Monday, February 19, 2007

Essays and Reviews, 1860. Eds. Victor Shea and William Whitla (2000)

I’m nearing the end of my second year of a three-year program at Trinity College. That has not meant less reading, as the decrease in blog postings might suggest, but reflects a decision I made at the beginning of last year. I have not blogged about the books I have read for classes. There have been a large number of such books, but when one is writing essays and assignments, a blog is not the place in which to work out the beginnings of my thoughts about these texts.

This book, though, is one I started reading some time ago, and the sidebar of this blog advertised for a long time that I was reading it. Last term, I designed a reading course around it, and now that that course is out of the way, I felt it appropriate to blog about the book now.

Essays and Reviews is a massively important book to the history of Anglicanism. It reshaped how people thought about the Bible; it reshaped how people approached the discussion of religious norms. To describe its publication as beginning a revolution would not be an exercise in hyperbole.

Before I take a quick look at the seven essays and reviews which form this book, as it was first published in 1860, I want to discuss briefly the importance of this particular edition. William Whitla and Victor Shea, of York University, have produced an apparatus that brings this book back to life. The ideas of Essays and Reviews are far from daring in contemporary Anglican thought, and so the real value of reading the book now lies in the field of social history, or the history of ideas. It is difficult to do such a reading, though, because of a loss of context. The copious notes provided for each essay by Shea and Whitla restore this context: they translate the fragments included in original languages, left untranslated in other publications of Essays and Reviews; they explicate history and allusions; and they make clear which points were disputed and why, offering an entry into the ludicrously vast collection of secondary literature about this book. Their masterful introduction not only explicates the essays themselves and gives requisite biographical information about their respective authors, but also situates the book within the context of the Victorian church far better than many book length studies of the issues. (One might well argue that their writing is itself book-length! This tome, after all, with introduction, essays, supporting material, bibliography, and information about both the publication history and the heresy trials of the authors, weighs more than a large sack of sugar, and is more than 9.5” by 6.5” by 3”. It’s not light reading material!)

Seven pieces comprise the original text. Frederick Temple (later Archbishop of Canterbury) contributed a piece entitled “The Education of the World,” a rather Victorian look at progress in humanity’s evolution and life of faith. Rowland Williams was tried for heresy for his review, “Bunsen’s Biblical Researches.” Nominally a look at a German theologian, Williams used Bunsen’s ideas as a basis for his own assertion of principles of higher criticism. Baden Powell’s essay, “On the Study of the Evidence of Christianity” is a rejection of the type of logic so inextricably associated with Paley. Henry Bristow Wilson’s interesting essay is called “Scéances Historique de Genève: The National Church,” a critical look at the Church of England. Charles Wycliffe Goodwin’s contribution, “Mosaic Cosmogony” is a look at the relevance of geological sciences and the accepted history of the world from a faith perspective (Ah, Archbishop Ussher and the world being created in exactly 4004 BC!). Benjamin Jowett's essay is about the proper interpretation of scripture. The final essay, and one of the most intriguing, is a brilliant work of history by Mark Pattison, “Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688-1750.”

None of the essays are particularly earth-shattering to modern ears, and it’s hard to feel the storm of excitement that arose because of this book. So why look for the excitement? Well, for two reasons. The first is that, in 1860, the world (by which I mean people in England who could read) cared—about poetry, science, and religion. They cared about ideas, and so it’s interesting to try to gain some sense of what that was like. The second reason is that the controversy around Essays and Reviews was largely confined to the Church of England, and was principally about how to read the Bible. It’s an argument in which the Anglican Church, now even more widespread, finds itself engaged. Moreover, the actual details of the argument have not shifted much. Does, then, Essays and Reviews offer us some solution? Certainly if history repeats itself, things would look bright for the more liberal side: some trials and tribulation, followed by an acceptance of correctness? While I doubt that things will fall out in quite so simple a repetition of the past, Essays and Reviews—in the remarkably large Shea & Whitla edition—is well worth the time it takes to engage with a fascinating period in the life of the Church.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Susan Howatch, Glittering Images, 1987.

DW suggested that I take a look at this series of six novels, telling me that each of the novels is a compelling read. It sounds uninteresting when described as a history of the Church of England in the twentieth century, told in specific narratives—but judging by this first volume, I agree with DW.

Glittering Images is the story of Dr. Charles Ashworth, a cathedral canon and Fellow at Laud’s College, Cambridge, and the protégé of ++Cantaur, Dr. William Cosmo Gordon Lang. Following a public spat in the House of Lords between the Archbishop and bishop of the fictional diocese of Starbridge, revolving around A.P. Herbert’s divorce bill, the Archbishop sends Ashworth to Starbridge ostensibly to investigate whether Bishop Jardine might be vulnerable to gossip in the tabloids. While there, Ashworth finds himself immersed in a familial mystery, and finds himself in a spiritual crisis. He retreats to an abbey, and the new abbot challenges him to deal with the traumas that have brought him to this point. I found Ashworth’s story compelling, and though the details of his journey are far different from my own, some odd similarities caused me to have a new look at my own spiritual life. Given tools to help him in his life, Ashworth re-emerges to grapple with the mystery and situation in which he finds himself immersed.

The novel is fascinating. Much of the story is told through dialogue, and certainly the novel has a greater appeal if one is passing familiar with both the history of the Church of England and theology. Regardless, it is a novel I read in a gulp, reluctant to pause, although I have marked passages to which I want to return. It is a romance, as much as anything else, and its only real flaw is that one might well think Ashworth’s recovery an easy path—akin to the psychiatrist who can cure a patient within a half-hour television episode—rather than the more difficult journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance that it actually represents. The book is, as well, a remarkable look at the church in the late ’30s, in the midst of trying to make sense of a great deal of change in social mores and behaviours. I’m quite looking forward to the second volume.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr. Y, 2006.

I read a review of this book in Salon, and was intrigued. It’s an interesting story, well-done (though falls down a bit at the end). A magazine writer becomes a Ph.D. student in English literature, taking a look at 19th century gedankexperimenten. Ariel stumbled into this life: she happened on a presentation about a book, The End of Mr. Y, by an author named Thomas Lumas—a book that is notorious as cursed.

Her supervisor disappears, leaving her somewhat at odds, and she just happens to find a copy of the book—and, despite the curse, reads it. Wackiness ensues as Ariel enters another world based on instructions that are part of the novel. As worlds collide, Thomas weaves together philosophy—quite the fan of both Heidegger and Derrida—and modern physics, not overly well but not too poorly, either. She sometimes loses both plot and characters, and gets distracted, because this book really is a novel of ideas—though she finds her way back to both.

It’s suspenseful, and it plays well with ideas about what language is, and what it does. It’s a fun read, made more fun by some familiarity with philosophy and science—and more fun still if you’re interested in a fascinating romance about what University life is like, filled with sex and intrigue. Ariel finds herself chased, in mortal danger at every turn, before coming to a solution that seems almost too easy but costs her dreadfully. It's a book worth its read.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Gary Wills, What Paul Meant, 2006.

Wills romps through Paul’s writings in an effort to reclaim what he sees as the—too often occluded—true message of Paul. He argues that Paul did not “subvert” the true message of Jesus, but rather that Paul is transformed by his encounter with the risen Jesus, and so seeks constantly to find the fullness of his Jewish faith as expressed through Jesus. Much of the book is taken up with addressing the concerns of specific criticisms of Paul’s writing. Wills makes an effort to rebut those who charge Paul with anti-Semitism, misogyny; he offers another look at Paul’s relationships with Rome and with Jerusalem. It’s a much better book than Wills’ earlier book, What Jesus Meant, though it’s nowhere near as strong a book, for example, as Donald Akenson’s Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus—a book that accomplishes the same tasks, but with more depth. The difference between the two is that Wills’ book is aimed at a popular audience, and Akenson’s requires more of its readers.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Diana Wynne Jones, The Pinhoe Egg, 2006.

My mother the children’s librarian handed me this book, and said, do you have a moment to review it? I thought to myself a) It’s by Diana Wynne Jones! b) Its main character is Cat (Eric) Chant!

I’ve missed Cat since the last time I read Charmed Life. He really is one of my favourite creations of DWJ. The story itself revolves around a feud between two witching families who are hoping to avoid the attention of Chrestomanci and his staff. Complicating matters are woods that repel visitors from Chrestomanci Castle, a rambunctious horse, an eager young griffin, and the mechanical antics of Roger Chant and his new friend, Joe Pinhoe. Alternating between the perspectives of Cat and Marianne Pinhoe, the story tells how the village moves to a new understanding of what life is supposed to be. It is a worthy sequel, full of secrets from grown-ups, and the stark contrast between parents who know how to leave room for children to grow and those who believe that the way to raise a child is to exercise constant control.

I think what I like best about this world is how individual magic is, and this book begins to explore how Cat and Marianne think and do magic. At another level, it’s about growing up and learning where one’s gifts lie, and how to use those gifts. As I read the book, my wife kept coming into the room and ask my why I was smiling and laughing—the novel is a lot of fun.