Monday, September 26, 2011

What Am I Reading? Rosalind Marshall on John Knox

Rosalind K. Marshall, John Knox (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000).

My teaching duties in the upcoming Spring semester will involve work on the Scots Confession, and so I’ve been reading up on Knox and the Scottish Reformation in order to get the necessary background information and big-picture perspective. There aren’t a lot of books out there to give one that information, or at least not many academic books (I’ll likely discuss an exception to this judgment in a later ‘What Am I Reading?’ post…), and Marshall’s book certainly does NOT fill this lacunae. Academic it is not. However, Marshall is an engaging writer and the book is well researched, making it very suitable for orienting oneself to the subject matter as well as being accessible to your average educated adult reader. For academics, this means it makes for a quick and enjoyable read. One might even keep it on one’s nightstand for a bit of light reading before bed.

One of Marshall’s strengths is her ability to see Knox the man in his own time and context. This allows her to deflect some of the contemporary slights on Knox while also recognizing certain of his character flaws. This allows Knox to be compelling on his own terms, not those of hagiographers, and not those who would elevate him as an example of how religion can go terribly wrong. Marshall’s concluding judgment on Knox’s relation to Mary, Queen of Scots, is an instance of this even-handed approach. Allow me to quote at some length:
[Knox’s] longstanding hostility to Mary had become an obsessive, vengeful hatred. People have long speculated about why he loathed her so much, suggesting, for example, that he was suppressing feelings of sexual attraction towards her. That theory is wide of the mark. From the beginning, he never could see the real woman standing before him. To him she was a second Mary Tudor – Bloody Mary – who had sent his Protestant friends to their deaths. Many years before, his own mentor, George Wishart, had died at the stake, and ever since he had been gripped by a horror of more persecution, more burnings.

Knox was unable, ever, to give Mary the benefit of the doubt, because, for him, she symbolised all the evils of the Roman Catholic church and, as her situation in Scotland went from bad to worse, he had no thought of the human being caught in distressing circumstances. He simply saw her as another Jezebel, another evil queen like those he knew so well from the Old Testament. She had ruined everything. She had come back to a Scotland newly transformed into an officially Protestant country, and, instead of taking her realm forward to a peaceful, godly future, she had menaced it with the Mass… (198)
Finally, I will conclude with another quote from Marshall which touches on Knox’s views about the relation between church and university toward the end of his life while in residence and preaching at St Andrews, which had long (since before the Reformation) been a center of ecclesiastical learning in Scotland:
“[A] deputation of university teachers and ministers came to complain to Knox about his sermons… Knox retorted angrily that neither they nor any other group of private people had the right to judge the Church and its representatives. Only God and the General Assembly could do that, and he sent them away. A fortnight later, he wrote to tell the General Assembly meeting in Perth, ‘Albeit I have taken my leave not only of you, dear brethren, but also of the whole world and all worldly affairs, yet remaining in the flesh I could not nor cannot cease to admonish you of things which I know to be most prejudicial to the Church of Christ Jesus within this realm.’ They must never allow the church to become subject to the universities. (208)

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2 comments:

Chris Donato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Donato said...

At my last job, we had a framed picture of that famous painting by Sir David Wilkie The Preaching of John Knox before the Lords of Congregation, 10 June 1559. The look on Knox's face always cracked me up—"retorted angrily" sounds about par for the course for the guy.

But good on Marshall; Knox is indeed often unfairly treated these days.