Sunday, August 16, 2015

Katherine A. Gillen: “Confessions of Faith”

Katherine Gillen

Book Review

Brooke Conti, Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 240pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4575-2

1> The rise of autobiography has long been associated with the Reformation, as the Protestant emphasis on personal faith and the written Word was thought to inspire both reflective interiority and the desire to express it in writing. Although scholars have questioned this view, noting in particular the existence of autobiography in Catholic countries, the assumption has remained that religious autobiographies follow a Pauline or an Augustinian model in which an individual narrates his conversion in great personal detail. In her insightful study Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England, Brooke Conti calls our attention to an alternate form of life writing that she calls the confession of faith: autobiographical passages of varying lengths that appear in essentially polemical works, ostensibly serving as evidence of the author’s religious beliefs. Bridging the religious definition of a “confession of faith” as a creedal statement with the more literary connotations of confessional writing, Conti isolates autobiographical moments in the religious writings of James I, John Donne, John Milton, Thomas Browne, and John Bunyan. Although these passages contain personal information, the manner of their articulation, Conti argues, is produced by England’s contentious religious climate, which demanded unambiguous statements of religious affiliation. However, as Conti adroitly demonstrates, these confessions of faith are anything but straightforward, often giving rise to more questions than they answer. “Indeed,” she writes, “it often seems that the more a writer says about his religion the less clear his beliefs or denominational identity become” (2). This paradox arises from the tension inherent to the genre between public declaration and private reflection, as the author’s personal beliefs, experiences, and family histories prove too complicated and idiosyncratic to align precisely with a generalized creed. As collective as it is individual, the confession of faith complicates our understanding not only of the history of life writing but also of the significance of religion to seventeenth-century identity.

2> Part I, “Oaths of Allegiance,” traces the efforts of James I and John Donne to wrangle their complex familial and personal histories into coherent narratives demonstrating their allegiance to the Church of England. Born to Mary Queen of Scots but educated by Presbyterians, James I endeavored to present himself as spiritually consistent without disowning his famously Catholic parents, on whose lineage depended his claim to the throne. Through nuanced examinations of Basilikon Doron (1599), An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance (1609) and many of James’s speeches and letters, Conti demonstrates that, although James turns to autobiography to shore up this narrative, these moments of autobiography inevitably raise complexities and expose gaps that undercut his claims. While he does not face the pressure of fashioning himself as a legitimate English King, Donne similarly relies on autobiography to prove his loyalty to the Church of England. Whereas James stresses continuity, Donne emphasizes his conversion. Despite repeated references to his conversion in both Pseudo-Martyr (1610) and Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623), however, Donne fails to narrate this pivotal event in sufficient depth, leaving the reader hungry from more information about his break from Catholicism. As with James’s assertions, Donne’s personal claims seem inadequate because “[t]he constraints of polemic and polemical culture do not permit the kinds of detailed autobiographical investigations that they seem to inspire” (51).

3> Part II, titled “Personal Credos,” addresses Milton’s political tracts and several editions of Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, texts that emphasize the authors’ use of reason and individual choice even as they claim religious affiliation. In his antiprelatical tracts of the 1640s and Defenses of the 1650s, Milton’s makes unusually extensive use of autobiography, revealing, Conti argues, anxiety about his status as a great poet and about the commensurability of his literary and spiritual pursuits. Despite his often authoritative tone, Milton’s overreliance on autobiography seems defensive, as he endeavors to justify his literary ambitions and spiritual integrity to his audience, to his God, and most of all to himself. Similarly, Thomas Browne’s recursive and almost compulsive autobiographical forays in his Religio have their “roots in what cannot be spoken” (81), in this case a materialist skepticism regarding certain aspects of Christian orthodoxy. Indicative of her thorough research, Conti considers three distinct versions of Browne’s Religio, whereas most scholars rely only on the authorized 1643 edition. As a result, she challenges the common view that Browne’s intellectual broadmindedness reflects the tolerance of the Church of England, revealing instead substantial apprehension in the Religio regarding the heterodoxies and heresies Browne entertained as a medical student on the Continent. As Conti demonstrates, many of these transgressions were discussed at length in the first Religio but were redacted or revised in later iterations. Browne, like the other authors addressed in Confessions of Faith, turns to autobiography to support an official statement—in this case that he has repudiated his youthful skepticism and allied himself firmly with the Church of England—but his seemingly honest reflections raise more questions than they answer and his often tortured explanations belie profound religious uncertainty.

4> Conti’s final section, “Loyal Dissents?” focuses primarily on John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), which largely follows the conventions of the Puritan spiritual autobiography. Conti argues convincingly for reading Grace Abounding as a confession of faith, however, treating it as a response to the crisis of the Restoration and, more specifically, to the resulting twelve years Bunyan spent in prison. Signaling an evolution in the confession of faith, though, Bunyan’s text evinces less concern about his relationship to an institutional church than do the other authors, seeming more interested in his own private spiritual condition. Confessions of Faith concludes with an epilogue on James II, who abandons the confession of faith altogether by declaring his conversion to Catholicism without taking any pains to reconcile it with his office as head of the Church of England.

5> Confessions of Faith will be valuable to anyone interested in seventeenth-century prose, life writing, the history of religion, and the development of the modern subject. With her deep archive, Conti calls our attention to texts that have been largely overlooked by literary scholars, such as early drafts of Browne’s Religio Medici, and offers compelling re-readings of well-known texts such as Milton’s antiprelatal tracts and Donne’s Devotions. As such, Conti presents her authors in a new light: we come to see James I and Donne as thoughtful, if tortured, negotiators of personal and political demands; Milton and Browne as anxious about their spiritual fates and possible transgressions; and Bunyan as deeply shaken by the spiritual implications of his imprisonment and of the Restoration. Showing how integral religion was to personal and political identity in the seventeenth century, Confessions of Faith also points to the difficulty of discerning an author’s specific spiritual beliefs, even in his most autobiographical moments. By reading these autobiographical moments through the lens of the confession of faith, moreover, Conti complicates our understanding of life writing more generally, suggesting that even the most seemingly personal writing is shaped by public exigencies.

Katherine Gillen is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. She is working on a book project considering the economic significance of chastity tropes in early modern drama, and she has published articles in several venues including Studies in English Literature and Shakespeare Jahrbuch.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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