Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Reading, Writing, and Reformation

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Reading, Writing, and Reformation

Article excerpt

Reading, Writing, and Reformation BURNING TO READ: ENGLISH FUNDAMENTALISM AND ITS REFORMATION OPPONENTS by JAMES SIMPSON Harvard University Press 368 pages, $27.95

Reviewed by Alan Jacobs

THE PAST TWENTY YEARS have brought major changes to university presses. Decreasing financial support from their home institutions has forced many of these presses to act more like trade houses-to be more attentive to the bottom line, one might say, or, putting a different spin on it, to be more conscious of a book's potential readership.

The effects of this change have been mixed. On the one hand, it's unlikely that certain significant monuments of scholarship-for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein's magisterial The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, published in two large volumes in 1980, or Maurice Cowling's threevolume Religion and Public Doctrine in Modem England-would be published today, at least in their full form. On the other hand, the current situation discourages unnecessary obscurity in theme and language, and acquisitions editors are now actively seeking out scholars who can write with clarity and verve.

Accompanying this change at the university presses, and tangenrially related to it, is an openness on the part of major universities to their professors' publishing with trade houses-at least once those professors have established themselves as reputable scholars. Just in the past two years, members of Columbia's English department have published books with Picador, Henry Holt, Pantheon, and Harper. This development, I think, is less a function of economics than of an ever-increasing sense that the professoriate has been marginalizing itself unnecessarily, making itself irrelevant to American public life. (And in this context, it's worth remembering that a book lamenting such irrelevance, Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals, appeared precisely twenty years ago.) Professors who write for trade houses, and their larger and more diverse audiences, are often seeking to recover the now nearly extinctand perhaps only legendary-role of the public intellectual.

This, too, is a largely salutary move with certain troubling implications. As Jean Bethke Elshtain once said, the danger of being a public intellectual is that it's easy to become more and more public, and less and less intellectual. It is immensely difficult to present scholarship to a general audience in a way that is faithful to what you have learned and accessible to people who haven't spent most of their lives in libraries.

Which leads us to James Simpson's Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents. I became wary of this book the moment I saw its subtitle, for "fundamentalism" is clearly in this context an anachronistic term-a point that Simpson, a professor of English at Harvard, acknowledges in his introduction, though without apology. Yes, he says, the word is "philologically unauthorized," but it does "designate a movement based on the literal inerrancy of Scripture; and many forms of that movement are vibrant in many parts of the world today." The presence of "fundamentalism" in his subtitle is explicitly "designed to connect sixteenth-century debates with contemporary issues."

It's probably not difficult for readers of FIRST THINGS to guess where Simpson is going with this, nor is he inclined to leave his audience long in doubt If you turn the page from the words I have just quoted, you see this: "In this chapter I sketch some of the ways in which new forms of Bible reading produced nearly two hundred years of violence in Western Europe between 1517 and 1700." Note that these forms of reading are not said to have contributed to, encouraged, abetted, or failed to discourage two centuries of violence; they produced it. This is not a subtle thesis.

Simpson connects this thesis with another one, which is more subtle and therefore more interesting. This one involves sixteenth-century debates about the desirability of vernacular Bibles and lay access to Scripture. …

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