Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Book Review # 1: "DIssolution"

Yes, we know.  These are parlous times; the climate is changing fast, the international economy is in the tank, churches are losing ground in society (and resorting to ever-more-desperate strategies in an effort to cope).  The Episcopalians elected a lesbian bishop and all heck is breaking loose over that way, and we're fairly sure there's a new child-molestation scandal about to pop up in the Roman church.  (We have no evidence; it's just statistically likely).  Time and Newsweek have probably already prepared their usual holiday cover, with Bart Ehrmann asking if there really was a Jesus. Not to mention that both Europe and the East Coast are really, really cold right now.  

And we know that's what Egg readers come here looking to read about.  But what do we have to offer instead of sober analysis and smart-alecky remarks?  Book reviews.  A short series of 'em.  Because this is the time of year that church people need to catch up on their reading.

Never fear; we won't subject our friends and readers to a tedious list of everything we've read lately. Nobody needs an amateur review of Jane Eyre, and if you do, there's always Amazon.  But there area couple of books that might otherwise escape notice, and but may interest regular readers.

So.  Submitted for your approval:  Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom.

Ooooh, one thinks.  Murder mystery, set in a Renaissance monastery, written by an actual historian.  Could it be the next Name of the Rose?  The short answer is No.  This is a straight-up genre piece, with the functional but unadorned prose and workmanlike characterizations that are the norms of the craft.  Published in 2003, it is the first in a series featuring the same detective.  (And yes, it's pretty easy to guess the killer.)

So why mention it?  Here's why:  the history.  The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer, working for Sir Thomas Cromwell -- the fellow Henry VIII put in charge of dismantling the monasteries and other ecclesiastical institutions, and transferring their massive wealth to the Crown.  The impact of this transfer cannot be overstated; it so enriched the British royals that their nation went, quite suddenly, from a remote backwater to a critical power player in European politics.  Bulgaria to Germany, inside a generation.

What was it like, then, to be a part of this epochal change? What was it like to be a monk, or an abbot, and to see the institutions which had given you power -- but also hope and security -- crumbling?  What was it like to be a zealous young reformer, and to see the way genuine high ideals, including theological ones, can often have a crushing effect upon the lives of people living in a less than ideal world?  Those are the questions that really interest Sansom, far more than who killed whom.  Do we need to mention that such questions are of perennial interest, and especially in these aforementioned parlous times?  He sets out to answer them, and does well, within the limits of his genre and his talent. 

Sansom is a lawyer with a Ph.D. in history, and is surely aware that one recent school of English historians has presented a notably dim view of the Reformation.  Eamon Duffy, in The Stripping of the Altars and Voices of Morebath, has documented the resistance of local parishes and their clergy to the successive waves of "reform" and "restoration," as they attempted to simply continue living, and worshiping, as they always had. He has argued that, far from the tyrannical and soul-killing spiritual wasteland described by Protestant triumphalists, the Church in late-medieval England was in fact a strong, vibrant institution serving the needs of the people across a range of social strata.

Dissolution doesn't offer a partisan evaluation of the Reformation.  On the contrary, it lays out cases in every direction:  some monks are in fact hypocrites and tyrants; others are truly trying to live Godly lives.  There is a genuine need for reform -- and yet that need is also exploited by the high and mighty.  (The book's title is a pun.  It refers both to the "dissolution" of the monasteries and to Shardrake's "disillusion" with his patron, Lord Cromwell).

So.  As a mystery, it's workable -- good for the train or the beach, with eye-comforting large print.  But where Dissolution really comes through is as a painless encouragement to reflection upon the Reformation in particular, and upon the conflict between intentions and results that is part of life in a broken world.


Diane said...

good for you! lately I've not been offering reviews at all, just a list, in order to see if I'm going to get to 50 (not quite).

but a couple of those I listed should have probably gotten a review....

Gillian said...

Oooh, yum! Am at this very moment typing a final exam on the 16C Reformation*s* in England, having read Duffy and MacCulloch and tons of primary sources in an excellent seminar. Maybe after GOEs (General Ordination Exams, January 4-8th, pray for us! :-) I will read this!

Father said...

I thought of you as I read it, and especially as I wrote the post. Have fun with the exams. As I've said before, I'm actually a bit envious of this phase of your education.

mark said...

How about the venerable "medieval" mysteries of Ellis Peters? Monks before Martin gets on the scene.