As far as literature, the 17th century is nobody's child, and nobody's parent. More the heir of the Reformation than the Renaissance, 17th century authors relied on methods of their own choosing, and while most of the poets and novelists were brilliant, few of their ideas caught on. This is largely because the Enlightenment which followed their efforts (and, in the West, spelled the victory of the Renaissance over the Reformation) rejected the God-centered output of men like Milton, Herbert and John Bunyan.
Probably the greatest exemplar of the 17th century ethos was John Donne, called by many the greatest poet ever to write in English. A former reprobate-turned Protestant minister, Donne's poetry is filled with the tension between the flesh and the spirit, a tension clearly felt by all Europeans in the wake of two movements which pit the one against the other. His command of the elasticity of language and its ability to convey sentiments the mind can't even clearly conceive is unparalleled; his love poems and religious poems alike are filled with enthusiasm and reverence.
Every unchained spirit, however, must be kept in balance by those of more stable mind and habits. Such were men like George Herbert, whose devotional verse certainly evokes Donne's passion for God while evidencing a less worldly appetite. Herbert himself was certainly no angel, but his poetry is the testament of a man devoted more to the desire for Christ than to fulfilling the wants of the flesh, and this sentiment was taken up in spades by men like John Bunyan and (across the ocean) Jonathan Edwards.
About halfway through the century, a group of Protestant clergymen and theologians got together in London and hashed out the essence of the Reformed faith. The resulting Westminster Confession of Faith codified the orthodox Calvinist faith, emphasizing Puritan ideals of holy living and covenant theology, and became the foundational document for the Church of England, as well as many Presbyterian churches throughout the world—it is still in use today.
All this isn't to suggest everyone writing in the 17th century was a Christian, especially not in the orthodox sense. Two of the century's most brilliant philosophers—René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes—rejected Divine authority as the basis for human knowledge and argued for a comprehensive construction of truth from "first principles." They both argued for the existence of God, but it was a far different being they described than the one found in the Bible. It was ideas like these that led to the 18th century fluorishing of Enlightenment rationalism.
The 1600s also saw the publication of the first novel written by a woman. Oroonoko is the story of an African slave and his various misadventures after being stripped of his princely rank and degraded by men less noble than himself. An attention to the welfare of underprivileged persons had developed, and this slim little work of fiction (though purported to be a true story) laid the groundwork for similar efforts in subsequent years.
This was a rich literary period, particularly for England, and especially for Christians. Some of the best Christian classics were written during this century, and while there were reprobates at work (some of them brilliant in their own right), the air seemed to clear for religious literature, at least for a brief time and in a limited context. Our selection primarily reflects these works, though we have not been remiss to include altogether secular titles as they have presented themselves to our attention.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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