Christopher Hitchens on "Wolf Hall" & the Reformation

Thanks to Aaron Lewis, who saw my praise for Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell and sent me a link to a review of her Wolf Hall by the late Christopher Hitchens.  He may have been an atheist, but he was an atheist who supported the Reformation.  An excerpt from the review:

Three portraits by Hans Holbein have for generations dictated the imagery of the epoch. The first shows King Henry VIII in all his swollen arrogance and finery. The second gives us Sir Thomas More, the ascetic scholar who seems willing to lay his life on a matter of principle. The third captures King Henry’s enforcer Sir Thomas Cromwell, a sallow and saturnine fellow calloused by the exercise of worldly power. The genius of Mantel’s prose lies in her reworking of this aesthetic: look again at His Majesty and see if you do not detect something spoiled, effeminate, and insecure. Now scrutinize the face of More and notice the frigid, snobbish fanaticism that holds his dignity in place. As for Cromwell, this may be the visage of a ruthless bureaucrat, but it is the look of a man who has learned the hard way that books must be balanced, accounts settled, and zeal held firmly in check. By the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.

When the action of the book opens, though, it is still a marginal nation subservient to Rome, and the penalty for rendering the Scriptures into English, or even reading them in that form, is torture and death. In Cromwell’s mind, as he contemplates his antagonist More, Mantel allows us to discern the germinal idea of what we now call the Protestant ethic:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Thomas More, he reflects, will burn men, while the venal Cardinal Wolsey will burn only books, in “a holocaust of the English language, and so much rag-rich paper consumed, and so much black printer’s ink.” Cromwell has sufficient immunity to keep his own edition of William Tyndale’s forbidden English Bible, published overseas and smuggled back home, with a title page that carries the mocking words PRINTED IN UTOPIA. Thomas More will one day see to it that Tyndale, too, burns alive for that jibe. Curtain-raised here, also, is Cromwell’s eventual readiness to smash the monasteries and confiscate their revenue and property to finance the building of a modern state, so that after Wolsey there will never again be such a worldly and puissant cardinal in the island realm.

These are the heavy matters that underlie the ostensible drama of which schoolchildren know: the king’s ever-more-desperate search for a male heir and for a queen (or, as it turns out, queens) who will act as his broodmare in the business. With breathtaking subtlety—one quite ceases to notice the way in which she takes on the most intimate male habits of thought and speech—Mantel gives us a Henry who is sexually pathetic, and who needs a very down-to-earth counselor. A man like Cromwell, in fact, “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell it is who catches the monarch’s eye as it strays toward the girls of the Seymour clan, and promptly invests in a loan to their family, whose country seat is named Wolf Hall. But this is not the only clue to the novel’s title: Cromwell is also acutely aware of the old saying Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

And so indeed he is, though in Greek-drama style, Mantel keeps most of the actual violence and slaughter offstage. Only at second hand do we hear of the terrifying carnage in the continuing war for the Papal States, and the sanguinary opportunism with which King Henry, hoping to grease the way to his first divorce, proposes to finance a French army to aid the pope. Cromwell is a practical skeptic here too, because he has spent some hard time on the Continent and knows, he says, that “the English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.”

via The Men Who Made England – Christopher Hitchens – The Atlantic.

To be sure, Hitchens sees the Reformation in terms of breaking the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church, neglecting its positive emphasis on the Gospel, the Word of God, and Vocation.  And the Catholic critique of the Reformation is that it would ultimately lead straight to atheism.   But still, Mantel’s books present a sympathetic portrait of the English Reformation, including aspects that have generally been papered over.  (Such as Sir Thomas More–now St. Thomas More–having a rack for torturing Lutherans in his own home!)

Since Reformation Day is coming, we should discuss the notion that Hitchens thinks is a good thing and Catholics think is a bad thing: namely, that the Reformation began the dissolution of the church, leading ultimately to secularism and to Hitchens’ atheism.  What is true and what is false about that charge?

Machiavellian reformer

British author Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies.  This is the second time she won this top award for British fiction.  The first time was for Wolf Hall.  Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell, the consigliere to Henry VIII.   And they are both spellbinding.

Cromwell is typically presented as a Machiavellian villain who made it possible for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn and then cynically framed her and engineered her execution.  Mantel, though, in her thoroughly-researched imagining of those tumultuous times, presents him sympathetically.  Her Cromwell is a man of high ideals who wants a more just society and will do what it takes to make those ideals reality.  Specifically, he is a man of the Reformation, someone with a brilliant intellect who has memorized the Bible, possesses books by Luther that would earn him the death penalty, and who does what he can to rescue Protestants from the torture chambers of Sir Thomas More.  But his effectiveness depends on how well he can work with the volatile, passionate egotist who is the King of England.

Mantel’s books capture the texture and nuances of a complicated time, and her characters are complex, historically-grounded, and utterly believable.  And her handling of the religious issues of 16th century England is especially illuminating.  King Henry breaks from the Pope and makes himself head of the English church because of his marital intrigues, but he retains the medieval Catholic dogmas, inquisitorial spirit, and  hatred of the Lutheran Reformation.  (Did you realize that it wasn’t the Catholics but King Henry after his break with Rome who had Tyndale burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English?)

Anyway, if you like historical fiction written at the very highest, most sophisticated level, and if you enjoy tales of intrigue, you will love Hilary Mantel’s books.  You need to read them in order, so start with Wolf Hall.  Then you will want to read Bring Up the Bodies (which deserves another prize just for its title).  She is reportedly working on another volume to round out the Cromwell trilogy, which may well earn her a third Booker prize.

 

Luther’s “wise Turk” quote that he didn’t say

Now that a Mormon is running for president and tends to be favored by Christian conservatives over his Christian liberal opponent, we are hearing more and more that famous quotation from Martin Luther:  “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.”  The problem is, no one has been able to find that famous quotation in any of the voluminous works of Luther.  It appears that the quotation is apocryphal.  I suspect it may have originated as an attempt to explain the implications of Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, as in, “Luther would have rather been ruled by a wise Turk. . .” which then was recalled as “Luther said he would rather have been. . . .”  At any rate, I would love to identify the earliest occurrence of that quotation in print.  (If any of you could help with that, I would be very grateful.)

Anyway, despite his reputation as a political fatalist, Luther had quite a bit to say about foolish Christian rulers (just ask Henry VIII).  And he had a lot to say about the threat of being ruled by Turks, wise or otherwise, as the Ottoman Empire was then engaged in a major invasion of Europe, an Islamic jihad of conquest that had taken over much of Europe and that was finally turned back at the gates of Viennain 1529.

Anyway, the frequent commenter on this blog with the nom de plume of Carl Vehse has researched these issues.  Back in 2007 I posted what he put together on this blog, which, unfortunately, was when it was a sub-blog with World Magazine and so is no longer accessible.  So I think it’s time to post it again.  Carl has updated and tweaked the original article, which I post with his permission:

The Wise Turk quote

An August 26, 2012, updated version of an article located at http://web.archive.org/web/20071231154836/http://cranach.worldmagblog.com/cranach/archives/2007/02/draftthe_wise_t.html

In his January, 1997 editorial in First Things, “Under the Shadow,” Richard Neuhaus pointed out that despite the efforts he and others have made to show that Martin Luther never said, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian” or anything like it (even in German), the alleged quote seems to crop up in articles, sermons, blogs, interviews, and even in testimony before a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The year 2012 is an election year and there are non-Christians on the presidential ballot. Thus political editorials in Christian magazines and websites, as well as the fifth-column media, are bound to repeatedly trot out this hackneyed phrase, misattributed to Martin Luther. Let’s be clear. The “wise Turk” quote is an urban legend, an old wives’ tale, just like the oft-repeated fairy tales that Luther threw an inkwell at the devil (or vice versa), or invented the Christmas tree, or that Billy Graham referred to Lutherans (or the Lutheran Church, or the Missouri Synod) as “a sleeping giant.”

This article is yet another Sisyphean attempt to drive a spike through this urban legend non-quote, and specifically to address the erroneous claim that the alleged quote is a loose paraphrase of the following excerpt from Martin Luther’s “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation“:

“It is said that there is no better temporal rule anywhere than among the Turks, who have neither spiritual nor temporal law, but only their Koran; and we must confess that there is no more shameful rule than among us, with our spiritual and temporal law, so that there is no estate which lives according to the light of nature, still less according to Holy Scripture.”

As will be shown below the urban legend quote has absolutely nothing to do with this quoted excerpt from “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility” and any such claimed paraphrase is quite unlikely to have been even loosely uttered (in German or Latin) by Dr. Luther elsewhere. The key points, as they should be for all phrases bandied about as being uttered by (or paraphrased from) Luther, are context, context, context. [Read more...]

Lutheran economics

The New York Times, no less, has published a piece by Harvard Luther scholar Steven Ozment (author of that new book on Cranach that I intend to blog about at some point) on the Lutheran elements in today’s German economic policy towards the Eurozone:

Even today Germany, though religiously diverse and politically secular, defines itself and its mission through the writings and actions of the 16th century reformer, who left a succinct definition of Lutheran society in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian,” which he summarized in two sentences: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none, and a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all.”

Consider Luther’s view on charity and the poor. He made the care of the poor an organized, civic obligation by proposing that a common chest be put in every German town; rather than skimp along with the traditional practice of almsgiving to the needy and deserving native poor, Luther proposed that they receive grants, or loans, from the chest. Each recipient would pledge to repay the borrowed amount after a timely recovery and return to self-sufficiency, thereby taking responsibility for both his neighbors and himself. This was love of one’s neighbor through shared civic responsibility, what the Lutherans still call “faith begetting charity.”

How little has changed in 500 years. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a born-and-baptized daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, clearly believes the age-old moral virtues and remedies are the best medicine for the euro crisis. She has no desire to press a secular ideology, let alone an institutional religious faith, on her country, but her politics draws unmistakably from an austere and self-sacrificing, yet charitable and fair, Protestantism.

If Ms. Merkel refuses to support so-called euro bonds, it is not because it would be like giving free money to the undeserving poor but because it would not help the redeemed poor take responsibility for their own houses and grow strong for both themselves and their needy neighbors. He who receives, recovers and profits from society in a time of need has a moral responsibility to pay society back by acting in turn as a strong citizen who can help fill the common chests and sacrifice for his now needy neighbors, who had once helped him. Such is the sacrificial Lutheran society.

For this point of view Ms. Merkel has been derided as the “austerity queen,” and worse. But she is undeterred. She admits that austerity is the toughest road home but hastens to add that it is also the surest and quickest way to recover the economy and gain full emancipation from the crisis. Luther would agree.

According to polls, so do Ms. Merkel’s fellow Germans. They hold tight to their belief, born of staunch Lutheran teachings, that human life cannot thrive in deadbeat towns and profligate lands. They know that money is a scarce commodity that has to be systematically processed, recorded and safeguarded before being put out to new borrowers and petitioners.

And they take comfort in the fact that, unlike what they consider the disenchanted, spendthrift countries of Greece and Italy, those living in model German lands have obeyed the chancellor’s austerity laws and other survival programs designed for a fair, shared recovery.

But if their Lutheran heritage of sacrificing for their neighbors makes Germans choose austerity, it also leads them to social engagement. In classic Lutheran teaching, the salvation of the believer “by faith alone” does not curtail the need for constant charitable good works, as ill-informed critics allege. Faith, rather, empowers the believer to act in the world by taking the worry out of his present and future religious life.

via In Euro Crisis, Germany Looks to Martin Luther – NYTimes.com.

We often complain on this blog that the Lutheran influence via the state churches of Germany and Scandinavia is “only cultural.”  And of course, cultural influence means little without saving faith.  Still, at a time when Christianity and churches seem to be losing their influence to the detriment of society and at a time when Christians are trying to figure out how to be influential once again. it’s worth contemplating how churches have, in fact, both in the past and continuing into the present, influenced their cultures.

If Lutheranism influenced and is still an influence in those increasingly secular European states, it must, somehow, be a presence and it must, somehow, be influential.  How does this happen?

Can any of you speak about some other specific cultural influences of Lutheranism in, say, Scandinavia, or that of other theological traditions in other countries?

For example, Scandinavians are often portrayed  culturally as BOTH guilt-ridden AND morally permissive.  Is this a twisted, secularist remnant of Law and Gospel?

Lucas Cranach, cover story

The cover of Books & Culture, the Christian culture journal, features Lucas Cranach, and the cover story by Daniel Siedell is a review of a new book on the artist and patron of this blog.  The book is called The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation by the important Reformation scholar Stephen Ozment.  It breaks new ground in asserting the importance of Cranach and his art for Luther and for the Reformation.  A major emphasis is how Cranach embodied and communicated Luther’s doctrine of vocation.  I’m not quite finished reading Ozment’s book, but I plan to post on it for its own sake.   Here is an excerpt from the Books & Culture piece:

Far from being compromised or constricted, Cranach flourished in and through his relationship with Luther, in large part because both the artist and the theologian shared converging interests and concerns, which, upon their meeting, made their relationship especially rich and productive, both personally and professionally.

This relationship developed only after Cranach decided to move his workshop into Wittenberg. Growing weary of the tedious demands of the court and a lack of challenging painting commissions (not to mention inconsistent remuneration), Cranach moved into the bustling university town, renovating several buildings for his home and workshop. He soon became a leading figure in city politics and one of the largest owners of real estate in town. A savvy businessman and entrepreneur, Cranach owned Wittenberg’s only pharmacy and operated the most powerful printing press in the region, a press which would publish Luther’s German translation of the New Testament, completed while he was in exile in Wartburg, and would generate the pamphlets and other printed materials that spread the ideas of the Reformation. Cranach was also a skilled statesman, traveling to the Netherlands on a diplomatic mission on behalf of Frederick the Wise. Far from being seduced by Luther, then, it was Cranach’s robust and expansive public life and his wisdom in statecraft that served the younger, less politically astute Luther, ultimately winning him the protection and patronage he needed from Frederick.

Although Cranach shared Luther’s anti-humanist and anti-Renaissance “Augustinian” view of the sinfulness and weakness of humanity, the convergence between the two men was less doctrinal than it was social, in what Ozment calls the “second phase” of the Reformation. This social phase focused on the recovery of the spiritual integrity of all aspects of domestic family life, from rearing children to marital sexuality. The home had been subjected to excessive and burdensome interference from Rome, creating legalistic burdens for laity and the clergy that were impossible to follow, the crushing nature of which resulted in licentious behavior that undermined the integrity of the family. Luther’s emphasis on justification as a “passive righteousness,” which he would develop in his lectures on Galatians in 1531, was already worked out socially and culturally, liberating the laity and the clergy to enjoy a robust family life, including an intimate sexual relationship within the institution of marriage. Ozment shows how Cranach and Luther both were fulfilled by their families, embracing fully and boldly the creational blessings of marital and familial life. Luther’s famously earthy language about marital sexuality is echoed in Cranach’s beautifully seductive women, whose enchantment was part of the created order and whose sexuality could be celebrated as a divine blessing. “By excising the external girth of the High Renaissance woman,” Ozment writes, “he set free her inner mirth. The result was more engrossing than the direct touching of skin and flesh.” Cranach and Luther’s relationship was further deepened through their families, as they served as godparents to each other’s children. . . .

Ozment’s Cranach embodies a proto-Lutheran approach to culture and vocation. Apparently unconcerned with the burden of demonstrating or achieving his salvation through his work, Cranach was freed to use and enjoy his God-given talents as a painter, politician, businessman, and advisor. He is also a historical example of what James Davison Hunter has called, in To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), “faithful presence.” The Serpent and the Lamb makes the convincing case that without Cranach’s faithful presence, the Lutheran Reformation would not have possessed the scope that it had.

I might just add that this vocational view of family life, including the affirmation of sexuality in marriage, is what we explore in our own latest book Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood.

Andy Griffith, Moravian

Andy Griffith died at age 86.  It turns out, he was Moravian, a church with Reformation roots going back to John Hus, with a big influence of Lutheran Pietists.  From journalist Andrew Herrmann:

Griffith’s story was rooted in the Moravian Church, a Christian sect started in Eastern Europe that sent missionaries to the U.S. in the 1700s — one group founded Winston-Salem, N.C. As a teenager, Griffith was attracted to Grace Moravian Church in Mount Airy, N.C. because the minister gave music lessons. Grace had a brass band and Griffith wanted to play the trombone.

Griffith studied to become a Moravian clergyman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, after a semester or two, he asked his bishop if he could prepare for the ministry by majoring in music. The bishop said no.

Griffith dropped the idea of becoming a pastor, but he eventually took his brand of preaching to a different venue: “The Andy Griffith Show,” a weekly, half-hour morality play about life in a small town.

There were winks and nods to his faith: The local All Souls Church was led by the Rev. Hobart M. Tucker — he of the unforgettable sermon: “Dice Are Loaded Against the Evil Doer.” Another episode featured American and Russian diplomats meeting in the basement of Mayberry’s Moravian Church.

On Tuesday, hours after the news of Griffith’s death, Tony Haywarth, Grace Moravian Church’s current pastor, put out a statement thanking God “for the place Andy has in our hearts, for his wonderful Christian ministry, and for the joy he continues to bring into this world.”

via ‘Do the right thing’ — Andy Griffith left lessons for the greater good – Chicago Sun-Times.

I would argue that The Andy Griffith Show–with Sheriff Taylor, Barney Fife, Aunt Bee, Opie, Gomer, and even more brilliant comic characters–was NOT mere cornpone nostalgia, as it is often portrayed, but one of the greatest comedies in the history of television.


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