01 March, 2014

Heretics and Heroes by Thomas Cahill

I'm so depressed.

If you'd like to join me, give "Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World," a read. It's hard to imagine how Mr. Cahill can traverse 500 years of European humanity in 300 pages, but he covers it well. And it's not pretty.

European history is a greased pig of a thing in my mind. Just the time I think I've got the connections, there's some underlying cause I've never imagined or some critical connection I've forgotten over the years. (e.g. Did you know the indulgences Luther condemned were funding the works of Michelangelo, whom we all love and admire?) Cahill spends 290 pages connecting art, religion, and atrocity in compelling ways. I love any book that ties things together, making them easier both to understand and to remember. He starts the book memorably by isolating the European slaughter of millions during the conquest of the new world. It doesn't integrate well, but it's stunning nonetheless. His view of Europe's actions is unrepentently, gloriously, depressingly unforgiving.

After putting the new world in his rear-view mirror, Cahill's portrayal of the expansion of human self-understanding as expressed in Renaissance art is intriguing, and even thrilling. I've long understood there are artists I should admire, and could even recite some of the reasons why. Cahill brilliantly captures the growth of self-realization, of what it means to "be." I'd admired Botticelli's work, for example, but Cahill shows me why it was ground-breaking and how I see all people more completely for Botticelli having painted them the way he did. Cahill's exploration of the growing of the human self-concept alone is worth the price of the book.

But, silly me, I bought the book mostly to get a historian's take on the Reformation.

Cahill does not disappoint, unless you're hoping to read about some good thing that may have come to humanity out of Christianity's most famous upheaval. Cahill continues to describe the evolution of ideas as they pass from thinker to thinker. (Erasmus starts at Thomas a Kempis and adds linguistics. Luther starts at Erasmus and adds grace. Zwingli starts at Luther and clarity, and so on.) Calvin gets a thorough treatment and we go up through the kings of England, Elizabeth, and beyond. He does an especially helpful job with Catholicism's delayed and ineffectual response. When Cahill's done, you've seen the whole sweep of Reformation and Counter-Reformation with all its glories and warts. And its blood.

The contrast between the two stories interleaved within this single binding is unspoken, unavoidable, and striking. By the last page, Cahill's shown how the Renaissance ennobled, enlightened, and expanded the worth of mankind. His Reformation disgusts. It killed many, divided all, ennobled none. The neurotic grasping of his sad Martin Luther may have been brave and helpful, but Luther's message of freedom was only narrowly applicable to legalistic obsessives in the first place and in the end was taken up by those kings Europe most able to use it to entrench and establish their political power. Christian disagreement has always existed, but the Reformation became a historical watershed only because the powerful embraced it as a tool. The Renaissance told humanity how beautiful it could be. The Reformation demonstrated how ugly it already was.

Cahill doesn't wrap his story so tightly and conclusively as I've done here. He guides the reader to some conclusions, while leaving others to their own discretion. You're getting my gut feel upon putting the book down. He's comfortable placing the good side of the Reformers on display where he can find it, and he concludes the book with a recital of some positive things he sees Christianity bringing to the world. I cannot, however, reach any other assessment of the tapestry he's woven. The Reformation was a gut-wrenchingly terrible thing.

I only wish my heart could rise to the Reformers', my brothers', defense.

Cahill is substantially correct.

If Jesus is not risen from the dead, we are of all men most miserable, indeed. And yet, Jesus is risen from the dead. The history of bloodshed attending one of our proudest moments, the Reformation, is a stain on our name and attached to His. It was not to foment, spawn, and feed wars Jesus suffered and died. It's incumbent on us to learn from the evil Cahill details so coherently.

In the year 1550, with the Reformation birthing its most powerful changes, is it possible there were Christians humbly loving other Christians in countless communities of Italy, Germany, England, and France? Is it possible lowly Catholic and Protestant people were clothing the naked and building each other up in Christ on both sides of the theological divide? And that God was genuinely displeased with the murders my heroes caused? The Catholics are wrong about countless critical things, but does knowing that make "me" right?

Knowledge breeds narcissism, and narcissism stops at nothing. The heart of Christianity is not in the fire of revival, nor in the whirlwind of media, nor in the earthquake of Reformation, but in the still, small love of community. We need each other and Jesus more than anything the Earthly empire of Christianity can do for us.