In my reading of history and biography, I have acquired a special interest in the history of religion. In particular, I am interested in the great proliferation of religion, and why various groups of people came to identify with any particular collection of beliefs and practices. Since I’ve mostly been reading European history, it means that I’ve mostly been interested in the history of Christianity. It is a very complicated history, with enormous diversity and contention. My impression, for instance, is that far more Christians have been killed by other Christians for their beliefs than by any outsiders. And the sheer variety of Christian sects is amazing. So that will be my initial focus, though I may branch out into others as time goes by.
Carlos M.N. Eire. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.
My goodness, what an unbelievably complex story this is. As Eire conveys in his title, there were numerous “reformations” in the period he reviews. We tend to think mainly of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. But there were scores of other fascinating figures during this period, challenging the long standing beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. With the emergence of humanistic thinking that led to the Renaissance, there were many doubts about the established beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church. Many of these were by figures faithful to the Pope and the Church. But of course many were much more radical, challenging many of the foundations of Catholicism. As Eire makes clear, one of the key features of this period was the emergence of moveable type printing. Given the Protestants’ central claim that the only authority was the Bible, it led to numerous translations of the Bible into the vernacular languages of Europe. Luther himself did a complete translation. And of course the classic King James translation into English came during this period (1611). Printing also made it possible for the reformers to produce books and pamphlets in vernacular languages that articulated their challenges to the Church in language understandable by lay people. Luther in particular was a master of this, producing an astounding array of printed material. But many others were good at this too, and an enormous literature emerged. Defenders of Catholicism took advantage of this too, though at least in the early decades, after Luther’s initial challenges, they made many mistakes, such as focusing on abstract points of theology and writing in Latin. Another key factor in the spread of these “reformations” was the political support that leading thinkers such as Luther and Calvin received from civil leaders. But it was a hazardous time, as scores of folks were burned at the stake, beheaded, or slain in other horrible ways. This happened on all sides, including between various Protestant sects as well. And even the Catholic Church itself went through a Counter Reformation with long-lasting effects, and many martyrs. The Council of Trent, held in multiple sessions across the years 1545-1563, ended up reaffirming most of the points of theology and ritual that were attacked by the Protestants, but launched widespread reforms in practice for both the laity and the clergy. It takes Eire 757 pages to tell the complex stories involved in all of this. There are many implications, both sacred and secular, of the turmoil of this period. It led, in the end, to a diminishment of religion in the affairs of Europe. But not before lots of additional blood was shed. It has all left my head spinning, but has also provided key foundational knowledge for the complex sequelae after the time period that Eire focuses on. Though the most extreme religions wars resulting from all of this occurred in the time period he reviews, rivalries among the Catholics and Protestants, and among the latter themselves, continue to this day, some bloody (e.g., Northern Ireland). It has also helped me understand some of the puzzling reactions I got from friends as I was growing up to my being raised as a Lutheran — they were from other Protestant traditions that I did not understand very well at the time.
A.C. Grayling. The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century & the Birth of the Modern Mind. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
This book reviews the incredible range of personas active in the 17th century. It is a remarkable age, and Grayling’s claim is that it marks the transition from the earlier periods dominated by faith and authority to the modern view characterized by reason and observation. It was reading this volume, and Snyder’s book on Vermeer and Leeuwenheok, that rekindled my interest in the 17th century.
William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Many different editions available (I have a half dozen of them).
William James was a consummate psychologist, and this is a psychological classic. These were James’ Gifford Lectures given at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902. It was subsequently published by Harvard University, and through the years have undergone numerous republications, some with corrections made by James himself. I find the Library of America version of them to be quite authoritative. The lectures focus on the nature of religious experiences, as seen from a psychological perspective. James makes no judgments about their veracity, but instead seeks to understand them, based on reports from those who have had such experiences. I first read this volume as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, and needless to say, it opened my eyes to the nature of religious experiences. There is little doubt that people have experiences that they categorize as religious, and these certainly play a role in people’s belief. But James tries to understand them, taking some of their mystery away. I suppose this has led many to have doubts. It certainly had that effect on me. But it kindled my interest in the nature of religion, and the relationship between individual beliefs and experiences and the great variety of forms of religious institutions. Hence, my readings as reported on in this section of my Bookshelf.
Thomas Jefferson. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2011.
Thomas Jefferson struggled with how to view Christianity. He felt that much of the material in the New Testament was hard to reconcile with experience and reason, yet he felt that Jesus was perhaps the most important moral teacher in history. So he carried out a project, once early before he was President (and that version has been lost to history) and later in his old age, of assembling the words spoken by Jesus rather than the words of others that were spoken about Jesus. The result was what has come to be known as the Jefferson Bible. While that he had done this was known, the whereabouts of the actual document were not uncovered until the late nineteenth century. The discovery and the history of the subsequent publications are covered in the book by Peter Manseau, described below. In 2011 the Smithsonian Institute, which now possesses the actual book that Jefferson produced, published a facsimile version that is a faithful replica of the book Jefferson put together. He cut and pasted sections of the Gospels in four languages, put side-by-side to create a narrative of the teachings of Jesus in his own words, as captured by the writers of the four Gospels. It is a remarkable book, and as Manseau chronicles, has influenced many thinkers subsequently. Jefferson never intended for it to become public. He did it for himself, and in the evenings toward the end of his life he often read from it to digest over and over again the teachings of Jesus.
Diarmaid MacCulloch. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin, 2009.
This is the volume that got me interested in the history of religion. MacCulloch’s masterful opus (1184 pages!) provided an excellent starting point. His reference in the title to 3000 years is due to his tracing the historical origins of Christian thought back a thousand years before the birth of Christ. And what a complex history it is. The church as an institution, shaped by multiple historical forces, divided again and again, and affected by an incredible range of personalities, survives yet today in its multiple forms. MacCulloch’s scholarship is incredible. He links the history of Christianity as a religion to the many other historical events and trends happening around it. This book has led me to acquire a number of other books on related topics, now occupying a major section of our physical library. Reviews of many of these will be appearing here as I am able to finish reading them (many are major opuses, like MacCulloch’s!).
Peter Manseau. The Jefferson Bible. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.
This small volume tells the story of the Jefferson Bible, from Jefferson’s work to create it and what his goals were in doing so, to it’s discovery in the late nineteenth century in the possession of Jefferson’s great=great granddaughter, who in turn sold it to the Smithsonian Institute for safe keeping as a national treasure. Not long after its recovery Congress created 9000 facsimile versions of it for distribution to members of Congress. Throughout the twentieth century many other versions of it were published, and there was much discussion and controversy about it and inferences drawn about Jefferson’s beliefs. Manseau participates in these discussions, in a fashion mostly sympathetic to what Jefferson was up to in creating this remarkable book. One interesting story is the effort of the Smithsonian staff to restore and preserve the artifact itself, and this restoration process is what enabled the 2011 publication of the excellent full-color facsimile version of the book. All in all, Manseau’s little book is an excellent companion to study alongside the Jefferson Bible itself.
Catherine Nixey. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. New York: Macmillan, 2017.
This is a striking account of what Nixey calls “this violently intolerant religion,” namely Christianity. We regularly hear about the early Christian martyrs. But once Christianity was ascendant with Constantine’s’ conversion, Christians set about trying to remove every trace of the “pagan” Roman world. They destroyed temples, ruined statues and other art, and persecuted those who clung to old Roman habits. Books were burned, and most traces of classical scholarship disappeared. The Christians took special vengeance against philosophers, who of course were especially critical of the tenets of the Christian religion. Nixey argues that it was the Christian vengeance that was especially responsible for the launch of the Dark Ages, when Europe sank into a period of narrowness and cultural decay. It’s an amazing story, and goes against all the myths promulgated by Christian sympathizers.
Elaine Pagels. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation. New York: Viking, 2012.
The biblical book of Revelation is certainly one of the strangest and most controversial books in the Bible. Elaine Pagels’ research into the historical period in which it was written is itself full of surprising revelations. Her conclusion is that the book, seen in its historical context, is a satire about ongoing political events. It is similar to other texts from the same period also called “revelations.” Even as a biblical object, it has had a controversial history. For several centuries it was voted down for inclusion in the Bible, and even when it finally was approved, it was by a slim margin. And later religious leaders like Martin Luther wanted to get it out of the Bible. Pagels’ analysis is intriguing, and her recounting of the perennial controversy surrounding the book and its interpretation is gripping.
Peter Watson. The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
In 1882 Friedrich Nietzsche famously announced “the death of God,” though as Watson points out, this sentiment was widely recognized already in the late 19th century. So Watson asks, over the 556 pages of this erudite tome, what have people turned to in the wake of such a sentiment. He looks at a wide range of domains: poetry, fiction, art, music, philosophy, cults, ideologies, psychotherapy, and more. It’s a focussed survey of ideas in the twentieth century around the search for what, for lack of a better characterization, one could call spiritual needs. Interestingly, I found myself engaged in the conversations so reviewed, agreeing with some, disagreeing with others, but very engaged. And the range of Watson’s scholarship is astounding.