Monday, 10 April 2017

Incarnation at the Met

In the midst of my somewhat dazing trip to the US last week to promote the new book, I was able to take a couple of hours to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art - which, having not been to New York since I was a child, I don't believe I've ever been to before. I'm something of a philistine when it comes to the visual arts, but this was moving even to me, especially the Renaissance and early modern Netherlandish materials (I hurried through all that quasi-classicist eighteenth-century French stuff as quickly as I could). But here is one item that particularly struck me:


That is an anonymous Lutheran family painting from Hamburg, probably dated to the 1570s.

But here's the thing. The family are intensely, immediately real. OK, the older son's horse-shaped teenage face looks a little odd, but within the range; and the younger son is a bit blank-faced. But the daughter and, most especially, both parents, could simply step out of that, and if you ever saw them again, you'd recognise them, wouldn't you?

... And then there is Jesus, who looks like no human being who has ever lived.

I do appreciate that painting Jesus is difficult for anyone, and especially so for a Protestant, even a Lutheran. But the 'solution' here, of presenting him as an alien creature in such a way as almost to deny the doctrine of the Incarnation, is, um, problematic. It leaves me wondering: is this purely an artistic problem? Or does it speak to some deeper difficulty in this culture about imagining that Jesus is as real, and as human, as the people we bump into every day? Just asking.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The basket of inedibles

Only a medieval theologian. I have read and heard the various versions of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (or four thousand) innumerable times, but this point had literally never occurred to me. I learn today* that Nicholas of Lyra’s difficult question about this story was not, how were the hungry fed? (obvs, it was a miracle) – but, where did the baskets come from? Did the people borrow them from a local farm? Did someone happen to have a dozen industrial-sized baskets with them just in case? Were there, in fact, no baskets, but simply enough waste to have filled a dozen baskets if anyone had had any?

It mattered to Nicholas because the credibility of the entire narrative seemed to turn on such details. (As such, he was content not to answer the question, simply to raise some plausible explanations.) And when you put it that way, it makes sense to worry about it. You can imagine, for example, that kind of question being produced triumphantly in court during a dramatic cross-examination. (There would be a certain Al Capone-ish drama in discrediting a miracle narrative with reference, not to the loaves and fishes, but to the humble old baskets.)

Why, though, does the question strike us (all right: me) as so distinctively medieval, and indeed as faintly ridiculous? Is it the ability to swallow the elephant while carefully calculating the parameters of the gnat? Is it that we’re more accustomed to the notion that narratives need to be taken in their own terms rather than as courtroom testimony? Or is it because, on some deep level, Nicholas of Lyra believed that this event really happened in the cold light of day; and, on some deep level, whatever we may profess, we don’t?

*From Lesley Smith’s essay ‘Uncertainty in the Study of the Bible’ in Uncertain Knowledge. Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages, ed. by Dallas G. Denery II et al. (Turnhout: Brepols 2014), 135-159.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Don't judge a book ...

Like buses, suddenly a clutch of new books come along at once. After the last one, my big history of Protestantism is out next month in the UK and the US, and also in a Dutch translation. I've never prepared different national editions of a book before. It's been a strange experience.

I wrote it in British English, naturally, but the Americans were the lead publishers in editorial terms, and so the text was Americanised by them and then had to be re-Anglicised. It was an unexpectedly far-reaching process. Spellings I had expected, but there's more. Dates get flipped: I knew about 24/8/72 versus 8/24/72, naturally, but I had never properly noticed that that extends to 24 August 1572 (British) versus August 24, 1572 (American). There is First World War vs. World War I (and I was told that most Americans aren't familiar with the label 'the Great War' at all, which makes perfect sense from an American point of view). And my American editor also helpfully pointed out that where the British edition refers to people emigrating from Europe to the United States, the American one ought (of course!) to refer to them immigrating.

As well as language, there were deeper cultural issues. In secular old Britain, this is being marketed as a history book; in America, more more as a religious one. That's been reflected in several different ways. The American edition, to my regret, hasn't included any pictures (though there is a map), while the British one has 32 plates, which I am rather pleased with. But the pictures aren't a procession of glowering portraits of theologians, being chosen to illustrate aspects of Protestant life: the Americans feared that they might alienate pious readers. The clearest sign of this difference is the slightly different subtitles: America gets Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World whereas Britain has Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World.

The covers are a different story again. The Americans were first out of the trap, and an early draft looked like this:


What's interesting is that the Americans who saw that all just thought: plain, striking, aniconic, good! Whereas every British person I know who looked at that thought immediately of images like this:


Which isn't really the marketing strategy we had in mind. Why that set of patterns and colours triggered this association on one side of the Atlantic and not the other, I'd love to know.

So we toned it down and made it even simpler:


Whereas the Dutch publisher solved the problem in a different way:


Removing the cross from the capital P, and smacking an ecumenical fish in the middle of the page, serves to dispel any hint of Nazi chic.

The British publishers, meanwhile, produced something completely different - less Presbyterian severity, more hints of medievalism. I'm not really sure what it's supposed to symbolise, but it's pretty.


Complete, of course, with a prominent endorsement from Diarmaid MacCulloch: one of the many people without whom this wouldn't have happened. Thank you all. And feel free to buy copies of all three editions so you can compare.

Friday, 10 March 2017

You only live twice

A new experience for me: the second edition of my 2009 textbook The Age of Reformation is out.


I’ve not prepared a second edition of anything before, and I don’t know of any handbook to the experience. I did it because they asked, obviously!, but I’ve got my doubts about the process. I struggle to think of second editions of academic history textbooks that are improvements on the original. The most promising model is probably that taken by, for example, Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, in which the text was left alone and a new extended introduction added. But that requires having a new body of thoughts, and I’m also not sure I could get away with expecting libraries to restock just for an introductory essay. Others have added new substantive chapters while again leaving the rest alone. The worst case I can think of is A. G. Dickens’ The English Reformation, whose second edition, 25 years after the first, ended up doubling down on the points in the first which had been heavily criticised. The result was that a venerable but dated book ended up looking merely grouchy and wrong. I think it even, like an ill-considered sequel, ended up devaluing the original by a kind of blowback.

A different kind of example is suggested by Fletcher’s Tudor Rebellions, which is now in its sixth edition and has been taken over by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This is almost a case of the proverbial broom with the new head and handle. It works, in large part because that series centres around primary sources and there is always scope for refining and (this is the other secret) extending those.

So what I ended up doing was a thorough but not heavy rewrite. I kept the structure the same – no new chapters – but revised every page: no changes on some, fiddly and obsessive minor tweaks on some, and some pretty substantial changes. This includes recanting some ghastly errors – in particular, which I should have known better, my use of some of George Bernard’s material on the young Henry VIII’s religion, which Richard Rex has helpfully and conclusively demolished. I put in a fair bit more Irish material, thanks to Henry Jefferies; a fair bit more on several rebellions, especially on the new material suggesting overlaps between the 1549 ‘Prayer Book rebellion’ and the more generalised ‘camping time’ of the same year; some new stuff on the prehistory of the dissolution of the monasteries; et cetera.

Inevitably the result is a bit longer: closer to 130,000 than 120,000 words. But it’s printed in smaller and more congested type, so slightly fewer pages. A handsome new cover to make up for it. I had to point out when cover proofs came through that it might be wise to have ‘Second Edition’ somewhere on the cover.

... And that’s it. I am still not entirely sure it’s a good idea: perhaps rather than dressing mutton as lamb, it would be better to let it age gracefully. My honest advice to anyone looking to buy a survey of the English Reformation is to go for Peter Marshall's about-to-be-published Heretics and Believers, which is a really heavyweight and compelling narrative. Still, I’d be interested to know if anyone has thought seriously about the second-edition phenomenon. And while you mull that, please rush out and buy a copy, or they’ll never commission a third edition.

Friday, 13 January 2017

JEH First View: Lost Boys

I'm accustomed now to posting something each time a new number of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History is published, and I'll be doing the January one when it appears shortly: but that will be the last, because we're entering a brave new world. Well, 'tis new to me. Using Cambridge University Press' 'First View' service, from now on we'll be publishing articles online in advance of print publication: they'll go up on the website as soon as they're edited and ready. We'll be putting them up in batches every so often. And the first batch has just appeared. Hurrah!

All of it good stuff, of course (I'm even pleased with my own contribution, a review article which singles out one of the most important books I read last year). But since I need to pick one out, I'll pick Jesse Zink's piece on Sudanese child refugees during the civil war of 1983-2005. I'm not aware that we've published an article that's strayed into the current century before, so that's worth noticing in its own right. And the fact that it is so firmly within living memory means that the grim events he is describing have a visceral immediacy: I defy you not to be gripped by it. But that's not what makes it an important article. The Christianisation of Africa is one of the most important stories in world history in the past half-century, and it is a process which has gone on largely out of sight. What Jesse has done - and his article is based on extensive fieldwork in Sudan and a lot of interview material - is to lift the bonnet on an extraordinary part of this process. His deep sympathy with the converts he is describing is plain enough, but he is clear-eyed about the process. The refugee camp emerges as a vital site for Christianisation.

I'm reminded of a comment in Michael Cook's provoking and underrated A Brief History of the Human Race, to the effect that, at certain historical moments, it not only makes sense to abandon your inherited religious tradition and adopt a foreign one, but that it is almost inevitable: whatever your problem is, the new religion is part of the solution. Cook was talking about Ethelbert of Kent in the sixth century, but Zink's work implies that the same is true for much of Africa today.

Of course, since South Sudan's independence, civil war has returned with a vengeance. Christianisation has not brought peace, and it seems unlikely that war will stop Christianisation. If anyone out there wants to write a follow-up article, we will, now, be able to publish it online with appropriate speed.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Liberal futures

A rather fun New Year's gift from the Liberal Democrat party, of which I am a longstanding and not terribly active member. In an exercise which is apparently geared towards drawing up the next manifesto, they've asked members to come up with a 500-word account of what Britain might look like in 2030 if Lib Dems' dreams came true.

After a year in which the future has chiefly seemed like something to be afraid of, I found it a bracing challenge. It fits my historical patterns of thought, and I also thought the essential silliness of the exercise worth embracing. So, here is the attempt at optimistic provocation which I submitted.


In the angry, distrusting, hardscrabble world of the mid-2010s, it was hard to imagine we could create an open, plural, creative, sustainable society with renewed trust in public life and without left-behind communities. In retrospect, the key realisation was that we had been too small-bore and defensive. Liberal principles offered new solutions as well as old truisms: as long as we realised we needed not just to keep democracy liberal, but also to keep liberalism democratic.

So while we fought the Brexiteers’ nationalist fantasies, our aim was less to rejoin the old, crisis-struck EU than to take the international lead in weaving the web of democratic successor relationships which we now call EU 2.0. Likewise, we pressed for an immigration policy which favoured skilled and student migration, but which recognised the economic impact of unskilled migration and faced up to the racism implicit in systematically favouring would-be immigrants from Europe.

But we also recognised that the 2010s’ immigration panic was a symptom of much deeper ills in our social and political structure. Economically, the key policy was the infrastructure surge: digital, renewable energy, transport and, vitally, housing. It stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition, but our cross-party environmental audit of the old Green Belts made it possible to unlock significant areas of land for development while fully retaining our commitment to our environmental principles. At the time, the impact on the public sector deficit seemed alarming, but it was eased by the new Green Bonds and by cautious, eyes-open PPP deals. The assault on the housebuilding oligopoly and new permissions for self-build kept pressure on house prices while beginning to improve the dismal quality of new-build housing.

The immediate effect was a surge in low-skilled, high-wage employment in construction, the major sector of low-skilled employment least subject to offshoring. That is now fading, but the broader economic and environmental boost given by the projects is only starting to show.

Much of the rest was more obvious: integrating social care fully into the NHS, replacing council tax with a land and property tax which pensioners could defer until sale, reducing micromanagement of education within a more exactingly quality-focused inspection regime, boosting research funds with a post-fee-repayment graduate tax.

But as good Lib Dems, we know that the constitutional changes were vital too. Rebuilding trust and engagement in politics was not a luxury. PR now seems less important than it once did. But while the term limits for MPs have cost us some talent, they have sharply reduced career politicians’ dominance. The new Upper House, selected entirely by lot, has been derided as reality-TV politics, but it has produced both real engagement and a new kind of democratic legitimacy. The experiment of allowing parents additional votes on behalf of their under-18 children is still in its early days, but promises to alleviate the so-called ‘demography vs. democracy’ crisis. Does anyone seriously believe that, without such decisive changes to our political culture, Scotland would be about to rejoin the UK?

Friday, 11 November 2016

Long live the King




So, we have a politician whose characteristics appear to include narcissistic self-importance, a certain bearish charisma, intellectual laziness and a butterfly mind, a throwaway attitude towards women, a degree of real shrewdness which he himself persistently overestimates, and a lack of any sustained interest in the nitty-gritty of government. I am talking, of course, about King Henry VIII.

Let’s imagine that Henry VIII fell through a time portal and was elected President of the United States. How would he, and his new subjects, manage?

Well, the good news first. Henry VIII had one undoubted and enviable political skill: he could recognise in others the administrative talents that he himself lacked. If President Henry could quickly identify a Thomas Wolsey or a Thomas Cromwell, he would quickly delegate most of the business of government to that person and the political machine that he (it would definitely be a he) would build up. Most of the time he would leave his brilliant operative alone and take his advice. Stuff would get done and Henry would take the credit.

He would generally temper his wilder ambitions with some realism about what is actually achievable. He would not want to be seen to lose, and so would not take wild risks. He might chafe for military glory, but he wouldn’t embark on something entirely recklessly.

He would stretch the law rather than break it. He would use, circumvent and manipulate the structures available to him, and would bully and overawe opponents rather than, say, hiring assassins. He would want to know in his own mind that what he was doing was legal and right, although he has a remarkable ability to persuade himself that what he wants is indeed justified. But he would be entirely willing to trample norms and conventions when in pursuit of something he really wants, and he would reward those ruthless and cunning enough to find him ways of doing so.

He might, for example, order his military to commit atrocities, although, as he discovered when he gave such an order to a force invading Scotland in 1544, his commanders on the ground might refuse actually to carry them out.

He would be intermittently paranoid. As a result, he would use, and bend, the law vindictively and indeed irrationally to pursue those whom he took against. He would do so pretty implacably. His defeated former presidential opponent, for example, might be well advised not to plan a quiet retirement.

He would find his inability to bend foreign governments to his will infuriating, and would be ready to see - for example - their willingness to protect his critics as a deliberate provocation. Personal snubs, such as failing to turn up to a summit meeting with him, would not be taken well.

Most importantly, perhaps, for those working out how to survive a Tudor administration: he would be an odd mixture of stubbornness and malleability. You can’t tell him he’s wrong, and open opposition only makes him dig in. But if you can sidle up to him and work on him askance, you can often get him to change his mind or shift his priorities. He will never admit that he has changed his mind, and it would be foolish to try to get him to do so, but in fact he is remarkably open to persuasion and indeed manipulation. Just make him think that the idea you have planted in his head is in fact his own idea, and you are there.

A word of caution, though. That malleability does mean he can change his mind for no apparent reason, including turning vengefully on those who were once his trusted intimates. Especially if he starts to feel that he is being pushed around. As Wolsey said: ‘be well advised and assured what matter you put into his head, for you shall never pull it out again.’

Good luck, and hold on tight.