The evidence is everywhere: fundamentalist reading can stir passions and provoke violence that changes the world. Amid such present-day conflagrations, this illuminating book reminds us of the sources, and profound consequences, of Christian fundamentalism in the sixteenth century.
James Simpson focuses on a critical moment in early modern England, specifically the cultural transformation that allowed common folk to read the Bible for the first time. Widely understood and accepted as the grounding moment of liberalism, this was actually, Simpson tells us, the source of fundamentalism, and of different kinds of persecutory violence. His argument overturns a widely held interpretation of sixteenth-century Protestant reading--and a crucial tenet of the liberal tradition.
After exploring the heroism and achievements of sixteenth-century English Lutherans, particularly William Tyndale, Burning to Read turns to the bad news of the Lutheran Bible. Simpson outlines the dark, dynamic, yet demeaning paradoxes of Lutheran reading: its demands that readers hate the biblical text before they can love it; that they be constantly on the lookout for unreadable signs of their own salvation; that evangelical readers be prepared to repudiate friends and all tradition on the basis of their personal reading of Scripture. Such reading practice provoked violence not only against Lutheranism's stated enemies, as Simpson demonstrates; it also prompted psychological violence and permanent schism within its own adherents.
The last wave of fundamentalist reading in the West provoked 150 years of violent upheaval; as we approach a second wave, this powerful book alerts us to our peril.
The traditional interpretation of the Protestant Reformation's translation of the Scriptures into various vernacular languages is that it liberated common folk from the prisons of authoritarian readings of these writings by priests. While the translations of William Tyndale and Martin Luther, among others, most certainly had such an effect, they also, according to Harvard English professor Simpson, encouraged a literal reading of Scripture that gave rise to violence against those who refused to read the Bible in the same way. Far from a liberating process, reading Scripture involved recognition of one's unworthiness--reinforced by Scripture--and the knowledge that one's salvation had already been determined. Thus, as Simpson points out, Protestants' readings of the Scriptures put them in a double bind; the Bible they loved induced in them a self-loathing because they knew they could never live up to the many laws it required of them. Simpson's style can be workmanlike and repetitious, summarizing information at the end of each chapter and informing readers what to expect in the next. Drawing deeply on the history of biblical translation and of English literature from Tyndale through Thomas More to Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Simpson's story often challenges conventional readings of the history of biblical interpretation. (Nov.)
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Harvard University Press
November 22, 2007
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