: bold, inspired, prophetic, honest, willing to read the signs of the times, determined to lead change rather than being dragged along behind it. Only one problem: it was wrong. Its error, as Brewitt-Taylor bluntly puts it, was ‘contextualising limited religious decline as part of God’s plan to abolish organised religion’.  It’s been the defensive, conservative, counter-counter-cultural forms of Christianity that have survived, this far at least – not least in the student world. We all know that, in reality, hares can run faster than tortoises. But a tortoise is better at coping with crossfire and less likely to dash off a cliff.