Category Archives: History

Reading about the Reformation


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On this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation I want to finish reading Alister McGrath’s book Reformation Thought: An Introduction. When I started reading, a few months ago, I immediately realized that what I thought I knew about that time and the purposes and processes of the Reformation was paltry at best. I anticipate enjoying the book, and coming away with a better understanding because I’ve read several books by McGrath. He is a good writer. I trust him to be knowledgeable about anything he commits to writing, and as accurate, easy to understand, and truthful as possible.
From the chapter titled Introduction:

…..The sad state of the church in the early sixteenth century was simply a symptom of a more radical disease—a deviation from the distinctive ideas of the Christian faith, a loss of intellectual identity, a failure to grasp what Christianity really was. Christianity could not be reformed without an understanding of what Christianity was actually meant to be…. [T]he obvious decline of the late Renaissance church was the latest stage in a gradual process which had been going on since about the theological renaissance of the twelfth century—the corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics.

Confronting corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics is an ongoing, and always contemporary battle. Reformation (in the perfect tense) is central to Christianity, both on a personal and corporate level.


A Cathedral: Serious Business

I’ve been enjoying a DVD series of lectures titled The Cathedral, which I borrowed from the library.  I wish I had seen it years ago before my visits to  Paris, Germany and Prague.   Professor William R. Cook, from the State University of New York at Geneseo, who lectures, is enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about theology as well as medieval history and cathedrals.  The format, thirty minute lectures on a focused topic, is easy to follow, and augmented by many photographs. Today I watched the episode on the stained glass windows at Notre Dame de Chartes.  Here is a picture of part of the window (made in the 12th century) depicting the Passion of Christ.

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Professor Cook:

  “Why are these windows beautiful?  The main reason is because they’ll attract people to learn from the stories.  And their souls are at stake.  This is very serious business.  We’re in a cathedral.  We’re not in a museum.  We’re not in an art gallery.  And we always need to remember these stories are what these windows are all about.”

Around the year 2000 a German friend took me to see several Romanesque and Baroque churches in and near Munich and Augsburg.  I remember how disappointed I was that the focus was solely on the antiquity and style of the buildings.

Only A Watermark

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I’ve been lying around the last couple of days, reading multiple books.  When my brain is fatigued I go back to Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams, an autobiography, written in the third person, and I am enjoying it immensely.  Henry was the great-grandson and grandson of the two Adams presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
I first met Henry Adams when reading  All The Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt, another very good book.
Hearing first hand accounts about Quincy and Boston in the mid-nineteenth century fascinates me, and the commentary on his Harvard education revealed that my notions about Harvard in that century are not at all accurate:
For generation after generation, Adams’s and Browses and Boylstons and Gorhams had gone to Harvard College, and although none of them, as far as known, had ever done any good there, or thought himself the better for it, custom, social ties, convenience, and, above all, economy, kept each generation in the track.  Any other education would have required a serious effort, but no one took Harvard College seriously.  All went there because their friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self-respect.  Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and something of what they wanted to make useful ones.  Leaders of men it never tried to make.  Its ideals were altogether different.  The Unitarian clergy had given to the College a character of moderation, balance, judgment, restraint, what the French called mesure; excellent traits, which the College attained with singular success, so that its graduates could commonly be recognized by the stamp, but such a type of character rarely lent itself to autobiography.  In effect, the school created a type but not a will.  Four years of Harvard College, if successful, resulted in an autobiographical blank, a mind on which only a water-mark had been stamped.
I’ve arrived now, in Germany, with Mr. Adams as he continues his “education.”  It surprises me, how small the world seems to be as he frequently comes across  acquaintances from America.  I find myself going to the computer to research places and names he mentions.  Reading this is a wonderful way to learn history, and to visit places vicariously, but I especially enjoy the glimpses into that culture and society.  And I’ve noticed that human nature is a predictable constant.
The book is available for download at Gutenberg Press.

Learning about the Reformation

I am currently reading two books by Alister McGrath,  Reformation Thought: An Introduction (1988) and The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (2014).    By the time I finished reading the preface in Reformation Thought I realized my understanding of the movement was, at best, paltry.  I appreciate McGrath’s careful explanations that assume the reader is not familiar with key terms and ideas, finding out that even someone (me) who has fundamental understanding of these things needs correction or clarification.

From the section titled “How to Use this Book:”

Three words sum up the aim of this book: introduce; explain; contextualize.  The book aims to introduce the leading ideas of the European Reformation during the first half of the sixteenth century.  It is like a sketch map, which indicates the main features of the intellectual landscape: notes, suggestions for further reading will allow the reader to add finer detail later.  Second, the book aims to explain these ideas.  It assumes that the reader knows nothing about the Christian theology which underlies the Reformation, and explains what terms such as ‘justification by faith’ and ‘predestination’ mean, and why they are of religious and social relevance.  Third, it aims to contextualize these ideas by setting them in their proper intellectual, social and political context.  That context includes such great intellectual movements as humanism and scholasticism, the alternative religious ideologies of the radical Reformation and Roman Catholicism, and the political and social realities of the imperial cities of the early sixteenth century.  All these factors affected the thought of the reformers, and its impact upon their public— and this work aims to identify that influence and assess its effects.
Here are the section headings of the book:
1    Introduction
2    Late Medieval Religion
3    Humanism and the Reformation
4    Scholasticism and the Reformation
5    The Reformers: A Biographical Introduction
6    The Doctrine of Justification by Faith
7    The Doctrine of Predestination
8    The Return of Scripture
9    The Doctrine of the Sacraments
10  The Doctrine of the Church
11  The Political Thought of the Reformation
12  The Diffusion of the Thought of the Reformation
13  The Thought of the English Reformation
14  The Impact of Reformation Thought upon History
One of the surprises, to me, was the nature of Medieval humanism and its contribution to the Reformation movement.  Humanism here is described as:
a cultural and educational movement, primarily concerned with the promotion of eloquence in its various forms….It is beyond doubt that the Renaissance witnessed the rise of classical scholarship.  The Greek and Latin classics were widely studied in their original languages….[T]he evidence available makes it clear that such study was regarded as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.  That end was the promotion of contemporary written and spoken eloquence….it has become increasingly clear that ‘humanism’ lacked any coherent philosophy….In short, humanism was concerned with how ideas were obtained and expressed, rather than with the actual substance of those ideas.
And this:
The literary and cultural program of humanism can be summarized in the slogan ad fonts—back to the original sources.  The squalor of the medieval period is bypassed, in order to recover the intellectual and artistic glories of the classical period.  The ‘filter’ of medieval commentaries—whether on legal texts or on the Bible—is abandoned, in order to engage directly with the original texts.  Applied to the Christian church, the slogan ad fonts meant a direct return to the title-deeds of Christianity—the patristic writers and, supremely, the Bible.
I am enjoying this immensely.

Frederick Law Olmsted in Boston


Intrigued by a friend’s recent post about Olmsted, I borrowed an inter-library loan  book about his public parks.

In the late 1960’s I was in Nursing School in Boston and walking was my usual form of transportation.  The first year I did a lot of exploring on weekends because, unlike me, many of my friends lived close enough to go home, and I was often left alone. I remember one day I walked from Parker Hill (site of New England Baptist Hospital, and the School of Nursing) into Boston Common with a box of crackers and a jar of juice, and then spent much of the afternoon bench sitting, watching people and animals, and listening to the sounds of the city.

Over the years I’ve been in several of Olmsted’s Boston parks and planned areas including Commonwealth Avenue, Jamaica Park, Arnold Arboretum, the Arborway, and Back Bay Fens (pictured above), which was close to my school.  From the book, here is a little bit about the history of the Fens.

In the plan for a park system adopted by Boston in 1876, most of the area that became the Back Bay Fens was to be filled and a narrow park created with a sinuous waterway extending from near the Charles River to a small park overlooking it on Parker Hill.  A parkway was then to run from there to Jamaica Pond.  When the park commission turned to Olmsted to design this feature, he objected to creating a carefully tended park of turf and gardens on that site, calling instead for creation of scenery inspired by the tidal marshes of coastal Massachusetts.

The original Park Department Plan:


From another source, Planning The City Upon A Hill: Boston Since 1630, by  Lawrence W. Kennedy I found a little more:

Olmsted urged the commission to scrap plans for a park on top of Parker Hill and instead develop the area which he called the Back Bay Fens.  Under his guidance the region was transformed from an undesirable and nondescript border area into a lovely landscape which pleased the eye and provided a safe conduit for flood waters.

Looking through Olmsted’s detailed plans I appreciated that he thought carefully not only about landscape beauty, but also about safety, proper drainage, quality of life, and bringing nature into the everyday life of city dwellers.







Hillary’s Basket of Deplorables

Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” statement continues to disturb me.  One of my first thoughts was that she was essentially calling half of American’s deplorable, and if she became elected she would be their president too.  I don’t think she thought about that at all, or worse, she doesn’t think those people are worth representing.
The phrase itself, though seemed to mean something more. It sounded sinister and somehow familiar.
The characteristics she attributed to the deplorable ones was itself a basket of terms that have, in my lifetime, morphed from describing someone who exhibits disdain for specific groups of people into labeling disagreement with certain policies and agendas as hateful, and the same as disdaining the group.  And so, Hillary attempted to delegitimize Trump by assigning hateful motives to his supporters. By her definition, although I am not a Trump supporter, I am included in her dreadful basket.
Another way to discredit people is to dehumanize them.  Tossing people into baskets is not respectful.  It expresses disinterest and dishonor, to say nothing of hubris.  This thought brought to focus my discomfort with the phrase.  Dehumanizing people for political gain has happened on a large scale before.  Hitler.  He called those people “undesirables.”   As Hitler’s power grew he gained control over public information, persecuted the Church, and criminalized all dissent.  His government intruded into all aspects of life, including the naming of children.  Does any of this sound familiar?
This isn’t going to end well for us either, unless we change course.  Fortunately we have a framework to help us attain liberty and justice for all.  We need to protect it and adhere to it.  We need to think about first things.  We need to encourage discussion and welcome dissent.  We need to respect every person.  We need to be humble.  This is not easy. God help us.