Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flash Review IV: James Simpson, Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents

by KARL STEEL

Several months ago, while I was visiting family, someone mentioned that he had just returned from a sermon on Ezekiel 16. We asked, "what did the pastor say?" "Do what God wants or else." If you don't know Ezekiel 16, have a read: it tropes Israel as a foundling that God raises, pimps out, marries, and then casts out for sleeping around. It might not strike you that "do what God wants or else" is the best or even an adequate reading of the strange sexuality of this chapter, but, armed with Simpson's Burning to Read, you can at least have a sense of the faithfulness of such an interpretation to early modern "Evangelical" (Simpson's locution in preference to the anachronistic "Protestant") hermeneutics and soteriology. Likewise you will understand why I recall that Romans 3:23 ("For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God") was the favorite verse of my fundamentalist upbringing.

Simpson's book, admittedly polemic, seeks to uproot claims that the liberal tradition begins with the 'liberation' of reading and interpretation in the early 16th century. His secondary purpose is to recuperate Thomas More and to reveal William Tyndale as champion of intolerance. David Daniell, Tyndale's modern day promoter and (to put it kindly) anglophile, gets kicked down the stairs repeatedly: this is a highly satisfactory bonus. As Simpson points out, evangelicals refused to admit that they had arrived at their readings through a leap of faith: all that they admitted was the text, and the text alone, and the inscrutably inscribed grace, divinely written on the heart of the Elect, that allowed each one to read correctly. I hope this reminds you of the excerpts from his "Faith and Hermeneutics: Pragmatism versus Pragmatism" that Eileen quoted here:
If the reasoning upon which we base interpretation is circular, such reasoning is at some level a matter of faith. Words simply cannot serve as the guarantor for their meanings. We assume, as an act of faith, certain things about writers and about communicative exchange when we interpret. These assumptions are nonlinguistic. They can instead be fairly described as ethical assumptions, since they concern matters of communicative cooperation.
Evangelical readers are paradigmatic circular reasoners, refusing to admit the motor of faith that drives them. They simultaneously idolized the 'mere' text, jettisoned non-textual contexts (such as traditions, reading communities, historical situation, and different speech situations), atomized the reader, made adherence to scripture impossible, and set up this very impossibility as the foundation of spiritual life (since one's own sense of failure was a sign, perhaps, that one belonged to the Elect). For them, all readings necessarily ended in the same place, with the faith that brought the reader to their goal obscured--rather than supported by--the putatively empirical words of Scripture. This is all too familiar to me, since I spent every evening between the ages of 8-10 praying not to be sent to Hell, knowing all the while that because only my fear of God, and not my love of Jesus, inspired my prayer, that I was damned. My faith, such as it was, grew in soil thick with the despair, paranoia, and recriminations sowed by Tyndale and Luther.

Burning to Read never quite clarifies what the despair sowed by the evangelicals choked out. This is odd, since Simpson is a medievalist. As a result, the medieval church implicitly comes off much better than it should (note that the same could be said for Simpson's nearly exculpatory rationale for Thomas More's persecution of Evangelicals). Given that the book is semi-popular rather than strictly scholarly, I can't expect it to have the citational apparatus of, say, The King's Two Bodies. Nonetheless, I wonder at the absence of any reference to Pelagianism. I also wonder at the absence of any reference to Reginald Pecock's Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy (1450). In defending the mainstream Church from the Lollards' refusal to hear any argument but those derived from scriptura sola, Pecock "asserts that whoever 'expresseli' bids any 'gouernance' to be carried out...'includingli' bids all those further (unspecified) things to be done which logically flow out of the said 'gouernaunce.' Therefore one cannot rightly insist 'that needis ech gouernaunce of Goddis ... lawe and seruise muste be groundid expresseli in Holi Scripture'" (228 in this). Pecock's argument helps encompass ecclesiastical traditions, the sacraments, &c, all this seemingly non-scriptural "dross" that the Evangelicals scorned, within scripture, while rescuing scripture from mere textuality, returning it to the vitalism of communities of faith as a lived experience. Surely this treatise, and the late 14th- and 15th-century English struggles to which it belongs, belongs in Simpson's book? Without it, the debates of Tyndale, Luther, and More appear to be sui generis; with it, we would have been much better able to isolate the conditions that enabled Evangelical ascendence and all its nasty aftereffects.

As a side note, the discussion of Josiah (who provides a model for the bloody effects of the 'rediscovery' of scripture) could have been made even more useful had Simpson observed that the struggles described are, so far as I know, actually within "Judaism" between the centralizing Temple Cult and the dispersed Shrine Cultists, rather than--as it's portrayed in Scripture--between Hebrews and purportedly "foreign" deities.

I must emphasize, however, that the above two paragraphs are grousing, ungenerous given how much I enjoyed the book, its argument, and its limpid prose. I simply wish, then, that Simpson, or his publisher, had provided a final page labeled "for more on these issues see" followed by a list of relevant books on the relevant late medieval controversies, a syllabus rather than just a bibliographic apparatus.

Thanks Holly Crocker for recommending I read this! And let us remember, as we enter the great season of conferences [to quote Simpson] "to beware of hermeneutic aggression that suppresses the alterity of its subjects..[and to adopt instead]...a more friendly hermeneutics, based on faith in persons as ethical agents."

[Jeffrey, hope you don't mind my taking your "flash review" title. Incidentally, the first ITM "flash review" was ALSO on a James Simpson book, albeit not one by the same James Simpson]

11 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Just back from a New England trip and trying to catch up on laundry, email and reading ...

Thanks for posting this, Karl. The flash format works very well for a blog and I hope everyone will feel free to use it; just as the Tiny Shriner answers to none, so the Flash Review is public property.

My interests in the heterodox center right now around the 12th and 13th centuries, when burning to read wasn't quite the constant that became its destiny. And I suppose in the end that I am less interested in arguments over what constitutes proper doctrine and orthodox interpretation than in lived practice: it's one thing to theorize Christian/Jewish supercession, it's another to cohabitate with Jews and buy their goods and let your kids play with their kids. A synonym for heresy is Judaizing (in various Latin verb forms); I'm trying to see what a lived Judaizing looked like outside of its orthodox condemnation.

Will Simpson help me in this project?

Karl Steel said...

My guess is that this Simpson won't help you with that project.

There must be something good on Guibert of Nogent on the 'judaizing' Count of Soissons though.

I also think of the various legislation about nursemaids. See, for example, Powicke, F. M. And C. R. Cheney, eds. Councils and Synods with Other Documents Relating to the English Church, vol. 2, parts I and II. Oxford, 1964, esp
1219, Statutes of Bishop William de Blois for the dioceses of Winchester, Council of Oxford, 1222, and 1257. Synodal Statutes of Bishop Giles of Bridport for the diocese of Salisbury, with additions, as all these witness to lived practices in contradiction of the antisemitic and antijudaic lessons of mainstream Xianity in this period. From my notes:

27. Licet in conciliis Lateranensi et Oxoniensi prohibitum sit expresse [clearly] ne iudei mancipia habeant christiana, plerique tamen iudei nostre diocesis, ut dicitur, huiusmodi prohibitione contempta, nutrices, obstetrices, et alia mancipia christiana dampnabiliter presumunt in suius obsequiis retinere [Jews in contempt of the Oxford and Lateran decrees keep many servants, such as nursemaids, midwives, and other female servants]. Nec huiusmodi transgressione contenti in graviorem prorumpunt audaciam, ut non solum cum chrstianis solutis sed in nostre fidei scandalum et in sue legis contemptum cum mulieribus commisceant coniugatis [and what’s worse they mix with our women in marriage]. Unde presentis synodi approbatione statuimus ut mulieres, tam solute quam coniugate, super huiusmodi crimem confesse vel convicte nominatim excommunicationis sententia percellantur [should be struck down by: our women will be excommunicated if they keep this up], et donec ad arbitrium nostrum vel officialium nostorum satisfecerint artius evitentur. Iudeis vero super hoc convictis vel confessis, donec competenter hoc / emendaverint, omnis christiana communio per censuarm ecclesiastiam denegetur [any Jew who is convicted of this crime or confesses to it until he compensates for it adequately will be denied fellowship with Xians - presumably they can’t sell to them in the market]. Quod vero circa distinctionem habitus cautum est, propter pericula que ex habitus confusione contingunt, omni diligentia statuimus observandum. (560-61.

This article also useful on subject (and no doubt his book too):
Kanarfogel, E. "Attitudes towards children and childhood in medieval Jewish society," Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times II, ed. David R. Blumenthal, Brown Judaic Studies 57. Chico, CA: Scholars P, 1985, 1-34.

I also think that Richard of Devizes' mock ethnography of England would be essential for your project. He has a Jew say of Winchester "for a little I would go there myself and be a Christian among such Christians" "ego vadam illuc cum talibus Christianis fieri Christianus" (The Chronicle of Richard of Devizes of the Time of King Richard the First. Medieval Texts. Ed. and trans. John T. Appleby. London, 1963, 67)

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for those references Karl: excellent.

Is Simpson's project wholly a textual one (focused as it is on modes of reading), or is there also analysis of or attention to lived praxis (esp. among those who would not be creating texts themselves)?

Eileen Joy said...

In Karl's stead [because secretly, I have always wanted to be in his stead, but . . . all kidding aside], yes, Jeffrey, Simpson's project in "Burning to Read" *is* primarily a textual one, or rather, it seeks to delineate certain aspects of interpretive communities in the English Reformation with specific linkage to certain warnings regarding the dangers of contemporary Protestant fundamentalism. Unlike Karl, I would not fault the book for what it leaves out vis-a-vis the Middle Ages, because I think it is mainly concerned with the Reformation context, but sure [as Karl points out], Simpson [maybe] could have pointed to certain earlier traditions, such as Pelagianism, as models of more "liberal" interpretive practices within Christian "reading" contexts. But his book is not attempting to address "lived practice" in the sense you describe it here; at the same time, I think it would be a mistake to assume that interpretive practices [orthodox or otherwise] had no effect on *lived* Jewish-Christian, or Christian-any Other relations.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I think it would be a mistake to assume that interpretive practices [orthodox or otherwise] had no effect on *lived* Jewish-Christian, or Christian-any Other relations

Agreed ... but I wonder if the opposite isn't true, that we too easily assume (because we are so textual) that dominant interpretive practices predetermined lived relations. Interpretive practices have a tendency towards the dogmatic and the absolute, but cohabitation and the exigencies of daily life don't necessarily foster or enable such rigidity. To what extent was the living together (of Christians and Jews, or of orthodox believers and the potentially unorthodox) pragmatic, adaptive, ad hoc? That's the question I'm trying to follow, the answer to which doesn't lead to the stake so much as to the neighborhood.

Karl Steel said...

I still wish that Simpson had included at least gestures--even if only the one-page 'for further reading' list--towards the 14th and 15th century England. It's not just a matter of 'pointing to.' It's a matter, least of all, of muddling period boundaries and the prejudices that sustain them. It's also simply necessary for the sake of accuracy. I'll quote one appraisal of 14th-century English academia:
Not since Augustine's attack upon the Pelagians in the fourth century had theologians argued so heatedly over the faculty which determines the extent of man's power to act, the ethical nature of his actions, and his dependence upon divine aid to accomplish what is right" (John Bowers, Crisis of Will in Piers Plowman, 41). The relevance to Evangelical debates is obvious, and, once we get R. Pecock's treatise, we very nearly have the full picture. Tyndale/Luther/More did not paint this picture; they belong to it.

Also: including this stuff in some way would prevent Simpsons' readers from imagining that these debates originate in the early 16th century, that the placid 'quiet hierarchies' [Robertson] of the Middle Ages broke and out rushed the stars of BtR: Tyndale/Luther/More. I must imagine that very nearly every reader of Burning to Read will be a non-medievalist and thus already prone to making such mistakes: so why not try to stop them?

I wouldn't doubt, Jeffrey, that there are studies that treat lived practices of Evangelicals and Catholics in 16th-century England. For better or worse, this material isn't relevant to Burning to Read. He's countering a claim that the liberal tradition begins in a certain reading practice, which means that he's in a textual realm from the beginning.

Incidentally, I'm hesitant to follow him because it strikes me that he's finally swapping one [bad] geneaology for one [good] one, and I don't like anything that had the whiff of 'justification from the past' about it. Affective filiations & alliances through time, yadda yadda yadda, sure, that's fine, but not chopping down one tree only to plant another in its place. Again, this complaint grossly simplifies his argument, but I'm imagining that Catholic apologists will only be too happy to read it this way.

Jeffrey, perhaps you could reread Communities of Violence? Seems to be a model for some of what you're trying to do.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Communities of Violence is the dark doppelganger to what I am trying to do: that book is mainly about control of community through all kinds of violence (physical and legal) -- and I am trying to get at communities that don't necessarily turn to violence to find their way to live together, if only for a brief space.

Karl, you've convinced me I need to read Simpson no matter what.

Karl Steel said...

It might be about control of communities, but, as with the 13th-century Councils and Synods, you can get a sense of what's happening less violently by what's being forbidden or marked as a disruption.* Every act of violence recorded interrupts lives being lived together.

* Assuming that the Canons and Synods are not just mechanically duplicating materials from earlier councils &c without much attention to the lived experience of 13th-century England. This is a strong possibility, I imagine, but arguments can be made from this as well...

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: thanks for elaborating so much on what happens, or doesn't, with the Middle Ages in Simpson's book--that's incredibly helpful, and I think you're right to say that the book supplants one supposedly crooked genealogy with another one that puts the Catholics [or at least Thomas More] in a more favorable light while at the same time it is not telling the whole story.

Jeffrey: I think two things are true all the time simultaneously--interpretive textual practices both do and don't affect *lived* practices all the time. More often than not, it is in the legal realm where lives are most affected, I think [and in the Middle Ages, also in the realm of Church doctrine, to a certain extent], whether we are talking the stake or a solitary confinement cell in Guantanamo. But I like what you're doing, which you've discussed in other posts, too [and I assume will be discussing in your Leeds plenary talk] by concentrating on the local neighborhood and all the slippages of supposedly "orthodox" identities that would go on there.

Karl Steel said...

EJ, you're welcome.

JJC, occurred to me that Communities of Violence is a disenchantment of a supposedly cosmopolitan Iberia. We've seen similar disenchantments, yes?, of Frederick II's Kingdom of Sicily and its melange of Xian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars. No doubt, then, part of what you're doing is a "postdisenchanted" reading?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

You've got it Karl: I am trying to discern moments -- no matter how ephemeral -- of a convivencia that (no matter how impossible to sustain, and no matter how fraught with possibilities of violence) effervesced in Christian-Jewish cohabitational praxis. As such it is somewhat beneath the "the legal realm where lives are most affected" (as Eileen puts it). I know that's an overly Foucaultian way of putting it.

We'll see how this works out ...