Lee Palmer Wandel. Reading Catechisms, Teaching Religion

Lee Palmer Wandel. Reading Catechisms, Teaching Religion. Boston: Brill MyBook, 2016. xxiv, 390 p. ill. E-ISBN 9789004305205. US $189.00 (ebook).

David McKitterick writes in Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order (2003) that the rise of print was “prolonged, and like many revolutions its progress was irregular, and its effects were variable, even erratic” (47). Associating the print revolution with other historical developments means reading this unevenness into them, as Lee Palmer Wandel does in Reading Catechisms, Teaching Religion. First recouping pre-revisionist ideas, she suggests that the rise of printed catechisms transformed the Christian conception of self, as worshippers’ attention shifted from the “dense visual, haptic, and aural world of medieval Christianity” to a shared set of printed scriptural texts (17). Masterfully nuancing this claim, she then explores how variant printed presentations of these texts in Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist catechisms empowered fracture into differing denominational selves.

The book’s central chapters explore how four popular catechism types – Peter Canisius’s Catholic Institvtiones and Parvvs Catechismvs, Martin Luther’s Enchiridion and Deudsch Catechismus, John Calvin’s Le Catéchisme, and the Heidelberg Catechism – vary their presentation of the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, Baptism, and the Supper. Through the “spatial logic of the codex” (31), these differences in presentation, “the wording of those texts, their structure, the cadences as they were spoken aloud” (65), cued readers to understand their meaning and theology in different ways. Where Canisius divided the Creed into twelve parts, signaling each Apostle, Luther devised a three-part Trinitarian mode, while Calvin expanded the Creed into questions about faith and justification “over sixteen Sundays, from the second Sunday to the eighteenth” (87). The Ten Commandments shifted textual location based on Luther’s narrative of Law to Grace (coming first), or Calvin’s on living well in the present (coming after the Creed). Wandel makes the interesting observation that virtually no Catholic catechisms came with illustrations, pointing rather to the liveliness of the Mass, while “evangelical” ones offered initial woodcuts that “encapsulated one moment or multiple moments in the biblical narrative” or “rendered ideal contemporary practice” (324). In these differences, writers trained readers to understand law, sanctification, and sacrament in specific ways.

While the study offers generous, almost inclusive descriptions and illustrations for a wide range of catechisms, readers in religious book history and reception may want more complexity to Wandel’s terms. She offers the secondary claim that by blueprinting belief for Christians, the catechism “bound the reader and the page” (74), “blurring the distinction between codex and person” (350), and letting readers “embody” prayer. Yet her arguments never explore what “bound” and “embody” mean. The author might have enhanced these terms through citation to Robert Whalen, Charlotte Scott, and others who explore how book and body conjoin, or sacramental reading practices explored by Kimberly Johnson, Ryan Netzley, or Sarah Beckwith.

The nature of the book, published in Brill’s series on “Intellectual History,” may account for its scope. Wandel defines clear boundaries, where readers are “not the focus of this study” (29). Reading Catechisms serves a more descriptive interest in Reformation and catechisms, offering a grand tour and broad thesis for histories of ideas. Although it engages the major arguments over past decades in book history through ample footnotes to Elizabeth Eisenstein, Adrian Johns, and David McKitterick, the study focuses less on specific interests like typeface, binding, paper, or marginalia. Nevertheless, Wandel offers a convincing thesis that can inform and shift perceived ambiguities between print and Reformation that have normalized over time.

                                                                             Kyle Vitale
Folger Shakespeare Library

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