Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Book review: Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World, Alec Ryrie (2017)

The author is an Anglican minister but there is no hint of triumphalism in this brilliant historical work, one that takes the reader from the modern origins of Protestantism in the 16th century up to our times. Ryrie was born in the UK and graduated from Oxford Uni but grew up in the US.

There is the occasional mention of the Lollards and the Hussites but nothing substantial, whereas for Luther and Zwingli and Calvin there is a complete exegesis based on original sources. There are 20 pages of notes as well as an index.

Ryrie is a clever writer, it should be said, who is aware of how the reader is feeling at different points in the narrative and who inserts divagations at points apropos in order to provide a rich and rewarding experience. While complex, the book is not difficult. This combination of factors is an index of Ryrie’s skill.

While the facts are comprehensive it is the building of a story that sustains the reader who spends time with this book. It tells a story that has a remarkable origin and that continues to sustain both people and polis wherever it is practiced. Again: no triumphalism. Rather, an awareness of the protean nature of the project, one that occupies and rewards the people involved in it wherever they may live and whatever their roles.

While Ryrie’s main point about this form of religious practice is centred, in his mind, on a love affair with God, it also has other characteristics: the tendency of Protestants to both cleave to the word of the Bible and to splinter into groups. The way that this plays out at different times helps the reader to understand identity politics, which Ryrie (possibly optimistically) sees as another offshoot of Protestantism.

He takes the reader from the homeland of Protestantism in continental Europe, to the United States of America, to Korea and China and places beyond. His task is massive but stylistically he’s up to the challenge. A very good book indeed.

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