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Dennis Austin Britton, Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern Romance
by Julia Reinhard Lupton

Britton, Dennis Austin. Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern Romance. Fordham UP, 2014. xi + 259 pp. ISBN: 978-0823257140. $55.00 cloth.

Dennis Austin Britton’s Becoming Christian is a major new study of race and religion in early modern literature. Britton’s emphasis on the conversion of non-European persons to Christianity draws on previous studies by Daniel Vitkus and Jane Hwang Degenhardt. Britton’s focus on the romance motif of the converted infidel, imported from medieval romance and given pan-European significance for Renaissance letters by the Orlando Furioso, gives new prominence to non-dramatic literature, with Spenser as a key moment of the story. What also distinguishes this fine book is Britton’s careful attention to the theology and politics of English debates around infant baptism. The goal of Anglican apologists such as Thomas Becon and Alexander Nowell was to maintain the deeply ingrained, and deeply comforting, ritual of infant baptism, but without subscribing to Catholic sacramental theology. Caught between the power and appeal of the Catholic institution and the serious theological doubts raised by the Anabaptists, Anglican theologians argued that “Christian infants” (children born to parents who were themselves already members of the Church of England) were even in the womb touched by faith and recipients of God’s election. Adult converts, however, including Muslim, Jewish or “paynim” ones, should be held to a higher standard, requiring more tests of their knowledge and commitment. The unintended result of this theological ploy, Britton argues, was to racialize Christianity by making it into an inheritance passed genetically from parents to children: “Infidels could be saved in spite of their race, while the children of Christians are saved because of their race” (57). Rotating between theology and literature, Britton argues that the muting of the converted infidel motif in English reformations of romance manifests the racialization of Christianity that stems from the Anglican retooling of infant baptism.

Becoming Christian is the story of a motif, a sacrament, and a genre. It is also a book about the impact of Ariosto on English literature, a legacy compellingly reevaluated here through the question of conversion. The success of the book (which is considerable) lies in Britton’s ability to make real and often surprising connections among infidel conversion, infant baptism, and romance and to indicate the larger cultural and literary-historical implications of these connections within a much larger landscape shaped by international trade, colonial ventures, Spanish rivalry, and Ottoman militarism.

In Chapter One Britton reads the converted infidel motif in romance and then establishes his argument about baptism. He conducts the latter with both caution about making inflammatory or reductive claims and a resolute sense of purpose in disclosing the secret link between “Christian” and “white” hidden in Anglican theology. Criticizing the Anglican nationalizing, naturalizing, and racializing of Christianity, Britton values interethnic conversion as a scene of genuine cultural contact, which “both drew from a tradition in which infidels—especially Jews and Turks—were used to figure religious alterity and also transformed those figures into real spiritual subjects who might become Christian” (37).

In Chapter Two Britton addresses Spenser’s revisions of Ariosto, arguing that whereas the converted infidel is a major theme in the Furioso, Spenser assiduously avoids the plot device in order to reform romance in a project that fuses theology and nationalism. The Faerie Queene uses both allegory and Ovid against themselves in order to “provide Elizabeth and England with racially and religiously pure origins” (61). This is a persuasive reading, though the readings can feel a bit oblique, and I would have liked to hear more about how Irish and Spanish concerns, touched upon only in passing, colored Spenser’s conception of race.

Chapter Three examines John Harington’s translation of the Orlando Furioso. Comparing Harington’s textual apparatus to the commentary of the Geneva Bible, Britton argues that whereas Ariosto’s Ruggiero is conspicuously if rather generically Saracen, Harington’s Anglicized Rogero is only nominally so. Although Harington describes himself as an “Englishman Italianated” and a “Protesting Catholic Puritan” (101), he ends up neutralizing the scene of intercultural contact by sublimating the hero’s infidel conversion into a figure for “the sanctification of the Protestant reader” (102).

In Chapter Four, the strongest in the book, Britton reads Othello’s baptism as the most powerful and faithful English transcription of the converted infidel motif. Britton deftly discloses the plot devices and allusive gambits that affiliate the play’s romance origins, racial imagination and Pauline theology. Britton helpfully builds out Othello’s spiritual story through readings of Meredith Hanmer’s 1586 The baptizing of a Turke and Ephraim Pagitt’s 1635 Christianographie. If Spenser ignored Ruggiero’s conversion and Harington whitened it, Shakespeare is most true to Ariosto’s Saracen story and its medieval and Greek pretexts, including the Aethiopica. Yet Shakespeare’s world is no longer a Catholic one, and Iago, the corrosive voice of modernity, defeats “Othello’s romance of transformation” by “fuelling doubts about the Moor’s Christian identity” (141). This is a major new reading of Shakespeare’s play that thoughtfully builds on earlier accounts of Othello’s Pauline impulses by revisiting romance subtexts and establishing the significance of competing theologies of baptism in relation to conversion, circumcision, and marriage.

Chapter Five looks at female conversion in The Merchant of Venice, John Fletcher’s The Island Princess, and Philip Massinger’s The Renegado, with briefer readings of many other dramas from the period. Because of the deep political-theological bond between intermarriage, civic naturalization, and baptism, female conversion posed fewer threats and indeed offered more resources to nation-building and Reformation projects than male conversion did. In Merchant, Jessica’s conversion to and incorporation into Christianity is more secure than Shylock’s but remains uncertain, while the faith of the female converts in the works by Fletcher and Massinger are validated by their willingness to die for their new faiths. The discourse of martyrdom, Britton argues, “purg[es] the infidel-conversion motif of the concupiscence so closely associated with romance” (171). By staking their lives on their newly espoused religion, these female converts put their faith beyond the erotic bonds that initially led them into Christian fellowship and assert their “religious autonomy” (170).

The book ends with a short coda on Obama as a latter-day Othello whose conversion to Christianity has been subject to doubt because of his race. Bringing the argument of his book into the present, Britton suggests that “those who believe the President is a Muslim unwittingly embrace a theology of race that … emerged in Reformation England” (175).

While Britton is fiercely attentive to the forms of violence, racism and exclusion performed in the name of religion, his book is by no means anti-Christian or anti-religious. Britton values the infidel-conversion motif as a scene that “could embody Christianity’s claim to embrace individuals of every nation and race” (58). This means seeking a Christianity that is broad and inclusive: to this end, the book asserts both the Catholic Continental sources of English literature and the Jewish horizons of Christian sacrament and scripture. Throughout the book, Britton draws on Pauline universality as well as Paul’s own conversion crisis in order to hold Christendom accountable to the broader vision of mixed communities, ancient African churches, Jewish texts and practices, and “black is beautiful” romance motifs that he insists are foundational rather than incidental to Christianity’s historic formation and ethical repertory. Britton does not cite Vincent Lloyd’s collection Race and Political Theology,[1] but Britton and Lloyd strike me as sharing a commitment to a reconstructive and reparative as well as critical approach to religion’s complex entanglement with race and nation.

In this spirit, I take the title “becoming Christian” to refer not only to the romance motif that organizes Britton’s excellent readings of Renaissance texts, but also as an ongoing challenge to churches today. In “becoming Christian” conceived as a living political theology, baptism does not occur only or simply at birth, in the comforting circle formed by family, clergy, and community, but involves an ongoing effort of reading, risking, and reaching out. Britton’s Christian vision has no patience for easy ecumenicalism, insisting instead on the “baptism by blood” that attends contact, transformation, recognition, and incorporation. Above and beyond its substantial contribution to early modern literary studies, Becoming Christian gives the effort of conversion and the work of baptism new meaning and momentum. As such, this book is not only about romance: it also participates in romance, a literary form that draws its extraordinary resilience from its capacity to serve as a tool for living.

Julia Reinhard Lupton
The University of California, Irvine



[1] (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012). 

Comments

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45.1.7

Cite as:

Julia Reinhard Lupton, "Dennis Austin Britton, Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern Romance," Spenser Review 45.1.7 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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