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ENGLAND’S SECULAR SCRIPTURE: Islamophobia and the Protestant Aesthetic (New Directions in Religion and Literature) by Jo Carruthers

October 15, 2017

I’m sure we’ve all heard the excuse for not going to church, on the lines of feeling closer to God in the garden. This book looks at the nostalgia, throughout post-Reformation literature, for England’s green and pleasant land.

This national myth excludes ‘foreigners’ and there is a direct line between it and the so-called ‘British Values’ to be taught in schools to counter (Islamic) extremism.

As I am not as well read as the author, I learned a lot about English literature but found it hard going at times.

Carruthers argues that the formation of English identities in early modern Reformation Protestantism influences English antagonism towards foreign identities, especially evident against Muslims. The book traces the transposing, and secularizing, of Reformation doctrines into a ‘Protestant aesthetic’ of simplicity, individualism, and rationalism in the literature of Spenser and Milton. Wordsworth, Hardy, Eliot and Orwell, among others, perpetuate this aesthetic, one that continues to shape English mythologies up to the present day. Carruthers sheds light on contemporary Islamophobia, helping us to understand that Englishness is not merely a secular identity (combating what is seen as an irrational fundamentalist identity), but one informed, paradoxically, by Protestant logic and history.

Table of contents

Acknowledgements \ Series Editors’ Preface \ Introduction \ 1. The English Reformation and the Protestant Aesthetic \ 2. Secularizing the Protestant Aesthetic: Wordsworth, Eliot and Hardy \ 3. Contemporary Englishness and the Protestant Aesthetic \ 4. The Protestant Aesthetic and Islamophobia \ Bibliography \ Index

Quotations:

 

Luther, in his opening to his commentary on the Psalms, available in English translation in 1577, advocates the reading of the ‘simple text’ of Scripture, ‘without further helpes’ as it has ‘matter enough to giue intelligence and instruction sufficient to the soule of man for saluation’ (although he does praise God for ‘commentaries & expli­’cations’, which are nonetheless ‘much requisite, & greatly needefull’ to quench ‘controuersies’)

Chapter One outlines the precise set of Protestant beliefs that were invested in simplicity: both anti-Catholic rejection of ostentation and hermeneutical assumptions of transparency. Through readings of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, simplicity is shown to be a key signifier that is the conceptual foundation to other characteristics of Englishness, namely rational­ity, self-control, and freedom. Simplicity becomes, in these works, a marker of the elect English. The continuance of the aesthetic of sim­plicity into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, and its ongoing dependence upon an unarticulated belief in transparency, is considered in Chapter Two. Here, simplicity is shown to morph from a theologically infused concept to one that comes to be an intuitive value that itself measures theological and moral positions. The theologically informed oppositional force of simplicity persists and it becomes a more general (rather than theologically specific) arbitra­tor of morality and a marker of the elite. Chapter Three continues the trajectory to twentieth- and twenty-first-century writings on Englishness, demonstrating how contemporary accounts of a nostal­gic Englishness are dependent upon the literary depiction of a simple Englishness based in the landscape, an Englishness that is still oppositional and in which simplicity acts as a marker of pre-eminence. This chapter also demonstrates the importance of those character traits that are indebted to simplicity (as revealed in Chapter One): rationality, discernment, self-possession, reservation and self-control.

The final chapter turns to a specific outworking of the oppositional force of the Protestant aesthetic of English simplicity that is appar­ent in articulations of Islamophobia. With the book covering such a large scope — the subjects of Eng­lishness, of simplicity and of Islamophobia, as well as an immense period from the early modern to the present day, there is necessarily a sense of speed to the book. I have no doubt that others are more suited to write different sections of this book and that they can be fleshed out with more nuance and therefore with greater panache than I have managed. These chapters are intended to sketch out the persistence of simplicity, and the ways in which its Protestant logics of transparency and supremacy are in force in contemporary expres­sions of Englishness and especially implicated in Islamophobia.

Transparency becomes coupled with the aesthetic of simplicity (exemplified in plain reading, but also plain clothes, simple rurality and the simple life) and signifies a wealth of interconnected qualities. As was implicit in The Faerie Queene, simplicity signifies rationalism in the elect’s newly superior discerning mind. The emphasis upon Protestant discernment leads to a widespread association of God-given perception with a God-given reason.

If we follow King in applying the Geneva Bible’s inter­pretation of the keys of heaven in Matthew 16.19 as ‘the worde of God’ (Spenser’s Poetics, p. 100) then Ignaro likewise has no access to the truth that the Scriptures hold. As such, interiority and biblical interpretation are implicated in each other.

Protestantism’s leading nation, as many English saw themselves.

the lineage of literary works that present England as the new Israel or Jerusalem.

Although never mentioned explicitly, it is simplicity that is indicated through his expulsion of the linguistic ornament of rhyme. Just as the throwing off of Catholic decoration in churches, and the eschew­ing of the more personal ornamentation of luxurious dress makes the Protestant free, so language is liberated by its eschewing of embellishment.

Dyrness notes that English taste for landscape demonstrates a Protestant veneration of nature. Importantly, the landscape that Milton renders is that of the garden — the enclosed space where wild­; ness is always within bounds and subject to cultivation. As England becomes ‘this Eden’, it is also markedly a tame, or to-be-tamed gar­den landscape. As such, the English as gardeners are controllers of the landscape in a way that corresponds to their assertion of self-control.

The Christian Socialist F. D. Maurice in 1855 appeals to the `witness’ of ‘simplicity’ in his ‘The Communion Service’ to verify his theological position:

But are we investing the bread and the wine with some magical properties? Are we supposing that they admit us into a Presence, which but for them would be far from us? Do they not rather bear witness, by their simplicity, by their universality, that it is always near to us, near to every one.

The apparently magical properties of the sacrament are transferred to simplicity as a sign of the unmediated presence of God, a guaran­tor of transparency and presence. Throughout his pamphlet, Maurice elaborates on the elements of the eucharistic service, asserting quite explicitly their mutual simplicity and transparency: ‘Surely what we need is, that they should be made a perfectly transparent medium, through which His glory may be manifested’. Maurice goes on to articulate the movement of the eucharist from an everyday context to one ‘purely sacramental’, in which it becomes a transparent commu­nicator of divine meaning:

For this end the elements require a solemn consecration from the priest [ . . . ] — that they may be diverted from their ordinary uses, ­that they may become purely sacramental. No doubt the world is full of sacraments. Morning and evening, the kind looks and parting words of friends, the laugh of childhood, daily bread, sickness and death, all have a holy sacramental meaning [ . . . ] But then they have another meaning, which keeps this out of sight. If we would have them translated to us, we need some pure untroubled element, which has no significancy, except as the organ through which the voice of God speaks to man, and through which he may answer, ‘Thy servant heareth.’

Such we believe are this bread and wine, when redeemed to His service. Let us not deprive them of their ethereal whiteness and clearness, by the colours of our fancy, or the clouds of our intellect.’

Maurice wants to set aside bread and wine from their everyday asso­ciations and instead present them as a ‘pure untroubled element’, separate from the world and made sacred, as identified in their ‘ether­eal whiteness and clearness’. Modified by his earlier descriptor of `simplicity’, the elements become unfettered, clear communicators of the divine.

‘Those who held the continental view of the Eucharistic Presence refused utterly to assume a garment which implied that Presence. Many insisted on ministering in th street clothes, or peasant’s jacket, and we have record of one priest who felt that he must wear his hat during the service

Muslims are seen as choosing and preferring insularity and Islam is increasingly seen as a threat to Western liberal democracy … Muslims are ultimately defined as decep­tive (hampering free speech), as aggressively public (through their clothing) and ultimately as unduly ostentatious when measured against a mythological reserved and simple Englishness.

she asserts ‘tolerance, politeness and com­passion’ as British core values, indeed as ‘Christian values’ that ‘pre­vail’ despite the decline in the ‘church-going habit’. It becomes clear that British values are based in a set of moral values that are attached to a specific religion (Christianity) ….. the veil on an issue that, privately, many will have admitted to finding disturbing’. The veil as metaphor signifies wrongful hiding and cover­ing, and its removal is an act of illumination, openness and honesty.

with a plea to those Muslims who may wish `to play a full role in British society’, that they ‘should realize that they are making that more difficult’ because of ‘the uniform they choose to wear’. By choosing to label the veil as ‘uniform’, veil-wearing Muslims become school children or an army. (Who describes their national or religious dress as ‘uni­form’?)

which Islam is represented as ‘A religion that promotes violence against non believers this induces certain Muslims into a rabid frenzy, these Muslims must be challenged wherever they raise their evil heads.’

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