Guests on Volume 136
• THOMAS ALBERT HOWARD on the history of commemorating the Reformation
• MARK NOLL on how the Reformers would want to be remembered
• ANDREW PETTEGREE on how Martin Luther transformed the printing industry
• PETER LEITHART on the biblical basis for the unity of the Church
• NORM KLASSEN on the political theology implicit in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
• JAMES LITTON on the life and work of hymnologist Erik Routley
• JOSEPH O’BRIEN on the neglected literary achievements of J. F. Powers
Thomas Albert Howard
“[W]hat I’m trying to get at as an intellectual historian are some of the ironic or unintended consequences of how religious ideas can then get bound up with ethnic questions or political questions.”
— Thomas Albert Howard
Historian Thomas Albert Howard discusses how the social practice of commemoration accumulates different layers of meaning with respect to the Protestant Reformation and its ensuing religious and political contexts. Howard describes how the purpose of commemoration, with the goal of “shoring up identity,” alters with each centenary celebration according to the surrounding intellectual and national concerns.
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“They did not see themselves as necessarily standing at a kind of crux in history. They saw themselves in history. They saw a need for correcting abuse. They saw the need for purifying doctrine. They saw the need for clarifying the statement of the gospel. . . . So in that sense they were reformers. But whether or not they had a kind of cosmological or genealogical sense that reformation is always needed … I don’t know that that’s the case.”
— Mark Noll
Historian Mark Noll reflects on the distinction between an understanding of “reformation” as preserving that which has been handed down versus a progressive understanding of reform as a necessary process in history. Setting aside the academic details about the Reformation, Noll suggests that laymen should have a grasp of the major points of controversy during the early Reformation and how these disagreements have either been resolved or continue to be disputed in Christian churches today.
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“Luther wrote by and large in German, small pamphlets, which could be produced in quick editions and sell out locally. So printers got exactly what they wanted, which is swift returns for minimal investment. So Luther to a very large extent reconstructed the European print world round principles that allowed printers to make money.”
— Andrew Pettegree
It is often remarked that Martin Luther’s Reformation could never have advanced the way it did without the technology of the printing industry. While the coincidence of Luther and the printing press undoubtedly contributed to the Reformation’s rapid spread, the printing world at the time of Luther was largely under the patronage of the Catholic church, and it was not inevitable, according to Andrew Pettegree, that “print would become an agent of insurrection.” In his book, Brand Luther, historian Andrew Pettegree shows how Luther’s facility for writing in German and his intuitive business sense not only spread ideas and incited controversy, but completely transformed the distribution model of the printing industry.
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Peter J. Leithart
“In order to imagine a unified church, we kind of have to un-imagine, we have to un-think what it means to be American, because being an American means being committed to the free exercise of religion and that means that we’re committed to maintaining these denominational structures.”
— Peter J. Leithart
Frequent MARS HILL AUDIO guest and pastor-theologian Peter Leithart talks about the unique challenge that American denominationalism poses to Church unity. Despite its reputation for being a religious nation (and, historically, a largely Christian nation), America is the first post-christendom Christian nation. As a result, American Christians have only encountered Christianity as a denominational, and hence, divided, affair. How then are Americans to conceive of Church unity? To what extent does our denominationalism amount to American nationalism and does this conflation impede Christians from pursuing the reality of the unified Church?
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“The other thing that people will do . . . is they will say that Chaucer has a focus entirely on this world. Some people will talk about ‘well, let others concern themselves with the beatific vision, Chaucer’s vision is on this world.’ And what they want, I think what they rightly want is to say that Chaucer is really interested in embodiment. He’s really interested in nature. He’s really interested in this world, but what they miss is that paradoxical, theological idea that, actually, if you really want to know what this world is, you have to think of it in terms of its being caught up in the divine life.”
— Norman Klassen
Literary critic Norman Klassen discusses the symbolic significance of dialogue and pilgrimage in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. While many Chaucer scholars attempt to extract Chaucer from his medieval context, contrasting his apparent secular emphasis over against the sacred themes of literary contemporaries such as Dante, Klassen sees Chaucer’s pilgrimage as a symbolic affirmation of the one, true Church. The pilgrimage of the Canterbury Tales plays out (albeit imperfectly) through dialogue and fellowship our need for each other that Christian ecclesiology says is necessary in order for us to fulfill our ultimate supernatural ends. Drawing from Rowan Williams and Mikhail Bakhtin, Klassen argues that the conversational fellowship of the Tales presents a view of freedom that assumes a natural dependency on others and ultimately on God.
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“He was an engaging lecturer. He knew numbers. For instance, he could tell you the number of particular hymns in practically any hymnal you would mention. . . . He was a superb pianist himself. A man of many, many talents. And of course, an incredible writer.”
— James Litton
In addition to the Reformation, 2017 marks the centenary anniversary of English hymnologist Erik Routley (1917-1982). Routley spent his career writing and teaching about the theological and liturgical significance of the Church’s musical tradition. He was a prolific author, writing numerous books and articles, including Church Music and the Christian Faith, The Musical Wesleys, and Hymns and Human Life. Routley taught music at both Princeton Theological Seminary and Westminster Choir College, two posts which he shared with his student, friend, and colleague James Litton. In this conversation, renowned choral conductor, James Litton, shares some of his personal reflections on the life and work of Erik Routley.
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“I think what Powers is trying to say is ‘No look, there’s a whole other side: there’s a lot of boring Tuesday afternoon at 4 o’clock stuff going on in the priesthood.’ And I think that’s what he wanted to show. I think he wanted to show that the priesthood was not glamorous, but that there was a profound struggle going on.”
— Joseph O’Brien
This final segment of the issue features an interview about the Catholic short story author and novelist J. F. Powers (1917-1999), who was also born one hundred years ago this year. Known among literary circles as a “writer’s writer,” Powers’s output was modest, but his craft was exceptional. At the time of his death in 1999, however, none of Powers’s fiction was in print and since then, despite the reissue of all of his works by the New York Review of Books, Powers has faded into greater obscurity among the general population. Journalist Joseph O’Brien joins us here to reflect on the two features in the writing of J. F. Powers that make him both attractive and confusing for contemporary readers: his penchant for writing about the lives of priests and his preference for setting his stories in the American Midwest.