Monday, August 24, 2009

A Week of Reviews, part I: John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Throughout the summer months I’ve wandered through numerous books, and so I have half a mind to lazily bask in the warm glow of erudition without shedding any light of my own. Alas, one does not so easily escape conscience, and so I find myself obligated to write reviews for your edification, oh my beloved readers. and so: please read on.

Getting through all twenty-some hours of my recording of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was an enterprise of several months, begun in earnest in April, halted throughout the months of June and July, resumed and ended in early August. I should mention that I gave the work a thorough aural perusal, recapitulating several minutes every time listening resumed, and so in total it is likely that I listened – or at the very least, heard – the Book of Martyrs twice, and by the end I had become passably well acquainted with Foxe’s elegant prose (which is beautifully delivered by Nadia May). Be that as it may, this reading was insufficient, barely enough to catch a glimmer of the resplendent, bloody tapestry which Foxe passionately weaves out of facts, fables and a fiery zeal verging on madness. Martyrology is a complex subject – and very hermetic to the profane – though precious and unexpected lessons may be derived from it.

John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was first printed in 1563, while Europe still reeked with the blood of major persecutions, and subsequently extended so that the history of Western Christianity is accounted for, from John the Baptist all the way to the first American missionaries to Burma in the 1820s. The work is itself a piece of bookmaking history – its early editions included lavish woodcut illustrations which were fairly new at the time, and subsequent printings put several celebrated authors and illustrators to contribution. It is an evolved piece of literature, four centuries in the making – and still a good seller in this cynical age.

... which is a wonder, really, because it is not as though John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is good history by contemporary standards. The authors’ agenda is not only palpable: it is blaring. Catholicism is routinely demonized and its adherents are all made to sound like credulous cretins, even though Foxe’s accounts of the earliest martyrs all depend on the rather fanciful Catholic hagiographies (I remember with particular fondness the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp). The use of images, the sacraments and the cult of the saints are all given only the tersest and most inarticulate dismissal, and time and again the persecutions are cited as proof of the errors of Catholic doctrines; factors such as worldly motives, or the persecutions orchestrated by the Protestants themselves, are wholly ignored. The persecutors are always in league with the devil, the persecuted are always righteous and sheep-like in their innocence, and the moderates who let fear sway them one way or another are always damned.

And so, the entire book – its history, its philosophy and its theology – is biased. Be that as it may, I have nothing but praise for it. It is so remarkably, entirely human, revealing that the story of Christianity’s progression is not, as one might have hoped, the legend of a persecuted few overcoming adversity and triumphing in the Truth. The story of Christianity is rather the gruesome tale of the first Christians being persecuted by the Romans and, having escaped that, beginning to persecute their own – with divisions in the Protestant churches also leading to murder, and changes in secular power time and again overturning the foundations of religious institution.

Christianity as we know it today was until the Enlightenment (and even some time afterwards) constantly watered with the blood of martyrs, which from antiquity flowed plentiful. This is the first lesson which the Book teaches – one which the reader knew perhaps, intuitively, before reading a full account of the tortures of the condemned – though it is much more impactful following Foxe’s poetic illustration.

The second lesson is a lesson in humility. There is a kind of courage which by and large has been lost – the courage to believe so strongly as to surrender life over mere doctrinal minutia. For what harm is there in praying to saints? At worst it is a meaningless gesture. But the devout Protestant will see it as taking away from the reverence due to G-D (as though love were reduced from being shared between more recipients. Christians ought to know better – love is increased rather than diminished the more it is given). I have forgotten how many points of contention have driven the persecutions – there were so many that they all blur together, eluding solid conceptual grasp. This is a lesson in humility, therefore, in that very few contemporary readers could boast of believing anything – anything at all – so strongly as the martyrs did. It is an epistemological feat beyond the grasp of our intellectual sophistication.

The Book also has a third lesson also: an illustration of the strength of human resolve. For not only where the martyrs willing to give up their lives over doctrinal trifles – for this is understandable, seeing the conditions in which many of them lived – they were also willing to go on living when the opportunity presented itself. One does not read the Book of Martyrs for very long without thinking “had it been me, I would have given up a long time ago and died from sheer exhaustion.” The account of missionary work in Burma is singularly eloquent in that respect.

For this, and for other reasons also, I recommend this work to everyone. If you are foreign to Christianity, it will provide you with an interesting portrait of both its extremes; if you are Protestant, it will give you a good impression of the rich and diverse history of that movement; if you are Catholic, it will serve as a lesson in the doctrines of your separated brethren, and also as a sobering account of the least palatable doings of the Church.

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