- Writing Faith and Telling Tales: Literature, Politics, and Religion in the Work of Thomas More by Thomas Betteridge
To recover the “traditions within which [St. Thomas] More wrote” (p. 7), Writing Faith slips past its author’s interests in Tudor literature to snatch up fourteenth- [End Page 648] and fifteenth-century texts. The concerns addressed by More in works ranging from his early epigrams to the polemical and later devotional treatises, Betteridge says, are reflected in works of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Lydgate, William Langland, Reginald Pecock, and others. When Betteridge is at his best, his parallels are striking, and readers will be glad to have his suggestive run at More’s telling tales and striking arguments against the early English evangelicals. Yet Writing Faith may often leave readers clamoring for more of the late-medieval context, as when Betteridge sifts the effects of the Peasants’ Revolt on the political opinions of Langland and Chaucer.
Betteridge’s careful handling of More’s polemical works will be especially appreciated. Some of his conclusions lean on James Simpson’s work where Brendan Bradshaw’s appraisals should have given pause; yet this is a quibble. Writing Faith does an impressive, insightful job with the pragmatism of More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529) and Confutation (1532–33). Betteridge’s analysis of the latter accommodates several memorable observations and assessments: “in its sheer size and messiness,” Betteridge suggests, More’s Confutation “can be seen as an image of [his] church as a place for religious thought” (p. 146). By then, Writing Faith has already set up More’s reliance on “the community of the church” in which “religious meaning” is—and ought to be—“constrained” yet also is a conversation that is not always swift to discern “the truth of Christ’s teaching” (pp. 141–42). On this front, early evangelicals were guilty first of impatience, then of error.
By staking defensible yet contestable claims, Betteridge’s approach to More’s Utopia invites informed readers to replay familiar interpretive controversies. Were the first and second books of that enigmatic text circulated “to unsettle the given” (p. 87), as Betteridge alleges, or to give it (the given) an inevitability that would discourage radical initiatives? Writing Faith imagines that More improvised the second book as a root-to-branch attack on private property—and as a serious proposal for “an equalitarian (sic) community produced in and through the act of storytelling” (p. 87). The prefatory material in the various Latin editions would seem to support that assessment, although Writing Faith overlooks the parerga, perhaps because the exaggerated tributes attached by some prominent others in Desiderius Erasmus’s circle could also be cited to prove Utopia’s assault on private property was a feint or ruse—to prove that the position assigned to More’s persona in the first book was a serious rejoinder to Hythloday’s “unsettling” prejudices about public service and social organization. More might well have been committed to “unsettl[ing] the given,” but, arguably, his make-believe could have been composed to exhibit what would be lost in the pursuit of “equalitarian” alternatives to the given.
Betteridge needlessly apologizes for having deprived More of “a place in the emerging conflicts and debates of the Reformation” (p. 208). Writing Faith contributes strikingly at just that point. It substantiates Betteridge’s opinion that More ought to be put alongside Shakespeare and Montaigne “who shared [his] skepticism toward totalizing confessional discourses” and who devoted himself to “the maintenance of a space for engaged Christian thought” (p. 208). Maintenance, [End Page 649] alas, required clearing some unfortunate colleagues who did not share that skepticism.