Princeton University Press recently launched a new series, “Lives of Great Religious Books.” Each volume examines an important book - Genesis, Augustine’s Confessions , the Bhagavad Gita - and traces the book’s origins, history and uses. They are brief (some are a little over a hundred pages) and nearly pocket-sized, the kind of books for which the phrase “handsome volume” was invented.
The volume on The “Book of Common Prayer” is by Alan Jacobs, and it’s a gem. With his usual elegance and wit, Jacobs describes Cranmer’s political and religious aims, follows debates over the BCP between traditionalists who thought it too Protestant and Puritans who thought it too Catholic, and along the way explains the literary and liturgical qualities of the prayer book.
Briefly, a couple of highlights.
Jacobs engages briefly with Eamon Duffy’s ground-breaking The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 . Given the tendency of people to resist changes in their habits, he finds Duffy’s argument that the Reformation was largely unwelcome in England plausible, but adds “We can . . . say with near-absolute confidence that Cranmer did not care” (22). Not because he was cruel or thoughtless, but because he was convinced that the English church and English nation needed a unified Protestant prayer book. No more “sacring, peeping, tooting, and gazing” at a distant host; the Eucharist was given to be eaten not seen, received not worshiped.
He points to the intriguing parallel between the Marian exiles and the “Prayer-Book exiles” during the interregnum, and notes that Puritan and evangelical suspicion of the BCP were particular expressions of a wider tendency to associate the Prayer Book with forms of coercion. He takes the story well into the twentieth century, recounting Gregory Dix’s withering dissection of Cranmer’s Eucharistic service and the way Anglicans took that demolition as an opportunity to innovate. One of the delicious twists of the story is the way that a prayer book designed to unify England has gone global , undergoing contextualizing revisions along the way.
Another volume in the series, Mark Larrimore’s The Book of “Job” , is longer and written in a more academic fashion. Larrimore gets a lot into a comparatively small space. He examines the retellings of the Job story in the Testament of Job and the Talmud, summarizes Gregory’s massively important Christian typology of Job, the Moralia, and discusses how medieval writers from Maimonides to Thomas view the book as a philosophical disputation on providence.
Chapter 3 explores liturgical and dramatic uses of the book of Job, and Larrimore makes the shrewd comment that for premodern hearers of Scripture, Job’s “explosions of grief” not only show the extremes of righteous suffering but “show us what response to unmerited affliction is permissible and even appropriate. Job offers the license way to grieve. Submission was one part of it. Rage at misfortune and even at God was another” (122).
As the history moves toward the present, Job is set free from midrashic and allegorical interpretations. Yet it remained a touchstone of cultural and intellectual life in the modern period. Job “framed the eighteenth century’s wrestling with the problem of evil” (163), Larrimore says, pairing Pope’s Essay on Man (“Whatever is, is Right”) with Candide , described by Voltaire as “Job brought up to date.” Kant rejected all efforts at “doctrinal” theodicy, but found in Job an “authentic theodicy” that simply dismissed “all objections against divine wisdom” (165), in in the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of the whirlwind appearance, God, Rudolph Otto says, gave a “real theodicy” that could “utterly still every inward doubt” (179). Job goes into “exile” in the hands of critical scholarship, but events catch up with the Bible and Job again became an essential source for modern Jews like Elie Wiesel and Margarete Susman.
If these volumes are any indication, the series promises to be a rewarding one.