Friday, August 01, 2014

Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic

     2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In The Breaking of Images, noted Baylor scholar and author Philip Jenkins gets a jump on the anticipated flurry of commentary. The occasion of his piece is David Motadel's recent review of "The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam" by James Noye. As Jenkins notes, "the review, and the associated scholarship, raises important questions about how we conceive of the Reformation, how we teach it, and significantly, how we will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the event in 2017." 

     In this article, Jenkins presents two important conclusions. The first one is certainly at variance with the broadly held perception of the Reformation--that is, of course, if any view of the movement (outside of scholarly circles) could said to be broad these days. My evangelical college students are as oblivious to this era and its implications for their beliefs as they are of any other historical period. That is not to say that I made any systematic study of the Reformation back in my Protestant days either. The Reformation personalities never interested me (and still do not). My understanding was the conventional one--that the movement corrected abuses in the Roman Catholic Church and made the Bible available to the common man.  (My particular sect never devoted much attention to the movement, as we believed they did not go nearly far enough, misguidedly emphasizing "reformation" rather than "restoration.")

     Jenkins (and Noye) would counter these comfortable, self-affirming assumptions with the proposition that "Iconoclasm was central to the Reformation experience, not marginal, and not just a regrettable extravagance."  In other words, the main thrust of the Reformation was the destruction of the images.

"For anyone living at the time, including educated elites, the iconoclasm was not just an incidental breakdown of law and order, it was the core of the whole movement, the necessary other side of the coin to the growth of literacy. Those visual and symbolic representations of the Christian story had to decrease, in order for the world of the published Bible to increase. In terms of the lived experience of people at the time, the image-breaking is the key component of the Reformation. In the rioting and mayhem, a millennium-old religious order was visibly and comprehensively effect removing popular access to the understanding of faith and the Christian story."

No doubt my reception into Orthodoxy led me to reevaluate the Reformation, this time from the sidelines. Any deeper insight, however, I attribute to Eamon Duffy's brilliant and magisterial The Stripping of the Altars, simply one of the best corrective works of historical scholarship ever written.  

      Jenkins' first proposition may not trouble Reformation apologists, as I doubt many have ever anguished over the rampage against the images. His second observation, however, will be harder to digest, namely:  "Analogies between the European Reformation and contemporary Islamism are much closer than many Protestants would like to admit." Now before the sputtering starts, let's be perfectly clear about what Dr. Jenkins is proposing.  He is not comparing Protestant theology to Wahhabism, for example.  Nor is he addressing the specific truth claims of either body.  To forestall the expected rebuttals, Jenkins states that "I am speaking very specifically about attitudes to images in religious devotion, and the absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions. Could I make that any clearer?"

     Jenkins explains:

"Like Calvinism, Wahhabi Islam urged the destruction of everything that could be seen as a later accretion to the core of the religion, as well as all manifestations of paganism or idolatry.  Since the 1920s, this version of the faith has been the official creed of Saudi Arabia, and variants of it are found among Islam's violent and extreme movements.

For present purposes, it is the Wahhabi tradition that has unleashed the savage destruction of shrines and holy places that has been so widely deplored in the past half-century or so. This includes the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan, the attempted eradication of the glorious shrines and libraries of Timbuktu, and the annihilation of most of the ancient shrines and tombs around Mecca itself. Some Egyptian Islamists fantasize about eradicating all the ruins of pagan ancient Egypt, including the Pyramids themselves. Modern Westerners are rightly appalled by such acts as desecrations of humanity's cultural heritage. But such outrage demonstrates a near-total lack of awareness of the West's own history. Nothing that the Islamists have done in this regard would cause the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers to lose a moment's sleep. They would probably have asked to borrow hammers and axes so they could join in."

     Dr. Jenkins also raises an eyebrow or two at the typical Western reaction to Islamist extremism, most often expressed in the hope (and need) for an Islamic "Reformation." Our progressive interpretation of the Christian Reformation as a triumph of reason and moderation over superstition is, in his estimation, "an extremely distorted view." Jenkins finds the movement to be anything but, instead characterized by extremism, violence and destruction.

     And so, the real take-away from this article is that Islam actually is going through its own Reformation, and has been doing so for the last hundred years or so, "exemplified by the Wahhabis and Salafists.  That's the problem."  The destruction of the Shrine of the Prophet Jonah in Iraq by ISIS is only the most recently manifestation of this particular pathology. Jenkins detects similar motivations between such recent barbarism and the iconoclastic rampages of the European Reformation. 

     Most Reformation apologists will simply refuse to accept any legitimate correlation between the two eras. The Reformers saw themselves as stripping away the corrupting accoutrements of the established church, and in so doing returning to the pure faith. How does this rational differ, exactly, from the motivations of today's Islamists? But there is an even more fundamental unity between the two movements. Both adhere to the "absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions." This bibliolatry would not doubt be denied by most heirs of the Reformation. And yet, words do have meaning. The belief and trust in the Bible itself, rather than the Trinity, seeps out from countless hymns, sermons, publications, and the very language of evangelicalism. This is no straw man, as I have observed it up close.

     And so, the Reformation, for better or worse, realigned and reset the Christian faith for many. According to Dr. Jenkins, we may now very well be spectators as Islam undergoes the same wrenching process.