Is the Reformation the story of two bald men fighting over a comb, "an ultimately futile struggle over issues that now seem trivial or irrelevant"? Is it simply two centuries of nasty European warfare that created a huge mass of refugees, the likes of which would not be seen again until World Wars I and II?
Diarmaid MacCulloch, an English religious scholar and a lapsed believer descended from a long line of Scottish Episcopalian clergy, spares neither Protestants nor Roman Catholics when pointing out the horrors of Europe's epic religious upheaval of the 16th and 17th centuries. "Europeans were prepared to burn and torture each other because they disagreed on whether, or how, bread and wine were transformed into God, or about the sense in which Jesus Christ could be both divine and human," he says chillingly in "The Reformation." Yet, more substantially, Europe was also "torn apart by deep disagreements about how human beings should exercise the power of God in the world, arguments even about what it was to be human."
Why, indeed, should a modern secular world care about the Reformation? First, MacCulloch says, because we can't understand Europe today without this reference point, "the greatest fault line to appear in Christian culture since the Latin and Greek halves of the Roman Empire went their separate ways a thousand years before...." Europe would be forever split, he says: "Cuius regio, eius religio. Where you come from decides your religion, and within that region no other can be tolerated." One need look no further than the tragedy of Northern Ireland to see the contemporary political aftershocks.
Secondly, MacCulloch says, the Protestant militants who failed to win all of Europe succeeded far better in America, where the United States combines huge influence in the world with a fervent religiosity that mystifies Europeans. "American life is fired by a continuing energy of Protestant religious practice derived from the 16th century," he writes. He also suggests that perhaps Britain can play a special role in interpreting "the pervasive and exuberantly assertive (some might say strident) culture of Protestant religion in the United States to a Europe that has begun to forget what the Reformation meant."
What it meant, he explains, was a new way of looking at the world, which also inspired changes in the Roman Catholic church, often called the Counter-Reformation. "Monarchs, priests, nuns, merchants, farmers, laborers were seized by ideas that tore through their experiences and memories and made them behave in new ways, sometimes admirable, sometimes monstrous."
As cheap paper and the printing press made "the Word" portable in the 16th century, they increased the chances that new religious ideas could survive official crackdowns. Even if Martin Luther hadn't acted on Oct. 31, 1517, by nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg (and the historical accuracy of that event is in doubt, MacCulloch says), "the coming of printing would have changed the shape of religion." By 1525, about 3 million pamphlets in Luther's native German language had been distributed espousing his reforms.
The Bible itself was translated and widely distributed. Instead of spending time copying and decorating ornate biblical texts by hand, scholars began to think more about the meaning of the texts, allowing religion to "retreat out of the sphere of public ritual into the world of the mind and the imagination," he says. A rising class of prosperous, literate laypeople became a "ready audience for the Protestant message, with its contempt for so much of the old ritual of worship and devotion."
One quiet Protestant activity was the private singing of Psalms, which could be done even when religious tracts were unavailable or too dangerous to possess. "To sing a psalm was a liberation," MacCulloch says, "to break away from the mediation of priest or minister and to become a king alongside King David, talking directly to his God."
Was the Reformation a rebellion from a corrupt and bloated Catholic Church that had forgotten its mission? Or was it the work of opportunistic and greedy secular princes who lusted after that church's wealth? Or did it coincide with the inevitable rise of individualism and humanism, foreshadowing the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment? MacCulloch concedes there "might be some truth" in all these explanations. He also sketches at some length the stories of Protestant icons Luther and John Calvin, Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola, seminal Dutch thinker Desiderius Erasmus (who first backed, then opposed, Luther's protests). But he never suggests that great men alone triggered events.
Besides warfare and political consequences, the Reformation also brought profound changes in daily lives - including attitudes toward family, sex (including homosexuality), celibacy, and marriage - and MacCulloch discusses them in fascinating essays. The book's maps, appendices, and footnotes are helpful, too, but it's hard to understand why room for a simple timeline of events couldn't be found within this 800-page tome.
MacCulloch keeps the big picture firmly in view while delighting us with telling details and a mordant wit. If anything is missing in this scholarly yet readable work it is a deeper analysis of the spiritual longings that motivated (and still motivate) Christians, longings fulfilled by the comfort and peace, and other practical help, that Christians of all stripes find within their religion.
• Gregory M. Lamb writes about technology and healthcare for the Monitor.