The Reformation: A History by Patrick Collinson [audio]

I have been reading a decent amount of theology lately (about which more later).  For some reason when I get burned out on politics I tend to read more theology.  I am also a big fan of the Modern Library Chronicles series and have managed to collect quite a few volumes. Lastly, as you will recall, I have been listening to audio books in my car as a way to “read” more books.  So when I saw The Reformation by Patrick Collinson at the library in audio format I picked it up.

reformation-history-patrick-collinson-hardcover-cover-artThe religious reformations of the sixteenth century were the crucible of modern Western civilization, profoundly reshaping the identity of Europe’s emerging nation-states. In The Reformation, one of the preeminent historians of the period, Patrick Collinson, offers a concise yet thorough overview of the drastic ecumenical revolution of the late medieval and Renaissance eras. In looking at the sum effect of such disparate elements as the humanist philosophy of Desiderius Erasmus and the impact on civilization of movable-type printing and “vulgate” scriptures, or in defining the differences between the evangelical (Lutheran) and reformed (Calvinist) churches, Collinson makes clear how the battles for mens’ lives were often hatched in the battles for mens’ souls.

Collinson also examines the interplay of spiritual and temporal matters in the spread of religious reform to all corners of Europe, and at how the Catholic Counter-Reformation used both coercion and institutional reform to retain its ecclesiastical control of Christendom. Powerful and remarkably well written, The Reformation is possibly the finest available introduction to this hugely important chapter in religious and political history.

I listened to this one on in the car over the last couple of weeks and really enjoyed it. It turned out to be an eloquent and engaging work; both literary and thought provoking. To be fair, however, it is not really an introductory history of the reformation so if you are looking for a simple and direct entry-level explanation this is not it. But the literary and intellectual quality makes that a moot point in my book. Collinson explores the people and ideas, and their impact, of this time period in fascinating and challenging ways. He has a deft way with words and phrases which made this book a joy to listen to.

His pattern is to introduce important questions that historians have wrestled with and attempt to put them in context and offer some of the evidence on both sides of the question.  He rarely provides definitive answers but instead probes questions and explores options.  And yes, he introduces a lot of names, dates and places as many Amazon reviewers have noted.  But a brief familiarity with key people and places is necessary to the discussion and I didn’t find it off-putting in the audio version.

Collinson dips into the lives of key figures like Luther and Calvin, and a host of others, but then widens the lens to talk about the impact of these people and events in terms of Europe at large, specific regions and nations and areas and communities within them.  He explores not just the theological and philosophical changes and implications but the political, cultural and economic impacts as well.

A few things stood out to me.  One was how clearly the West has moved beyond Christendom.  Sure, America has a different profile when it comes to religion than Europe but the fact remains that the world of Western Christendom is dying and we are not sure what is growing up in its place (post-modernism, multiculturalism, pluralism, democratic secularism, etc.).  Christians continue to argue about Calvin and Luther and the doctrinal issues they engaged with and spurred even as the cultural foundation and setting fades away.  In my opinion, this is a problem and no matter how hard Christians cling to the certainties forged in the Reformation, further developed in the fight over modernity (liberals versus fundamentalists) and now calcified into an insistence on “Biblical Orthodoxy” as a line in the sand, we are living in a Post-Christendom world and believers will have to deal with that reality. [Again, some more about that later]

Second, and related, was how connected these issue were with state power and identity.  It is rather sad thinking about how many people died over questions of doctrine and faith and how difficult it is to disentangle issue of church and state (and cultural and ethnic identity, etc.).  Of course, I say this looking back from my comfortable position today as having moved beyond burning heretics at the stake or drowning witches.  But obviously discussion of doctrine and practice take place today in a very different environment and it is still something of a shock to be reminded about how much blood was shed in the religious wars of this period.

And in a somewhat related issue, it was also tragic to hear of the iconoclasm that resulted from some of these ideas and events.  Collinson is careful not to oversimplify and avoid caricature, but there was still a great deal of art and craft destroyed for, from my perspective, very dubious reasons.  I come from a low church background but still can mourn the art and beauty that was lost in attempts to reject idolatry, papism, etc. History wiped away for doctrinal reasons.

But as Collinson frequently reminds us, it is easier to wish that people of the past thought and acted more like we do rather than to attempt to understand how and why they thought the way they did.

In just a few hundred pages The Reformation: A History explores a fascinating and revolutionary (although some would dispute even that as Collinson notes and discusses) period in the history of the West. A period that still shapes the way we think and speak of Christianity, theology, politics, culture, etc.  That it is done with wit and eloquence makes it that much more remarkable. I highly recommend it for those with an interest in religious history or Western Civilization.  Again, with the caveat that this is not an introductory text for high school students but rather an engagement with critical ideas, people places and events that have shaped our culture.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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