Deep and Wide
If the mischievous jester on the cover of Peter Matheson's new book The Imaginative World of the Reformation (Fortress) hadn't already set the book apart from most work on the period, some of the author's opening comments would. "[T]he reforming process was not fundamentally about ideas in the mind or structures in church and state," Matheson writes, "but indicated much more elemental changes in spiritual direction. These are signposted by the creative metaphors of the preachers and teachers, the images in literature and art, the rhythms and melodies of the popular ballads and chorales which sang the Reformation into people's souls."
Matheson, a historian at the University of Melbourne and a theologian with Australia's Uniting Church, adapted the book from lectures he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1998. The writing retains some of the energy of oral delivery, but also a bit of the loose organization and repetition common in speech. Even so, the book's original ideas and frequent sharp insights pull the reader right along.
Because Matheson is interested primarily in the cultural experience of the Reformation—the way it captured the imaginations of peasants, artists, preachers, and other members of society—he skips the litany of theses, diets, and theological terms. Radical Reformers, such as Thomas Muntzer, get nearly equal time with Martin Luther, and laypeople play key roles as well. Someone who is unfamiliar with the contours of the Reformation likely will find Matheson's amalgam confusing, but readers who have grown comfortable with their understanding of the period will be spurred to cock their heads and look at things differently.
For example, it's widely accepted that printers served as propagandists and conduits of knowledge to a previously uninformed populace, but Matheson argues that they filled a higher role as well. To worshipers concerned that overpaid and licentious priests might be a barrier between them and God, "Printers, who were often enthusiastic supporters of the reform movement, were in some ways the new priests, the 'connection people' who complemented the work of the preachers."
To cite another example, the Reformation is often viewed as essentially fragmented, even schismatic, pitting prince against prince, theologian against theologian, neighbor against neighbor. While not discounting this assessment entirely, Matheson looks beyond the well-documented conflicts to find buried agreements. "[T]he revolution we call the Reformation was one long succession of alliances," he writes, noting that many "progressive" humanists were drawn to "reactionary" Calvinism because the Calvinists presented a compelling plan for earthly utopia. Even doctrinal debates in divided cities aimed at more than separating orthodoxy from heresy: "the disputations functioned not only as a way to discover the truth of the Gospel but to find a tolerant consensus which safeguarded the peace of the city."
In addition to the striking cover image, Matheson includes 25 illustrations with his text. As he unpacks them, he demonstrates how the art of the period reinforced what revolutionaries believed—and wanted to believe—about their place in God's world. Many images are split down the middle by a tree or other device, acknowledging the rending of society while contrasting new truth with old lies. Biblical characters and references commingle with peasant faces and familiar landscapes, underscoring the reformers' biblicism and depicting a closed loop between the sixteenth century and the early church. "Freedom, light, the new dawn, waking from slumber, the eternal league or covenant, Zion itself, the holy city, Christ on the cross, the resurrection lamb, the key of the knowledge of God, the new apostolic church—the list of images is endless," Matheson writes. As such images were repeated in "printing, preaching, song and art the voiceless were given a voice, the visionless a vision." The illustrations support Matheson's points so well I only wish the publisher had spent a little extra money to display them larger and in color.
Neither illustrations nor striking insights are in abundant supply in Craig D. Atwood's Always Reforming: A History of Christianity Since 1300 (Mercer). Of course, Atwood wasn't writing from lectures given to interested specialists; he was writing the textbook he wished he would have had for the modern Western religious history course he taught at Salem College in North Carolina.
Like most textbooks, Atwood's suffers from trying to cover too much—700 years in half as many pages—and following a wooden chronological structure. He presents a flat landscape where everyone (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, conservative, liberal, fringe) makes a cameo but exits before doing or saying much of anything. Readers with a basic grasp of church history would be better off exploring the books in Atwood's "Suggestions for Further Reading," but those starting from ground zero won't be disserved by this basic, broad overview.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History, and can be reached at email@example.com.
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