Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents

by James Simpson

Harvard University, Press368 pages, $27.95

The past twenty years have brought major changes to university presses. Decreasing financial support from their home institutions has forced many of these presses to act more like trade houses”to be more attentive to the bottom line, one might say, or, putting a different spin on it, to be more conscious of a book’s potential readership.

The effects of this change have been mixed. On the one hand, it’s unlikely that certain significant monuments of scholarship”for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, published in two large volumes in 1980, or Maurice Cowling’s three-volume Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England ”would be published today, at least in their full form. On the other hand, the current situation discourages unnecessary obscurity in theme and language, and acquisitions editors are now actively seeking out scholars who can write with clarity and verve.

Accompanying this change at the university presses, and tangentially related to it, is an openness on the part of major universities to their professors’ publishing with trade houses”at least once those professors have established themselves as reputable scholars. Just in the past two years, members of Columbia’s English department have published books with Picador, Henry Holt, Pantheon, and Harper. This development, I think, is less a function of economics than of an ever-increasing sense that the professoriate has been marginalizing itself unnecessarily, making itself irrelevant to American public life. (And in this context, it’s worth remembering that a book lamenting such irrelevance, Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, appeared precisely twenty years ago.) Professors who write for trade houses, and their larger and more diverse audiences, are often seeking to recover the now nearly extinct”and perhaps only legendary”role of the public intellectual.

This, too, is a largely salutary move with certain troubling implications. As Jean Bethke Elshtain once said, the danger of being a public intellectual is that it’s easy to become more and more public, and less and less intellectual. It is immensely difficult to present scholarship to a general audience in a way that is faithful to what you have learned and accessible to people who haven’t spent most of their lives in libraries.

Which leads us to James Simpson’s Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents. I became wary of this book the moment I saw its subtitle, for “fundamentalism” is clearly in this context an anachronistic term”a point that Simpson, a professor of English at Harvard, acknowledges in his introduction, though without apology. Yes, he says, the word is “philologically unauthorized,” but it does “designate a movement based on the literal inerrancy of Scripture; and many forms of that movement are vibrant in many parts of the world today.” The presence of “fundamentalism” in his subtitle is explicitly “designed to connect sixteenth-century debates with contemporary issues.”

It’s probably not difficult for readers of First Things to guess where Simpson is going with this, nor is he inclined to leave his audience long in doubt. If you turn the page from the words I have just quoted, you see this: “In this chapter I sketch some of the ways in which new forms of Bible reading produced nearly two hundred years of violence in Western Europe between 1517 and 1700.” Note that these forms of reading are not said to have contributed to, encouraged, abetted, or failed to discourage two centuries of violence; they produced it. This is not a subtle thesis.

Simpson connects this thesis with another one, which is more subtle and therefore more interesting. This one involves sixteenth-century debates about the desirability of vernacular Bibles and lay access to Scripture. Simpson rightly points out that it’s nearly impossible for any modern intellectual to be neutral in this debate: “The promotion of widespread literacy by evangelical writers is indisputably attractive” to us. “We might disagree about what we read, but no one disputes that reading is massively desirable.”

By contrast, many surviving arguments against the wide reading of Scripture”God wishes to preserve sacred mysteries from the eyes of the vulgar; literacy makes servants uppity and disrespectful”we find repulsive. But the very advocates of literacy we educated folks celebrate as our intellectual ancestors are the ones who were advocating violence against those who did not read Scripture as they did. Simpson finds this horrifying, and, if one had to say that Burning to Read has a single purpose, it would be that of convincing readers to repudiate these ancestors, to deny their family resemblance to early modern evangelicals.

Simpson does not pursue this purpose consistently throughout the book, and indeed he makes it largely by implication. This is sometimes to the betterment of the story. Some of the passages where that purpose is largely forgotten are fine examples of cultural history: in an extended discussion of sixteenth-century debates about the meaning of the Greek word metanoia , for instance, or in the account of how courtiers of Henry VIII’s time drew on the psalms for consolation.

By contrast, when the purpose is near the forefront of the narrative, the book almost always suffers from it. Simpson chooses to make his chief point largely through redescribing the debates between Sir Thomas More, on the one hand, and Martin Luther and William Tyndale, on the other. This he does about as tendentiously as possible. Luther and Tyndale (and some of their followers, notably Miles Coverdale) are consistently described as “enslaving” themselves and other evangelicals”that’s the word he uses instead of “Protestants””“to a demanding psychic regime.” They teach people a model of reading whose “immediate point . . . is to provoke despair.” They are apostles of “textual hatred.” Simpson tries not to acknowledge that these writers could be charitable or kind, but he helpfully suggests that, when they seem to be, it is misleading. Coverdale’s evident “sweetness of temper,” for instance, merely masks “darker reading practices””for “Lutheran self-loathing and . . . ‘textual hatred’ are not so far away.”

It is curious how Simpson attributes any practices he dislikes or finds strange to distinctly evangelical theology. For instance, he notes how some English evangelicals living under the threat of persecution consoled themselves with the psalms of lamentation and understood their suffering as a testament to their fidelity to the gospel. “The only way [the evangelical reader] can guarantee his faith that the psalms offer some future consolation is to advertise his preparedness to suffer physically for them.” But Catholics have had their martyrs, too, have they not? And those martyrs have traditionally consoled themselves in virtually identical language. It’s not as though Catholics haven’t read the psalms.

If “evangelical reading practice looks, in short, pretty bad,” the teachings of More, by contrast, are “deeply meditated, brilliantly argued, and . . . extremely plausible””“saner” than those of his opponents. They are saner because More”this is perhaps Simpson’s boldest claim, which makes it unfortunate that he offers not one word in defense of it”is an ancestor of contemporary pragmatists like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. More opposes to the “textual hatred” of the evangelicals a model of “textual trust,” a trust that derives from life within a community of reading. The evangelicals leave the reader isolated with a terrifying biblical text that could bring testimony to their eternal life with God but could also bear witness to their reprobation and expulsion from God’s presence. More, as it were, cushions the reading experience by having it take place within a context of communal support.

There would be much truth to this argument if its terms were complete. Evangelical reading practices indeed have too often been isolating, and this isolation leads equally often to terror and to arrogance. This is why much recent evangelical scholarship has, however belatedly, focused on recovering a model of reading with and in the Church. But to describe More’s model of reading as “communal” and “trusting” is highly misleading, unless one specifies what community he thinks we should be reading within and what should be the proper object of our trust. More is no Stanley Fish, simply emphasizing the existence of “interpretive communities” as environments within which we all necessarily read, and he certainly is not trusting of his evangelical opponents. He believed, rather, that the Catholic Church is the only proper community within which to read and that its teachings are the only proper object of full “textual trust.”

This is, of course, the chief reason that More tortured and burned heretics: He believed them to be separating credulous people from the only community by which and in which we can be reconciled to God. (For similar reasons, Protestants killed Catholics elsewhere and later.) Simpson, having abstracted from More’s deeply theological thought these notions of “community” and “trust,” fails to see this and can only explain More’s violence according to the morality of the playground: They did it first. “More turned into an exact replica of his intolerant and literalist opponents even as he fought them.”

On the last page of the book, Simpson tries to moderate the accusation by saying, “I do not mean to lay the blame for the collapse of More’s brilliantly literary mode [into verbal and physical violence] at the door of evangelical culture . . . . [Rather,] Tyndale and More were both the victims of a new, immensely demanding, and punishing textual culture marked by literalist impersonality.”

I’m not sure what Simpson means by “impersonality” here, but throughout his entire book he has described Tyndale and Luther as the prime architects of the literalism he despises. Simpson’s attempt to execute a last-second pivot and describe Tyndale as a “victim” is unconvincing. Tyndale, and his contemporary scholarly advocate David Daniell, have been the chief villains of the whole book; Simpson should have let them remain so at the end.

Meanwhile, the claim that evangelical reading practices “produced nearly two hundred years of violence””like the claim that Thomas More is a proto-pragmatist”remains merely asserted. And so it must be. Anyone who tried to make that argument seriously and at length would be forced to see its inadequacy: Violence on a great scale always has multiple causes. Likewise, Simpson’s claim that these sixteenth-century controversies still have relevance to contemporary intellectual life might not survive close scrutiny. But since he gives it no scrutiny at all, we’re not in a position to know for sure.

Burning to Read would have been a much better book if Simpson had claimed less for it and been content to redescribe and renarrate the great controversies about the reading of Scripture that marked sixteenth-century life so heavily. They are worthy of attention in their own right and, in this case anyway, do not benefit from being linked so directly to “contemporary issues.” Though I am thankful that scholars and scholarly presses have become more attentive to the general reader, accessibility need not be accompanied by such carelessness and tendentiousness. At least, I hope not.


Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College.