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From the May/June, 2010 issue of Touchstone


Idol Days by William J. Tighe

Idol Days

Victorian Reformation: The Fight over Idolatry in the Church of England, 1840–1860
by Dominic Janes
Oxford University Press, 2009
(237 pages, $65.00, hardcover)

reviewed by William J. Tighe

Reading this book left me in a daze. When I agreed to review it, I imagined, judging from its title, that it would be an account, either historical or theological or both, of the “ritualist” sequel to the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, as well as of the parallel “Cambridge Movement” (of the Cambridge Camden Society), which concerned itself with the revival of Gothic architecture as the most fit style for churches. These were movements that flowed together to spark a revival of pre-Reformation religious ideals and “high-church” liturgical practices from the late 1840s onwards.

These movements in turn occasioned a vast outpouring of censure, scorn, and outrage from more Evangelical individuals and groups within the Established Church, as well as from both the news media and “respectable public opinion.” And from time to time, such expression took the less respectable form of mob action inside and outside parish churches and chapels where ritualist practices had been adopted. To sum up as “idolatry” what the objectors feared and denounced in both Anglican “ritualism” and the practice of the rapidly growing Roman Catholic Church in England in this period, seemed, even before I saw the book, to make perfect sense.

The book turns out, however, to be not so much a work of descriptive and analytical history or theology, but one of “cultural analysis.” At one point early on, the author states that his subject is “the development of mainstream Victorian understandings of the Reformation and of its relevance to contemporary patterns of worship.” In reality, though, his work might better be described as dealing with what Victorian mainstream opinion found so objectionable about ritualism (and about the Catholicism of which it seemed a subversive “mole” in the Established Church), how they rationalized their objections, and how we today can make sense of them.

Marxist Analysis, Freudian Spice

Parts of the book, like the proverbial curate’s egg, I found good, coherent and interesting. This includes much of the background material in the book’s first chapter, and the detailed treatment, in its third, of the ritualistic disputes, public uproars, and legal actions that took place in the London parish church of St. Paul’s, Knightsbridge, and its “daughter foundation,” St. Barnabas, Pimlico, and why so many people were so upset by what went on in them.

Much of the book’s analytic superstructure, on the other hand, seems to be based on a Marxist scheme of cultural analysis of bourgeois “material fetishism” spiced up with Freudian ideas about material “sex fetishes,” and this is what dominates its remaining chapters. We learn about the contrasts of the dirty and the clean, “decadence” and “progress,” and the fears of mainstream Victorians about female sexual autonomy.

In the fourth chapter we learn about the origin of the study of Comparative Religion, and about how many Victorian anti-ritualistic and anti-Catholic polemicists used Hindu ritual practices, cult objects, and figures to attack Catholicism (both “Anglo” and “Roman”) as a pagan, idolatrous substitute for real, spiritual, and aniconic Christianity. The staple work of popery-as-paganism, Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons, originally published in 1853 as a pamphlet and in 1858 as a book, comes right out of this milieu of the new polemical discipline of Comparative Religion—in this case with the notion that Catholicism, as established by Constantine, really is a thinly disguised “Babylonian mystery cult.”

We also learn how more radical Victorian polemicists against all forms of Christianity and religion in general deployed the same sort of arguments to “prove” that Christianity itself was a product of irrational fears and suppressed sexuality. They also argued that the central physical symbols of Catholic Christianity—the Cross, the Crucifix and the unleavened communion host or “wafer”—were all manifestations of a phallic cult operated for the benefit of the priesthood; that is, until they found their writings labeled as pornographic by “bourgeois” public opinion, and therefore liable to confiscation and suppression. And in some instances, they themselves were made liable to prosecution or at least to public ignominy and censure.

Of Doubtful Usefulness

Although the book deals with a brief twenty-year span, Janes leaps on occasion down to the present, as he tries to characterize more recent controversies with religious overtones, such as those surrounding Andres Serrano’s notorious “artwork” Piss Christ (1987) or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), as contemporary manifestations of the same “transgressive” behavior that animated or upset his Victorian subjects.

Janes undertakes his analysis with a kind of lumbering panache, although his using the phrase “immaculate conception” at one point when he meant Christ’s virginal conception raises doubts about his grasp of fundamental concepts of the Christian religion.

This book might be interesting and perhaps useful to those who seek to understand the sort of arbitrary and ideological cultural analysis of which it is so fine an example, and which deals with religious matters without any real understanding or respect for their integrity. But those who are interested in the book’s ostensible subject would be better advised to look elsewhere.

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

“Idol Days” first appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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