There was a good deal of discussion back in May about David Greenberg’s Slate article, “That Barnes and Noble Dream”, about whether academic historians should aspire to be “populizers”. I thought Greenberg had some interesting observations that I didn’t always agree with. One thing I do think, however, is that it’s a very good thing for a historian to aspire at some point in their career to write a broad “synthesis” history, if they happen to work in a field which has gone without such a synthesis for some time.
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation seems to me a great example of this kind of work. You wouldn’t want to make something this good and magisterial the standard to which academic history was held accountable, given how impressive an achievement it is. Still, this kind of writing delivers a readable but also deeply knowledgeable account of history to a potentially broad public. It’s a history that I myself knew less about than I ought before I read the book.
Two supplementary things occurred to me as I was reading it, going in different directions.
First, I’m really struck at how alien the public face of the politically active religious right in America is to the struggles and concerns of the Protestant Reformation at its roots. MacCulloch takes pains to argue that the Reformation was defined by concern with ideas, specifically theological ideas. Whether its leaders were trying to bring themselves together or busily fracturing further into more and more congregations, their primary concerns were scriptural and doctrinal. The politically active religious right in the US isn’t especially concerned with a deep knowledge of scripture or doctrine any longer: most of its dearly held positions are temporal and cultural, a matter of habitus rather than theology. Sure, the leaders and many of the followers of the movement insist that their authority derives from scripture, but any given position (on abortion, sex, war, you name it), that scriptural basis tends to be a cherry-picking of quotes from the Bible, not a deeply worked-out and disciplined interpretation of scripture, philological or otherwise. I’m sure this is an old, careworn insight about evangelical religion in the United States that carries back to the Great Awakening–the history of religion is definitely one of my intellectual weak spots. But it does seem to me to divide the political, public religious right from the rest of American protestantism in various ways.
2) MacCulloch’s book is a really nice one in pedagogical terms not just for teaching students about the Reformation, but also for teaching students about the nature of “argument” in historical writing. I’m almost thinking of working up another undergraduate guide to reading that works with this text. At one level, you can just read it as informative narrative, with its argument being largely about allowing contemporary Christians and others to discover the roots of their own faith, or an important part of modern society. As such, it has a relatively simple argument: this particular aspect of the past, seen in its entirety, is uniquely important to the disposition of the present.
At a deeper level, the level I think we most want our undergraduates to read for in history courses, MacCulloch is arguing for the importance of what would classically be defined as intellectual history against social, cultural or political history. It’s not that he ignores the social, cultural or political history of the Reformation, but he does insist as a matter of emphasis that ideas qua ideas were an important cause of the Reformation, that ideas were not just epiphenomenal window dressing for some deeper force or driver. I know this is the kind of argument I most want my own students to pick up on when I assign scholarly work, because it’s the kind of argument I think they can meaningfully adjudicate: it has both an empirical dimension and a philosophical one, both potentially accessible to them.
Then at a deeper level still MacCulloch is picking all sorts of fights with specialists in the field, some small and detailed, others fairly substantive, ranging from whether Biblical scripture is intrinsically hostile to homosexuality (he thinks it is) to whether Martin Luther really was constipated before he posted his theses to the door. This is the level that my students sometimes get entangled with when I’m asking them to read for argument, and it’s largely where I do not want them to be, because adjudicating these kinds of arguments requires a scholarly knowledge of the field and a pretty deep historiographical perspective.