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Dippel book illuminates religious chaos of 17th century England and Russia

June 28, 2010
By cnp
Posted in Political Science

Christianity has always struggled in the face of changing times, new technologies, new influences. This problem is in no way new to our age. Though Christian worship goes back twenty centuries, the permutations of this worship have changed again and again.

Dr. Stewart Dippel’s book The Sacralization of the World in the Seventeenth-Century: The Experience of Holiness in Everyday Life deals in part with such changes.

“On the one hand,” he says, “you had the problems brought about when England changed from Catholicism to the Church of England, and when alternating Anglican and Catholic monarchs took the throne. The English civil wars from the death of Charles I in 1649 to the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660 created a period during which many new religious sects flourished – the Puritans primarily, but also the Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Muggletonians, and so on.”

As a result of this tumult, Dippel says, there was a tremendous crisis of confidence in the English clergy. The traditionally understood relationship between not only the church and state, but also between the clergy and the laity was thrown off balance. The scientific revolution, with the shift of rural peoples into the cities took place at the same time. In the midst of this chaos, the old forms of worship had been severely interrupted. An enormous paradigm shift took place.  

This shift can still be seen today in that Christian worship falls into two categories: on the one hand, church services that are centered around the mass and the transformation of the Eucharist – a period in which worshippers enter into “sacred time and space,” connecting them immediately and intimately with the core of their faith.  

The other type of service is sermon-based, with a preacher giving a message to the congregation. This latter format arose during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and his son, a result of this paradigm shift.  

Dippel’s book argues that this dichotomy arose originally during this 17th century period of instability. The old church was in jeopardy, its priests in hiding in many cases. The small groups which arose in its place, the aforementioned Puritans, Ranters, Levellers, and other groups, turned to their own resources in self-baptizing and in depending on the texts themselves, rather than the concept of meeting in “sacred space” to share the mystery of their faith.  

Dippel says literacy in England rose to about 40 percent during the time period. Additionally, the printing press offered cheaply printed matter – including many inexpensive, accessible pamphlets with titles like A Fiery Flying Roll (by the English Ranter Abiezer Coppe) and The Neck of the Quakers Broken (by Lodowick Muggleton; the Muggletonians, among their other curious beliefs, were notoriously and oddly anti-Quaker). Such pamphlets, Dippel says, contributed to the creation of a context in which a logocentric (text-based) approach could more easily gain some traction among ordinary people.  

Dippel also traces a parallel struggle that took place in Russia during roughly the same time period. Although Russia did not suffer the Catholic/Protestant difficulties England did, Dippel’s book traces the Raskol movement. Raskol, meaning ‘split’ or ‘schism,’ was the dividing of the Russian Orthodox Church into an official church, on one hand, and the Old Believers movement in mid-17th century, triggered by a series of reforms aimed at establishing uniformity between the Greek and Russian church practices.  

Due to the incursion of Western artistic influence, the move was eventually away from traditional Russian Orthodox iconography, in which the church itself, its statues and paintings, combined to create a sacred space with specific symbolism and meaning, to a Western-influenced reliance on texts. The question became one of how much to allow Western influence to affect the very style of the iconography itself, and with it the heart of sacred space in the Eastern Orthodox church.  

Over the course of the 17th century, Dippel explains, the logocentric (text-based) theological approach won the day, coming predominate over the iconographic (image-based) approach.  

Dippel says his next book – tentatively titled Redeemed at Countless Cost – will discuss the attempted recovery of iconographic theology in Russia and the West tracking from about 1850. “In England,” he says, “you had the Gothic Revival, the Oxford Movement, iconography diffused through not only the church but the culture itself. By the 1950s, via writers such as C.S. Lewis and his group the Inklings, which included J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, you had iconographic Christian theology being disseminated to a non-church audience. In Russia, you had for example Gogol’s Dead Souls, the novel intended to represent the Inferno of the modern-day Divine Comedy. It was a fascinating period and will be an interesting study.” and