- Centered on the Word: Literature, Scripture, and the Tudor-Stuart Middle Way
Centered on the Word takes as its central subject the intersection of three postulates concerning the representation of religious experience in early modern England: (1) that Calvinistic theology was closer to the mainstream of English [End Page 716] Protestantism than has been generally recognized; (2) that this theology has been reductively equated with the doctrine of predestination; and (3) that literary criticism has paid insufficient attention to the impact of Calvinism on early modern English writing. The fourteen essays collected here all in their way attempt to rectify these failures by exploring early modern English writing in the context of a word-centered piety that inflected a wide range of religious texts from the late-Elizabethan period to the early Interregnum.
While the essays vary in quality and persuasiveness, they are all serious, well-informed efforts to articulate how early modern writers — poets, preachers, playwrights — sought to "respond . . . to the divine model of the Word" (15), a Word now more available than ever in printed form. Individual essays focus almost exclusively on single (major) writers and, for the most part, single texts, a focus that is both a strength and a weakness of the volume as a whole. For while we get sustained attention to the complexly conceived arguments constructed by early modern literary masters, it often seems as though these authors were talking past each other even where they evince shared concerns. Just as oddly, especially for a volume explicitly devoted to examining issues hotly and quite publicly debated, the essays for the most part struggle to convey in a convincing manner how early modern religious controversy might have inspired the sort of passion that played itself out as violence: what was so much at stake that early modern Europeans were willing to kill each other in the name of the same God (and was there something peculiarly English that could produce heated rhetoric with less actual violence)? I might add that the essays show no interest in offering insight into the relationship between religion and social violence in our own world, a refusal that makes the volume as a whole feel decidedly, even purposefully, distant from modern concerns.
At a theoretical level, the essays are similarly behind the times. Methodologically, the essays all employ an old-fashioned philology in which meaning is understood as deriving from authorial intention. And such intentions are viewed as constructing arguments even where literary modes of representation are clearly at work. This is not to say that the essay writers show no interest in the rhetoric of literary form; they certainly do, especially when that involves questions of genre. But the essay writers never ask whether sermons, poems, and plays are all equally "literature," or whether early modern readers might have distinguished fictional from non-fictional writing or distinguished different sorts of writerly goals (e.g. entertainment from moral or spiritual edification). Equally problematic is the consistent lack of concern with whether meaning is always what is intended by an author or whether discursive patterns not simply put to use by an author (e.g. dominant cultural ideologies) might ever be understood as determining factors in the production of meaning. Thus, none of the essay writers bothers to ask how the religious "middle ground" was positioned in socioeconomic terms (did richCalvinists and poor Calvinists really see the world in the same way?). And when cultural issues rear their heads at all, they are treated in the most cursory way; thus, Daniel Doerksen can write in reference to European missionary activities in the [End Page 717] New World that "Donne and his fellow churchmen who participated in the Virginia Company did not care only for the Europeans, but wanted to spread what they really considered good news to all the peoples of the earth." Without any sense of irony, Doerksen concludes that Donne's "pastoral concern...