Deborah Kuller Shuger. The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. xvi+297pp. ISBN 0 520 21387 4.
Thomas H. Luxon
Luxon, Thomas H. "Review of Deborah Kuller Shuger, The Renaissance Bible." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 18.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-1/luxorev.htm>.
The first thing to say about this book is that it is not really about the Bible, Renaissance or otherwise, in the way most bookstore browsers might suppose. The author, Debora Shuger, explains on page two that the book is "a tentative and partial exploration of the cultural work done by the Renaissance Bible -- or rather by Renaissance biblical discourses." And the Renaissance biblical discourses to which Shuger confines herself involve a rather small selection of sacrifice stories from the Bible. It hardly needs saying that even with such limitations this represents a huge field which, though not entirely unexplored, is rarely explored and probed in quite this way.
Shuger quite rightly claims that biblical discourses -- exegesis, homiletics, meditations, dramatizations, and arguments about doctrine, to name only a few -- supply both the lodestone and locomotion of English Renaissance culture. As the reformation makes its way towards 1649, this is increasingly as true of low culture as high culture, but Shuger limits herself, for well-argued reasons, to the high culture of the age. This does not mean, however, that the authors treated here will be familiar to most readers, even literary scholars and critics. We might say Shuger draws critical attention in this book to the arcana of the dominant culture, but "arcane" here does not mean "obscure." Erasmus, Casaubon, Grotius, Calvin, Colet, Hall, Nashe, Buchanan, and Southwell are all elite figures in the dominant strain of culture often called European Christian humanism. That their work is largely unfamiliar to historians and literary critics today indicates nothing about their cultural significance, but a great deal about how we go about studying the history and analyzing the discourses of the early modern period.
As anyone who has read Shuger's Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance might guess, this book is on a mission. It wants to do for the forgotten Úlite champions of the dominant culture what Christopher Hill and Nigel Smith have done for the once obscure Davids of resistant and emergent culture. And Shuger's mission bids fair to be more interesting than the other project largely because the texts she attends to are those out of which the culture's still familiar figures -- Spenser, Sidney, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, and to some extent Shakespeare -- fashioned their intellectual furniture. As I have already said, this field is huge, and so Shuger is quite right to warn readers that her intervention here will be "tentative and partial." It is partial in two important senses: limited to a very small selection of materials, and concerned almost exclusively with the "orthodox" aspects of those materials. She also uses the word "tentative," but much of the time, the tone of this book is anything but tentative. This book is most interesting and most useful when it manages to remain probing and tentative.
Shuger pursues dozens of brilliant observations about New Testament scholarship from 1516 (Erasmus's Novum Instrumentum) to the advent of Higher Criticism in the late seventeenth century; about biblical hermeneutics and the rise of a new historical imagination, key distinctions between humanist scholarship and patristics; and how much Renaissance scholarship resembles the modern practices of cultural materialists and the "thick description" of Geertzian anthropology (30). When, however, she boldly claims that Grotius unwittingly invented comparative anthropology and that "historicism is always-already essentialist" (84), a careful reader will hesitate. Much the same thing happens in Chapter three's investigation of what Shuger calls "Calvinist passion narratives." These discourses betray enormous anxieties about how to fashion manhood in an increasingly anti-patriarchal culture, a culture of reformation, a culture of the Son, as it might be called. She reads these "mythic versions of a larger crisis of manhood" with skill and suggestive insight (116). But when she claims that Thomas Nashe's Christ's Tears over Jerusalem is an orthodox Calvinist meditation on Christ's suffering and death, we're on rather thin ice. Much the same things can be said of her suggestive readings of George Buchanan's Jephthah and medieval and Renaissance Magdalene narratives.
- Shuger does a fine job of demonstrating that the roots of early modern subjectivities may be traced in the "language of introspection, desire, and inner struggle" that makes up late medieval devotional practices as well as in Renaissance recoveries "of ancient literary discourses of the self" (165-66). Perhaps this is, as Shuger modestly suggests, "more a flourish than an argument," but it's a refreshing flourish for which scholars will be grateful. When, on the other hand, Shuger suggests a new set of Foucauldian epistemes by which to classify various periods of emergent modern culture, she is less helpful. And her nostalgia for what she imagines as the pervasively pious religious culture of the Renaissance, where belief was almost a matter of breathing out and breathing in, compromises her brilliant observations and analyses: "Secularization, it would seem, involves the massive redefinition of ideal selfhood as psychological disorder" (193). This statement seems true to me only if we equate "ideal selfhood" with the "sacrificial inwardness" of medieval and baroque piety. Renaissance and Reformation culture offered far more than one model of ideal selfhood, and not all of them focused on sacrifice. Paul's "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" comes pretty close to expressing the ideal selfhood of sacrificial inwardness the loss of which Shuger mourns so bitterly (Philippians 1:21). Not all versions of ideal selfhood in the early modern period were so committed to martyrdom, and modern secular culture need not be ashamed of abandoning martyr-based models of selfhood as less than healthy to human beings.
- Shuger, Deborah Kuller. Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California P, 1990.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).