Bookish reporting ahead: J-preps for Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017

When the Religion Guy worked at Time magazine and The Associated Press, he made every effort to read a book per week. He also vowed to give important books as much publicity as conditions allowed because “mainstream” print media increasingly neglected religion titles. 

That neglect underscores the importance of reporters keeping up with book reviews in religious periodicals, especially the sophisticated, content-rich Books & Culture: A Christian Review. Otherwise, how can busy newswriters sift through those looming piles of review copies and decide which to cover?

Quick tip: No index, no review.

For astute religion writers, the book scene comes to the fore right now due to a huge upcoming story, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. This epochal event deserves careful advance thought about special story packages or series. And that means journalists need some historical reading under the belt to develop the themes to ponder with scholars.

As Thomas Albert Howard of Gordon College wrote four years ago in Books & Culture, the Reformation “has been credited (or blamed) for the rise of the modern nation state, liberalism, capitalism, religious wars, tolerance, America, democracy, individualism, subjectivism, pluralism, freedom of conscience, modern science, secularism, Nazism, and so much else.” He could have added the expansion of literacy, worship in common languages, and the assault on mandatory celibacy.

The agenda includes the title of a 2005 book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom: “Is The Reformation Over?” Does the old Protestant-Catholic divide still make sense in the secularizing West? What crucial differences remain today? Was late medieval Catholicism really so corrupt that this warranted revolt? Could Catholicism have averted the split? How would the modern Papacy need to change for Christianity to reunite (on that, don’t forget the Orthodox)? What do historians consider the long-term pluses and minuses of the Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation?

On reading recommendations, one well-regarded survey -- which The Guy has not yet read -- is “The Reformation: A History" (2004) by Diarmaid MacCulloch, available in an 864-page Penguin paperback. MacCulloch is a distinguished church historian at Oxford University.

The Guy approached with anticipation MacCulloch’s latest, “All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy,” out Sept. 7 from Oxford University Press. However, this work is a disappointment so his 2004 tome is presumably a better bet. The new volume collects 22 previously published essays,  with the scattershot quality of such anthologies.

As a Church of England liberal who’s openly gay, MacCulloch looks upon doctrinaire Christians, including the 16th Century rivals, as a tad God-mad. In his specialty, England’s Reformation, he rebuts "Anglo-Catholic" interpretations promoted since the 19th Century. Instead, MacCulloch sees the Church of England under King Henry VIII’s successors King Edward, Queen Elizabeth, and others as thoroughly Reformed despite keeping such Roman trappings as cathedrals and bishops.

MacCulloch adopts a breezy style. Publishing was Protestant Geneva’s “greatest money-spinner.” The King James Version we know is “a Disneyfied reconstruction,” not the 1611 original. Queen Elizabeth defeated the Spanish Armanda “with a fine speech and a dose of English bad weather laid on by the Almighty.” With both the short-lived Catholic Queen “Bloody” Mary  and successor Elizabeth, “the main point of royal daughters was a saleable breeding stock.”

The Guy has higher hopes for another new anthology, also from Oxford, “Protestantism After 500 Years,” co-edited by the aforementioned Howard and Noll with a dozen contributors. No doubt other books worth a look will appear in coming months.

Get that comfy reading chair ready.

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