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Plain and simple

The Plain Style: The Reformation, Culture and the Crisis in Protestant Identity By David Brett. Black Square Books (Belfast), 1999. 127pp. £4.95

For a book supported by the Cultural Diversity Programme of the Community Relations Council, this is actually quite an interesting read. So much so that it is often possible to forget the 'message' of the text - encouraging 'acceptance of cultural diversity' - and take it as a useful historical sweep through the implications of religious development in Britain and Ireland.

The enquiry centres on the 'Weber Thesis' and the 'Merton Thesis' - the first being Max Weber's contention in 1905 that Protestant 'work-based' discipline leads to a more productive economy; the second, Robert Merton's suggestion in 1938 that Puritanism frees the mind for independent scientific enquiry. By concentrating on the latter, Brett strives to investigate the 'effect upon cognition of the destruction of pictorial memory and its replacement by habits of abstract and diagrammatic memory - a significant element in the formation of modernity'.

What Brett refers to is, of course, the Reformation, which countered the aesthetic focus of Catholicism on ornament and imagery - its pictorial representation of the divine. By rejecting the use of flamboyant religious images, paintings, decoration etc, Elizabeth I established a Protestant simplicity.

Even verbal rhetoric, or flowery language in sermons, was seen by puritans as redundant ornament or as conjuring up imagery. Calvin had written that attempting to picture the incorporeal was 'a bestial stupidity', effectively telling his audience to censor their own imagination - 'to rigidify and repress that faculty so as to release oneself from the anxiety of constant selfscrutiny'. Hence the stereotype of the repressed puritan.

Brett develops this into a critique of a Protestant aesthetic within architecture, furniture and clothing. 'The effect of the removal of pictures from worship was to displace the iconic function of the image onto workmanship and the display of materialsà stone, timber and plaster, plain and unadorned.' This is the 'Plain Style' of the title, most visibly evidenced in Shaker, Quaker and Anabaptist nofrills designs.

In Inigo Jones' unbuilt scheme for Covent Garden, Brett notes that 'Puritan Minimalism' stripped out extraneous Classical detail: 'What was being invented by Jonesà was the brick terrace in its typically 'Georgian' form - austere to the point of numbness, but achieving elegance by very careful attention to the proportions', with an almost total absence of ornament. 'This is Plain Style with a vengeance, ' he concludes.

Recognising that today Protestantism is in retreat, Brett notes that many of its cultural expressions are defensive and vacuous. What he fails to recognise is that it is the decline of political purpose which has created the Protestant crisis of confidence, not the other way around. Ending up, on message, he criticises Protestantism for not being pluralist enough. In Brett's eyes, the contemporary reformation required is the religious equivalent to the Third Way.

The imposition of Protestantism on Ireland was guaranteed by force, and is a savage tale of state authority, domination and repression. By veering into 'cultural' points of reference, Brett tries to link the history of conflict in Ireland with Protestant 'rigidity of expression', as if the mindset, rather than the politics, is the driver of events. It is a simple but ultimately unconvincing argument.

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