History You Definitely Don't Want to Repeat

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I'm glad to have read The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty by G.J. Meyer and am even more glad I don't have to read it again. Well written but deeply depressing, regardless of how accurate Meyer's interpretation is. By the end, the litany of brutality, profligacy, and corruption had become a slog.

One thing that bugged me was the simplicity with which Meyer let some people off the hook while insisting on the depravity of others. John Calvin, for instance, got off easy in this book. Here's Meyer on

Calvin's notion of "double predestination"--of some being marked for damnation just as surely as others are fated for salvation--[which] has too often been regarded as the centerpiece of his theology. It is said to have made his God a kind of insanely cruel monster and to explain the severity of the regimen that Calvin imposed upon Geneva. In fact, however, Calvin regarded predestination as logically inescapable but otherwise beyond human understanding and in practical terms not of great importance. It was his followers who, after his death, moved predestination closer to the center of "Calvinist" belief. Calvin's own view was that the idea of predestination should make it possible for believers to set aside their anxieties about earning salvation and put their trust in the mercy of a gentle, compassionate divine father (who was also, Calvin suggested, a loving mother).

What the what?

So what if "Calvin regarded predestination as logically inescapable but otherwise beyond human understanding and in practical terms not of great importance"? That's just another way of saying that he was unwilling and unable to come to terms with a huge flaw in his theology. In much the same way, the leaders of the Mormon church have declared that it is both beyond human understanding and in practical terms not of great importance that men and women are supposed to be equal for all eternity even though men are supposed to lead and preside and women are supposed to be supportive helpmeets. The glaring contradiction (equality = someone presiding and someone else submitting, but somehow that's equal because they're equally happy with it?) and eternal inferiority of women are little importance in practical terms TO THEM because they're not the ones screwed over by the theology--and they don't really care about the people the theology does screw over.

Calvin's followers moved this crucial idea of predestination to the center of the theology because they had to work out its ramifications for themselves: How did you figure out if you were one of elect? It was easy for the first generation of believers who had ecstatic conversion experiences: they knew, in a way that their children didn't, that they were among God's chosen. Subsequent generations had to try to recreate what had been a spontaneous event for their forebears, and it didn't always go as planned. What did it mean if you never had an undeniable revelation that you were predestined for heaven? What did it mean if you weren't among the elect? How did you get along in a community where most people were convinced God loved them extra special best, but you suspected and feared maybe you weren't destined to be on the winning team? Especially since any doubts about your righteousness was a sign that you probably weren't chosen. God was supposed to be "a gentle, compassionate divine father" (and maybe sort of a loving mother), but could that be true if she/he/it (aka s/h/it) would consign so many of s/h/it's children to eternal misery?

I studied this shit (or, again, s/h/it) in grad school. (Something called The Persecutory Imagination was one of my favorite books but I just couldn't bring myself to spend $100 on it, so I had to settle for checking it out of the library over and over and over.) It wasn't a very workable approach. The frequency with which Calvin's followers fell into despair and committed suicide was well known and was used as evidence that the theology was actually Satanic, not divine.

In other words, Calvin's theology was all about the surety and comfort enjoyed by those blessed with a sense of spiritual privilege and entitlement--and Meyer somehow can't see why anyone would have a problem with that or fail to see Calvin's theology just as Calvin did.

It's pretty weird in a book all about how monstrous the Tudors' grotesque sense of entitlement made them, how many lives they blighted and ruined, how much suffering and destruction they inflicted on almost everyone around them.

Anyway. Flaws aside, The Tudors is still an interesting perspective on a really fascinating and crucial period in English, world, and religious history. Read it if you prefer being aware rather than ignorant of unpleasant facts.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 20, 2014 9:11 AM.

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