Paul Ham New Jerusalem

Wil­liam Heine­mann, 384pp, $45

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

Some time in the mid­dle of last cen­tury, large num­bers of peo­ple stud­ied the his­tory of the Re­nais­sance and the Ref­or­ma­tion. And what a con­trast the pe­ri­ods formed. There was all that hu­man­is­tic sun­light pour­ing in, all that Ital­ian civil­i­sa­tion, and then it was suc­ceeded by the age when Chris­tians de­cided to tor­ture and mur­der each other about the de­tails of their faith. Re­mem­ber the way Ken­neth Clark in his fa­mous Civil­i­sa­tion se­ries con­trasted the ur­ban­ity of some Raphael car­di­nal with the per­tur­ba­tion and angst of Dürer’s im­pres­sion of that tur­bu­lent priest and trou­ble­maker, the “I can do no other” man, Luther, who nailed his the­ses to the wall at Wit­ten­berg and pre­cip­i­tated all the walls of a united Catholic Europe to come tum­bling down, as the walls of Jeri­cho had at Joshua’s horn.

And if Luther looked like a nut­ter bent on rev­o­lu­tion out of per­sonal angst, what about the An­abap­tists? Even in the hip­pie 1960s, when we liked a bit of chaos and may­hem, the An­abap­tists with their in­ti­ma­tions of the End of Days and their mad ex­ploita­tive regimes, some of them sex­ual, some­times for chil­dren as well as women, seemed just a bit like… well, a sect. There were shades of Charles Man­son in all this mil­lenar­ian mad­ness. And then there was the back­lash against them, as harsh and hideous as any­thing Luther had jus­ti­fied in crush­ing the Peas­ants’ Re­volt.

Didn’t it show the two sides – fun­da­men­tal­ist and crypto-fas­cist au­thor­i­tar­ian – of al­low­ing re­li­gion to usurp the func­tion of pol­i­tics so that com­pet­ing theoc­ra­cies pro­ceeded to tear each other apart with fire and sword?

So why is Paul Ham, the nar­ra­tive his­to­rian en­thralled by grave and ter­ri­ble mod­ern mo­ments who has writ­ten books about Pass­chen­daele and Hitler, Hiroshima and Viet­nam and the Kokoda Track, why is he pre­oc­cu­pied with early mod­ern Europe, with Ger­many when the Mel­chior­ites rolled up their sleeves for Ar­maged­don in the city of Mün­ster, be­fore the forces of re­ac­tion came storm­ing in to kill them all? Why this fas­ci­na­tion with 1535?

A post­script ex­plains the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with a world where peo­ple were blinded by the light they live ac­cord­ing to, los­ing any sense of pro­por­tion or tol­er­ance. Is it so un­fa­mil­iar in a world where ter­ror­ism so of­ten wears the face of Wah­habist Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism, turn­ing Al­lahu Ak­bar (“Al­lah is great­est”) into a cry of hate? And what about an Amer­i­can right that cheers on the shift­ing of the United States em­bassy to Jerusalem in the name of its own creepy fun­da­men­tal­ism?

In an up-to-date in­ser­tion into po­lit­i­cal de­bate, Ham ex­plains how he thinks any pres­i­den­tial shift from Don­ald Trump to Mike Pence would be a shift from what he calls, in his forth­right way, klep­toc­racy to theoc­racy. He sees Pence as the full Chris­tian catas­tro­phe, a man with a vi­sion as dog­matic and nar­row as the fa­nat­ics of Daesh and their cog­nates and cousins.

So the author sees his nar­ra­tive of Ref­or­ma­tion Ger­many as a cos­tume drama pre­fig­u­ra­tion of the ex­tremes of our own time where re­li­gion can be used as the shield for a fa­nati­cism that, to left or right, Is­lamist or cap­i­tal­ist, is sim­ply the im­po­si­tion of a reign of ter­ror.

It’s a grim and ghastly tale Ham has to tell and the fact that his tech­nique is so sed­u­lously nar­ra­tive rather than an­a­lyt­i­cal doesn’t pro­vide the kind of in­tel­lec­tual re­lief of­fered by Nor­man Cohn in his mon­u­men­tal study of the ir­ra­di­at­ing mad­ness of Chris­tian ex­trem­ity in The Pur­suit of the Mil­len­nium: Revo­lu­tion­ary Mes­sian­ism in Me­dieval and Ref­or­ma­tion Europe and Its Bear­ing on Mod­ern To­tal­i­tar­ian Move­ments. Though the ti­tle of the most fa­mous work ever writ­ten on this sub­ject sug­gests where Ham might have got his taste for the pol­i­tics of par­al­lel­ism in re­la­tion to these horse­men of the apoca­lypse and their hunters down.

The story tends in New Jerusalem to be all the more aw­ful be­cause Ham is im­mune to the se­duc­tions of lan­guage or the rustling cloaks and rat­tling cru­ci­fixes of his­tor­i­cal echo. In a work about the sor­row and pity of how an age of faith broke up into the in­ternecine dis­sen­sion of com­pet­ing Protes­tantisms and or­tho­dox­ies that shared noth­ing but a com­mon­al­ity of ob­ses­sion and blind­ness, it’s sur­pris­ing that Ham doesn’t in­vest in the at­mos­phere and elo­quence of the lan­guage of the pe­riod.

These are Peo­ple of the Book, how­ever mad and one-eyed, and it’s dis­con­cert­ing to find Ham in his very epi­graph from Luke 19 (where Christ weeps for Jerusalem) quot­ing the Bi­ble in a tame mod­ern ver­sion rather than in one of the grand soar­ing trans­la­tions such as Tyn­dale’s or the Geneva Bi­ble that came to colour the glo­ries of the King James ver­sion.

Still, this is a story full of pity and ter­ror enough for any ret­ro­spec­tive med­i­ta­tion. John of Lei­den, who had ruled Mün­ster like an ay­a­tol­lah, was noth­ing if not sin­cere, and said un­der in­qui­si­tional in­ter­ro­ga­tion that he had lived as the apos­tles had and that he be­lieved no one had ever had a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the truth than he had.

And there was no re­can­ta­tion. He stuck to all the de­tails of his creed, he would not re­nounce adult bap­tism, he would not deny the hu­man na­ture of Christ. He would die for his faith. And did.

How he must have as­ton­ished and ap­palled his per­se­cu­tors, the lion-like courage and saintly grace with which he faced his ex­e­cu­tion. His last words were: “Fa­ther, into thy hands I com­mend my spirit.” His co­re­li­gion­ist Bern­hard Knip­per­dolling, when he was bound to the stake, cried out, “Have mercy, Lord, on me, a sin­ner.”

How brave they were, how sad and mad it all is even at this dis­tance. I once heard a for­mer min­is­ter of the Crown say with pas­sion­ate sin­cer­ity of the sup­port­ers of Daesh, “We have to hunt these peo­ple down and kill them.” No doubt that’s what Raphael’s ur­bane car­di­nal thought, too, of the An­abap­tists and all their brethren. QSS

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