Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: The Unintended Reformation by Brad Gregory

Let me start this review by saying that I’ve admired Brad Gregory as a scholar and writer for many years. I read his first book, Salvation at Stake (1999), when it first came out and was blown away by the thoughtful manner in which Gregory approached the subject of martyrdom in the early modern period.  When The Unintended Reformation came out this year, I immediately bought a copy, assuming that, given the provocative topic of the work—the impact of the Protestant Reformation on our contemporary world—this book would prove to be even more engrossing than his first. 

Fortunately, The Unintended Reformation didn’t disappoint me…although it did at times make me realize just how much I’ve forgotten about European history and Western intellectual thought in the years since I’ve graduated from College. 

First things first.  The Unintended Reformation is demanding reading.  At 574 pages and with over 140 pages of notes, and thousands of historical references, this is definitely not the kind of book you can read at the beach the way you would most works of popular history.  Gregory is a very serious author and scholar and he demands that you treat his writing with all the respect that it deserves.  If you do just that, you’ll be rewarded with a stimulating journey through Western history that helps to explain much of the mess that we are in today. 

Each chapter begins with the author examining a specific topic (God, morality, consumerism, etc.) and reveals how specific choices made during the Reformation have had an enormous, and often unforeseen, impact on our contemporary society.  At times, Gregory may appear to pine a bit too wistfully for the “good old days” when the Catholic Church kept a firm hand on society in the Middle Ages.  In all fairness, however, he is certainly not afraid to criticize the Church when appropriate, and it is this sort of critical appraisal of the Church’s legacy that keeps the work from slipping into a kind of Catholic apologetics. 

It is hard to take issue with Gregory’s critique of modern Protestantism and the way the Reformation has led to a crass secularization of modern society that promotes consumption as the supreme good.  His Chapter on “Manufacturing the Goods Life,” in fact, should be required reading for just about everyone who is concerned about the future of our planet.  I have never read a more lucid account of the history of the consumer mindset than I have in this work.  Sheer brilliance!
By the time I finished this impressive tome, I felt as though I had been given a master class in Western intellectual history from someone who, I’m convinced, is destined to become one of the great, iconoclastic thinkers of the 21st century.   The Unintended Reformation is, without a doubt, one of the most provocative and stimulating works of history that I have read in many years.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.