Some non-fiction read recently: 1

15 Apr

star30 star30star30 1. Rachel Kohn, The New Believers, Harper Collins 2003

Rachel Kohn is the presenter of ABC Radio National’s “The Spirit of Things”. Some love her, others tend to find her infuriating. I have to admit I sometimes find her a bit of a flake, but this book does rather refute that. It is genuinely interesting and quite wide-ranging, and somewhat more critical than she appears to be at times on her program. It has to be said that her sympathies do come through rather clearly, however. Even so, it is a good guide to much in the very diverse world of religion, and that is a valuable service.

star30star30star30 2. William G Naphy, The Protestant Revolution: From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, BBC Books 2007

This is the “book of the series” for a BBC program that hasn’t appeared, so far as I can tell, in Australia. You can read a thoroughly Marxist review of the series here, albeit predictable.

Engels returned to the scene of Luther and Müntzer’s great schism, but saw in it not the birth pangs of an inscrutable religious force, but an encounter between the social contradictions of an emerging capitalism and the potent ideologies that crystallised newly born class oppositions.

Müntzer, as the theologian of the revolution, gave voice to class grievances in the only vocabulary then available, using the egalitarian aspects of the gospels…

Engels thus introduces us to what remain crucial elements of Marxist theory. There is the idea that socially immature periods demand that class politics is shown through a “religious screen”. There is also an attention to the mobilising function of religion.

But Engels also teaches us that it is concrete social struggles that force religious doctrines to split into progressive and reactionary tendencies, not vice versa. It is this fundamentally materialist lesson that Hunt has missed.

It does rather make me want to scream “Karl Popper” though.

The book is not great, but it is genuinely informative. There is a detailed review here.

…As he points out – somewhat belatedly – in his conclusion, Naphy has written what "in some senses … is not a history at all. Rather it is a consideration of those features that seem unique to Protestantism through the centuries and that, perhaps, explain the societies and cultures that have been largely, if not predominantly, influenced by Protestantism". Beginning with a discussion of the authority of the medieval church and the challenges it faced, and of developments in piety (devotio moderna) and in learning (humanism), Naphy proceeds to consider the Reformation as initiated by Martin Luther in Wittenberg and Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich. He highlights the radical impulses that emerged alongside the more measured approach taken by those who, like Luther and Zwingli, chose to work alongside magistrates and princes…

This is a wide-ranging book with a strong and compelling thesis. It is marred by a disconcerting failure to attend to detail. Thus Zwingli’s death is placed by implication in 1529, although the correct year of 1531 is given in the (very helpful) biographical glossary. The Peace of Augsburg appears to have legitimised "Catholicism or Protestantism", but turn the page and it becomes clear that "Protestantism" here should in fact mean Lutheranism. The number of such misleading passages makes it difficult to recommend this book wholeheartedly to the general reader for whom it is doubtless intended.

More fundamentally, Naphy appears to attribute the rise of reason, liberalism and individual human rights and conscience entirely to the influence of Protestantism. The French Revolution achieves one brief mention acknowledging that "the idea of natural rights played a key role in providing the ideological justification for the American and French revolutions", and that liberal ideas arose "in Catholic, absolutist France and Presbyterian Scotland". That latter observation alone suggests that the stark contrast that Naphy proposes between a Catholic "mechanism of authority" and a Protestant "recipe for chaos" is overdrawn. There is fascinating material here, and considerable depth of observation and analysis, but it is unfortunate that Naphy did not place his fascinating analysis of Protestantism against a more nuanced account of Catholicism.

It is a great source of quotes. For example: “I had believed that [Connecticut was] the last retreat of monkish darkness, bigotry and abhorrence… I join you, therefore, in sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood is at length broken up, and that a Protestant Popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character. If by Religion we mean Sectarian Dogmas … then … this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it. But if the moral precepts, innate in Man … if the sublime doctrine of … Deism taught us by Jesus of Nazareth … constitute true religion, then, without it, this would be … indeed a Hell.” — Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams (1817).

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Posted by on April 15, 2009 in America, Australia, book reviews, faith, faith and philosophy, History, reading, religion, USA


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