By Felipe Vogel
“The Reformation … was more a song or a symphony than a system, more lyric than lecture,” claims Peter Matheson in The Imaginative World of the Reformation. Yet lectures and systems are likely what comes to mind when we think of the writings of the early Protestants, epitomized in the Latin theological tome. No doubt theological Latin deserves lots of attention, and we can be thankful that it is getting more of it. But we rarely notice the Latin songs and stories of the early Protestants, which can renew our devotion as much as their theology deepens our understanding.
Even the earliest generations of Reformers abound in this creative storytelling, from familiar names like John Foxe and Theodore Beza, to entire constellations of Protestant Latin poets in Germany and Scotland. But it takes hard work to appreciate Renaissance poetry. An easier starting point is the 1648 novel Nova Solyma, which on the one hand features pirates, bandits, love triangles, and cross-dressing stalkers, but on the other hand is authored by a Puritan and bears the subtitle Institutio Christiani—“the education of a Christian,” reminiscent of Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis. The text is easily accessible owing to its English translation. (The translator argued its author was John Milton, but later the author was proven to be Samuel Gott.)
The novel is set in the eponymous “New Jerusalem,” a utopian Jerusalem of the future re-founded by Jewish converts to Christianity, and the narrative centers on two students from Cambridge who have travelled to see the famous city. There they find adventure, virtuous living, bitter love, and ultimately a deeper experience of God. We can see that the author intends the reader to follow this same path, when a Jerusalemite explains to the two Englishmen why an elderly lady has just told a fairy-tale to two young boys:
I think this aged teacher has desired to point out to her pupils how (as the tale goes of Hercules) they may distinguish right from wrong by the critical faculty alone without perilous experiment, and why she relates their fall is for their protection in like event; and to make a deeper impression she veils the lesson under the pleasing guise of a mythic tale. … not only in teaching proper behavior, but in instilling the first principles of religion, we also make use of this device. It is not our practice to compel children to learn by rote what they hardly understand, nor do we administer their religious pabulum minced up into short questions and answers; we rather season it to their taste and age, and, like birds, prepare and digest it ourselves first. Stern truth and solid fact are rather apt to blunt the edge of their youthful intellect, and thus they sometimes turn aside in dull disgust when on the very threshold of the Temple; and so it is that many ever afterwards have an aversion for religion as a dull and sad business, remembering their early martyrdom. (Begley trans. vol. I pp. 128-9)
To teach virtue and religion are likewise Gott’s aim throughout his novel. Not all of his methods are wildly different from the theological Latin that we are used to: several philosophical dialogues interrupt the narrative almost out of nowhere, and Gott reproduces in full two lectures given at Nova Solyma’s university.
But much of Gott’s teaching is woven into his stories and poems. Take the main story arc for example, the woeful love of the young Englishmen, in which they and the reader are led up to God and his love by means of the narrative and songs. As soon as the two travellers arrive in Nova Solyma, they lock eyes with a beautiful woman, and it’s love at first sight—for both of them. Their friendship sours and their health deteriorates. One of them asks their Jerusalemite friend Joseph, who seems impervious to the advances of beautiful women, how he does it. Joseph replies that, to the contrary, he is under the power of love, and gives his friend “an outburst of the sacred flame, the love of God” in a poem that ends with his longing to see God and to be united with Christ.
The poems of Nova Solyma are like prayers, offering up to God the ardent longing of those whom God then brings nearer to himself by a powerful revelation. We see this unfold dramatically in the final pages. Feeling forsaken by God, Joseph falls into a deep depression, which prompts one of the Englishmen to write an apocalyptic poem on Judgment Day. Soon afterward, Joseph is enraptured with visions of God (fulfilling his earlier poem) and the final judgment (mirroring his friend’s poem), and he sings a poetic rendition of Psalm 149 that opens the eyes of everyone around him to see the visions as well. It is obvious that these several poems bring their composers and their hearers nearer to God, but this is no less true in the rest of the novel, when the Jerusalemites day by day offer up their hearts to God in songs through which their love for God burns even brighter.
The novel ends with a wedding song, a poetic drama of the love of Christ the bridegroom for his bride. In this, as in other songs of Nova Solyma, we are led with the characters up to God, and with the bride in the wedding song we sing,
Ah me! Beneath Thy gaze mine eyes do fail,
For Thine are brighter than the Lamp of Day.
Ah! when I think what depths of love are there,
Struck faint with great desire, I swoon away.
Oh! take my melting soul, my gift of love!
I pour it in Thine arms with Thee to stay. (Begley trans. vol. II p. 235)
In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith writes of the kinship between worship and storytelling: “Worship forms us and aims us because its concrete, material practices catch hold of our imagination. That is why worship is more like literature than logic. … Thus one can often find the sacramental imagination better pictured in novels than dissertations.” The questions Smith asks at the beginning of the book and his Cultural Liturgies project are the same that I imagine drove Samuel Gott and other Protestant storytellers in their work as teachers under a different guise:
What if education … is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires? … What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions—our visions of ‘the good life’ … What if the primary work of education was the transforming of our imagination rather than the saturation of our intellect? … What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?
If Nova Solyma and the many other Latin works of the Protestant imagination strike us as strange anomalies and outliers in the basically theological literature of the Reformation, this is more a reflection of our own priorities than it is an accurate view of history. These strange creations may be worth our time, if only to learn from the sacramental imagination of the earliest Protestants, and more energetically to take up the work of telling stories in our own time.
Felipe Vogel and his wife Hannah teach in Liberia, West Africa, with the Rafiki Foundation. Felipe earned his M.A. at the University of Kentucky, where he lived every day in Latin at the Institute for Latin Studies.