Friday, 8 July 2016

IJBS 2016: Quaker mothers and genocidal castaways

Some highlights from the conference of the International John Bunyan Society in Aix-en-Provence: though some of the highlights, from the sun-baked stone to the sound of the crickets, you'll have to take on trust. Why aren't more conferences like this?

Wrenching my attention back to academic matters, the best papers I've heard so far would include Naomi Pullin (currently stuck in postdoc hell at Warwick) on women Quakers 1650-1750. The standard view, part of the consensus that Quakerism calmed down and got domesticated, is that women stopped being prominent Quaker evangelists and were therefore excluded from ministry. Naomi's point is that, by 1750, 90% or more of Quakers were the children of Quakers. Therefore almost all the work of conversion was being done in the home, by women, with children. She has evidence that Quaker women saw this as their vocation, not too different from the work of the public evangelists of the first generation. So Quakerism may have been 'domesticated': but that didn't make it any less powerful.

The most startling paper, however, was from Nicholas Seager, at Keele, on Robinson Crusoe. I didn't know that Daniel Defoe was a Dissenter: nor that he wrote three volumes about Crusoe. Volume one is the famous one. Volume two is a further set of voyages to Madagascar, China and elsewhere, in which amongst other things Crusoe witnesses and is rather unhappy about various atrocities against pagan peoples. Volume three is his 'serious reflections' on his fictional voyages, a set of essays which are apparently quite dull. Until the end. That's when Crusoe suddenly declares that the Christian powers ought to conquer the rest of the planet in order to allow the Gospel to be brought to all humanity. This is fundamentally an act of kindness, he insists. He does argue that such conquests should be bloodless, 'as far as in them lies'. But he has no doubt it can be done. Perhaps China (a country with which he seemed particularly obsessed) could put a million-strong army into the field. Crusoe is sure that a force of 30,000 German and English foot, and 10,000 French horse, would slaughter them.

In other words: uh????

My first thought hearing Nick summarise this was, it's a spoof. Defoe is being ironic. Nick considered this option and concluded  it's not so, or at least not quite. Yes, this plan is self-contradictory in places and is put into the voice of a fictional character, whose own behaviour on this issue has been very inconsistent across the three volumes. But Defoe did write openly ironic, satirical works and this one has quite a different feel. Nick's conclusion is - I think! - that Defoe half meant it: that he was using the device of the fictional voice to play with a dark fantasy of quick, easy world evangelism-at-gunpoint that he knew was a fantasy but still felt tempted by. I was put in mind of the militaristic fantasies which talk of war can provoke otherwise sensible people into in our own day. It would be so appealing if problems really could be destroyed precisely with laser-guided bombs.

Whether Nick is right about Defoe, I can't say. But it sounded plausible to me: and, more important, fascinating.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

JEH 67/3: Marriage and other capital crimes

Normally the Journal of Ecclesiastical History stipulates that articles should be no more than 8000 words in length, so running to under 20 pages. Occasionally, for a really strong piece, we’re willing to stretch that a little, especially if the extension is in response to our recommendations for revision. So it tells you something that the new edition includes a 55-page article. André Vitória’s ‘Two Weddings and a Lawsuit’ is really quite a piece. More than half of that page extent consists of appendices, transcribing in full a set of court documents in Portuguese found in the Vatican archives.
A Portuguese matrimonial dispute from 1369 involving nobody anyone has ever heard of might not seem to be the most promising basis for an article. But a three things set this apart.
First, Vitória can write. This is academic prose at its best – precise, scholarly, but full of life and spirit. All too rare, especially when united with top-notch research as it is here.
Second, he has a terrific story to tell. The unfolding mess of bigamy, secret marriages, theft, family feuds and deception is as gripping as any court-based microhistory you may care to name.
This is not a new Martin Guerre, however, since the documents aren’t extensive enough to allow it. What it is, and this is the third and the genuinely important point, is a window into how both ecclesiastical law and civil law touched everyday life in an ordinary corner of medieval Europe. What Vitória has done is to demonstrate how closely all the participants in the dispute – except perhaps the hapless bigamist at its centre, whose crime could have and possibly did cost him his life – understood where the legal fault-lines were, and shaped their testimony and their behaviour accordingly.
Much of this hinges around the tension between marriage as a public event, defined socially, a matter of family and property; and marriage as a sacrament, a private and perhaps secret commitment between two individuals. The theology was clear and, in the medieval social context, terribly impractical. Secret marriage was easy to contract and impossible to prove. Or, as Vitória felicitously puts it: ‘A slip of the tongue was all it took to create an indissoluble marriage; stout denial all it took to end it.’ We’ve rarely been shown with more care how those problems actually played out in the reality of people’s lives.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Start again from our beginnings

So, post the Brexit vote ... Time to stop just being stunned and angry, and work out the best way out of this mess. I now actually think there are reasons to be hopeful.
Here’s what a good outcome looks like, in ascending order of achievability.
1. Internationalism, internationalism, internationalism. Leaving the EU need not mean closing of borders, drawing up of bridges, revoking of treaties, shrinking of horizons. Various Leave-ers have been promising that it would not. They need to be held to their word.
2. We remain in the single market. Neither the Norwegian nor the Swiss terms would exactly work, nor would they be exactly available, but something of that sort is very possible. Necessarily this would involve free movement, though presumably not simple access to benefits for migrants. – I spent some time in Norway earlier this month. You could do a lot worse.
3. The UK holds together. The single market is what could make this possible, since it means we can avoid closing the Irish border, and that the calculus of risk for the Scots becomes finely balanced. I note that Nicola Sturgeon’s statement emphasised keeping Scotland in the EU or at least in the single market. If it becomes possible to remain in the single market without breaking from the UK, embracing the euro, etc etc then the outcome of a second indyref becomes much less certain, and the SNP – which cannot afford to lose a second one – may not risk it.
4. It becomes possible to reconsider the vote to leave. The ‘re-run the referendum’ cry is obviously futile, but useful to this extent: it emphasises that the losing side is not lying down and taking this, and that a 52-48 win based on some deeply mendacious claims is not a mandate for anything beyond the bare question asked. As the SNP said in similar circumstances: if there is a material change in our situation, then it becomes legitimate to re-ask the question. Thus: if either a noticeably different relationship with the EU is on offer (that seems unlikely) or the EU itself changes noticeably, such that membership did not mean the same as once it did (which seems more possible, given the turmoil), then a new vote and a Breturn is on the cards.
So, how do we get there?
1. Break up the Leave coalition. Happily this is dead easy, because they can’t agree on anything. The Tory Brexiteers, especially the splendidly opportunistic Mr Johnson, do not appear to have an appetite for taking us out of the single market. Not least because they, too, want to keep the UK together. What we want is for UKIP to be hopping up and down and shouting ‘betrayal’ in a few months’ time.
2. Get a functioning opposition which will force the Tories to contest the political centre. Hard to see how this happens at present. Still, anything’s possible.
3. Ensure that MPs, especially the large cross-party Remain majority, understand that their voters expect them to stand by their principles and to interpret this referendum strictly and minimally.
4. Tell a bigger story about Brexit. Immigration was the immediate issue, and that makes the whole thing look like a xenophobic spasm, but us Remainers need to recognise that there was a lot more to it than that: a long-term alienation from the EU’s strategic agenda, and a deep dissatisfaction with its opacity, unaccountability and dysfunction. Right or wrong, those are not illegimate views. We need to say this, both so that we can stop the whole world from seeing us as a country that just ticked the ‘We hate foreigners’ box; and so that immigration is not allowed to become the touchstone of any new settlement. We have to say, loudly, that is not what we just voted against.
5. On that note: I don’t want to celebrate the result. But there is undeniably something mulishly admirable about the bloody-minded Englishness of saying, sod you, we’re not going to do what we’re told. For once, the establishment has been given a damn good kicking by people whom both main parties have simply ignored for decades. In that sense: we deserved it. By all means fix the appalling damage done by last Thursday’s vote. But don’t ignore what drove it. In this sense – if only in this sense – this result is better than a 52-48 for Remain, after which the 48% would simply have carried on being ignored.

And on all these notes: stay angry, stay visible, stay vocal. This is an extraordinary moment of possibilities, some of them quite attractive, some of them truly dreadful. It can’t be allowed to drift.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Why I'm backing Donald Trump

Joking! Joking. Almost, anyway.

In some sort of extended corollary of Godwin's Law, every blogger eventually gets drawn in to the phenomenon that is Donald Trump: surely the most extraordinary event in America, if not the world, this year. But once we've overcome the incredulous outrage he generates, or at least put it to one side: what does the phenomenon mean?

That he represents a kind of backwash to Obama's America is becoming a commonplace, and no less true for that. A formerly dominant slice of American culture - white, male, relatively uneducated, relatively rural - which has been seeing both its social privileges and its economic position steadily eroded for two or three generations, has been nursing various kinds of legitimate and illegitimate anger for much of that time but has not managed to find satisfactory ways of expressing it. There have been constructive ways of doing so, and real political victories along the way, but none that have changed that underlying trajectory. Obama's election does seem to have turbocharged that anger - both by making government seem alien in a way it had not seemed to white Americans before,and by emphasising that the opposing coalition really could win. And he won by beating two of the most constructive, moderate and appealing figures Republican politics could offer, McCain and Romney - who lost partly because they had had to contort themselves out of that moderation in order to secure their party's nomination.

So it sort of makes sense that this burgeoning, nameless rage should now finally express itself in an irrational howl. It's time for a section of white America's id to be heard, and Mr Trump's remarkable skill has been to be its ventriloquist. No one else could do it this way, but in any other year he would have made no progress at all.

Most of the non-Trump world is focusing on immediate and practical questions like, how to stop him, and how, if at all, the Republican Party can rebuild itself after this eruption. But it's not generally good to respond to seismic political change by wishing it will go away and normal service will resume.

I think the key question is how to get America through this moment without suffering long-term harm - and preferably, to allow Trump to act as a sort of scapegoat or sin-eater, who can concentrate the poison of American politics in his person and take it into the wilderness with him. 

So, while I appreciate why so many Republicans want to block him at the convention (and it now looks like they may succeed), I sort of hope they fail. If he is blocked the long-term damage may be severe: a large section of the Republican Party will feel that its democratic will has been thwarted, and that if only its candidate had run it would have triumphed. It will not be reconciled to the new order. Not even if, highly implausibly, a Republican candidate who emerges from that train-wreck of a process goes on to win. This is obviously a problem for the Republican party, but it's also a problem for the republic as a whole.

Whereas a Trump candidacy which is really, thoroughly, soundly walloped in the general election could achieve what nothing else could: getting through to that agonised, disempowered chunk of the American electorate that, for good or for ill, the old days are OVER. If as stumbling and flawed an embodiment of America's ego as Hillary Clinton can beat the most fluent and articulate embodiment of its id, that should not be an experiment that anyone will want to repeat. And indeed, I would bet that in retrospect, the Trump candidacy will seem grotesque and shameful to many of those who will deny that they were ever caught up in it. With luck, Trump's electorate could start demanding that politicians of both parties actually address their problems.

It is just the tiny, tiny risk that a Trump candidacy might not end in defeat that gives me pause.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

JEH 67/2: Today Cambridge, tomorrow the world

Normally with a new number of the JEH out, I'd flag up a particular article, but this time there's a slightly broader point to be made. As we say in an editorial at the beginning of the number: the Journal's remit is the history of Christianity as broadly conceived as possible, without geographical, chronological or disciplinary restrictions. Naturally we have traditional areas of strength (early modern England, for example), and that's fine and good - please keep them coming, folks. But sometimes it's good to stir the mix a bit. So, a few years ago (before I became an editor), we launched an annual prize for the best essay in early church history, up to the year 700. (I can't help mentioning that the first prize was won by a former Durham colleague of mine, now in Melbourne.) It's got us some excellent essays in itself, but has also helped build up the Journal's strength in that area more widely.

So, early church, tick: next on our list of concern is the global history of Christianity. We're a traditional journal, and we like it that way, but traditional shouldn't mean parochial, and we have tended to be rather Eurocentric. With the help of several members of our advisory editorial board (not least the still keenly lamented John D. Y. Peel), we've been making a concerted push to put this right: expanding the remit of our reviewing and seeking out first-rate articles which take us out of the North Atlantic region.

The first really visible fruits of this are in the new number, two of whose six articles are non-Euro/American in focus. James Fujitani has done a precise, elegant piece on how the early Jesuit mission to Japan negotiated penitential practices with their converts, adapting them to Japanese expectations and patterns. David C. Kirkpatrick has a significant analysis of the Ecuadorean evangelical theological C. René Padilla, looking at how his encounters with Marxism helped to shift global evangelicalism's consensus towards embracing social action as well as narrow proselytization in the 1970s.

There's more goodies of this sort to come. Without giving away too much ... In the pipeline we have a piece on indigenous evangelists in British Africa c. 1900, a piece on the Mexican influences on Ivan Illich, a couple of articles on Christianity in 20th-century Israel/Palestine, and most recently one on 1990s Sudanese refugee camps as sites of church growth.

But, we're greedy and we want more. So we're launching another prize: a World Christianities Prize, we're calling it provisionally, which will be 500 good British pounds for the best essay each year whose main focus is Christianity outside Europe and North America after the year 700. (Inevitably the field will be dominated by 19th- and 20th-century entries, but as Fujitani's essay reminds us, global Christianity is not a new phenomenon.) Full details in the next issue, but in the meantime, anyone who wants both to win a prize and fund a decent mini-break somewhere should get writing.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The greatest show on Earth

American politics. What’s not to love, especially from a safe distance?

Antonin Scalia, contrarian and intellectual bruiser that he was, would I think have enjoyed the prospect of the argument which will follow on his death in the midst of the nastiest and most unpredictable presidential campaign in living memory. Here’s my immediate thought on how this will play out. (Unless of course another justice pops their clogs, in which case we are in West Wing territory.)

First, and most tentatively: I suspect the focus on this issue will do some limited damage to Donald Trump and, by the same margin, boost Ted Cruz during the Republican primary contest. Cruz has been banging on about the Supreme Court forever: it’s his issue. But the issue is also a reminder that the Presidency of the United States is a solemn office with serious responsibilities, which may possibly make some of those who think a reality-TV star would be fun reconsider their choice. But, that is a side issue.

President Obama will of course ignore the calls for him to postpone a nomination. But he will choose an exceptionally centrist, moderate, overqualified candidate, daring the Republicans in the Senate to vote him down (it will almost certainly be a ‘him’). Some of those Republican senators who are facing uphill re-election battles this November will be tempted to approve the nomination, but there will not be enough votes to break a filibuster and the nomination will either be voted down, or will reach the point where it is being so plainly blocked that it will be withdrawn.

Then, the President will make a second nomination, of a candidate who will be more of a red-meat, base-pleasing Democrat. Hillary Clinton, who will be then be the unmistakable Democratic nominee for President, will lend her firm approval to this person, and make clear that if she is elected and the post is not yet filled, she will back the same candidate.

Naturally this candidacy will be dead in the water before the election. But it will mobilise the Democratic base, and will prove especially useful in rallying women to the Clinton candidacy, by presenting her Republican opponent (whoever he is) as part of a wider ‘war on women’. It may also (by setting her more clearly against Citizens United) help her to shake off her in-bed-with-Wall-St problem. It will further enrage the Republican base, of course, but that base is already about as angry as it can get, and no matter how angry they are they still only get to vote once. So it’s a net benefit to the Democrats.

If she wins, and if the Senate shifts somewhat on her coattails, then the nominee or someone similar will get confirmed either before or after her inauguration. If she loses, of course, the Republican winner gets to do that – unless the Senate flips anyway, in which case let’s imagine a quick abolition of the filibuster and attempt to squeeze a confirmation through in mid-January 2017, giving the Supreme Court a solid liberal majority until Justice Ginsberg follows her old friend’s example, and giving the country a particularly nasty sense of political illegitimacy. That would be bad.

Indeed, placing a crowd-pleasing, red-blood Democrat on the court might be bad too, and I say that as an instinctive Democratic supporter. Who thinks that what America needs is sharper partisan division?

So perhaps the cleverest thing that Republican senators could do is to call the Democrats’ bluff and accept a centrist nominee, so boosting their own re-election hopes, spiking a key campaign issue for their opponents, avoiding the danger of having a really unpalatable justice on the court and, incidentally, bringing a measure of healing and moderation to the republic. And of course, the decision would come too late in the year for any of them to have to worry about primary challenges.

But of course, they won’t.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Margaret Bullett's PhD: Unexpected Calvinists

In Huddersfield yesterday to examine a PhD – not something I would normally blog about, but then doctoral theses aren’t normally this good. Maggie Bullett’s title doesn’t stir the blood: ‘Post-Reformation Preaching in the Pennines: Space, Identity and Affectivity’ – I confess my heart sank when it arrived in the post. But the thing about books’ covers applies doubly to theses.

There’s real scholarly substance here. In sheer research terms, the most impressive thing is the careful reconstruction of a well-known and much-misunderstood major civic dispute in Leeds in the 1620s. Maggie has found stacks of highly relevant new documents and has very convincingly interpreted the dispute, not as a conformists v. Puritans punch-up, but as a split between two different factions of what she calls ‘progressive Protestants’. In the process, she manages to explain an old mystery: why St John’s Chapel in Leeds, which was built in 1631-4, is decorated with a set of royal arms dating from 1620. If you want to know more, read the thesis.

The most exciting innovation, though, is her use of financial records to unlock a whole new set of data about popular participation in local religion. It wouldn’t be possible to do this for the heavily-parished south of England, but in the North, huge parishes with multiple chapelries required and allowed much greater lay involvement. So when she shows us communities arriving at a consensus that they intend to levy a rate, or simply mobilising huge numbers of small donations, to pay for visiting ‘godly’ preachers; when we see them building or rebuilding their chapels with architecture which prioritises preaching, dedicating their pew rents to the support of the godly ministry, and pricing the pews so that the ones nearest to the pulpit (not nearest the communion table) are the most expensive – it’s hard to avoid the once-unthinkable conclusion that there is some real popular Calvinism happening in the Yorkshire dales.

My favourite nugget, though, hangs on my longstanding preoccupation with people who fall asleep during sermons. Readers of the indispensable 101 Things to Do During a Dull Sermon  will recall that it recommends, as well as discreetly pinching yourself to stay awake, discreetly pinching the person next to you, which should keep both of you awake. Of course, in the seventeenth century, pinching yourself was for wimps: Nehemiah Wallington tried pricking himself with a pin.

Maggie, however, has found another of those quarrelsome folks from Leeds, one Maria Beckett, who in 1615 was presented to the court for ‘misbehaving her selfe in tyme of divine service … by pricking them that satt next her with pinnes’.

I now propose to trawl through the church court records for people trying the other exercises recommended in 101 Things. ‘Rapture Bingo’ would have been great fun in the 1640s.