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

2093675Several months ago, 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 thrilling bonus. As Simpson argues, evangelical reading practices 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). Despair, paranoia, and the secret impulses of fundamentalism sprang up in ground fertilized by Tyndale and Luther, points Simpson makes alternately by close reading of treatises and Psalm translations by Henrican courtiers (most of whom were on the verge of execution) and by citing casualty figures for the religious persecutions and religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Burning to Read never quite clarifies what this despair &c sprang up in place of. This is odd, since Simpson is a medievalist. As a result, the medieval church implicitly comes off much better than it should (and I’ll let aside Simpson’s explanation for More’s persecution of Evangelicals: short version: he blames it on *Evangelical* reading practices!). 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'” (qtd from Alcuin Blamires, “The Wife of Bath and Lollardy,” Medium Aevum 58 (1989), at 228). 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 debates 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 should in closing emphasize that the last 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 page labeled “for more on these issues see” followed by a list of relevant books on the relevant late medieval controversies