Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Review: Renée of France by Simonetta Carr

Renée of France (Bitesize Biographies series) by Simonetta Carr
EP Books (2013); 128 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

I have been intrigued by Simonetta Carr ever since I heard about her Christian Biographies for Young Readers series, so when I had the opportunity to review a biography she has written for a general audience, I was quite excited! The book, introducing French princess and Italian duchess Renée of France
(1510—1575), didn't disappoint.

What I love about this book is the choice of subject. Not only is Renée a less familiar figure (I knew very little about the Italian Reformation when I started reading), but she provides a window into the complexities of her era -- theological, pastoral, and political. As Carr points out from the very first page, our perception of events as monumental as the Reformation tends toward the simplistic. The story of a layperson like Renée, who was caught up in those changes with all the doubts and challenges they provoked, can help us understand what was at stake -- truths and freedoms we take largely for granted in our context.

I won't detail Renée's biography here, except to note that she struggled to stand for her newly Reformed convictions in the midst of many pressures: a religiously unsympathetic husband; the sometimes questionable theology of fugitives to whom she offered hospitality; witnessing the horrors of the religious wars seizing Europe. At one point, isolated from her family and under pressure from an inquisitor sent by the king of France, Renée renounced her Protestant faith and agreed to receive the Catholic Eucharist. We know little about what was in Renée's heart at this time, but we know that, after her husband's death, Renée eagerly provided refuge and education to many persecuted Huguenots. Carr does not attempt to settle the scholarly debate as to whether Renée is better viewed as a Protestant heroine or a vacillating Roman Catholic. While Renée's apparent fluctuations can be frustrating to us, as they were to her contemporaries, her will indicates that she died with a humble confession of God's sovereign mercy.

Carr brings out a number of questions posed to us by Renée's story -- questions that we often avoid in today's church. Is it okay to participate in religious behaviors that conflict with our beliefs, especially to avoid offense to others? What does it look like for Christians to love their enemies? The differences between the Mass and the Lord's Supper were life and death matters in Renée's time, and her stumbles appear to have been due in part to poor pastoral oversight. Do we still see these matters as crucial today?

This book also provides a wonderful glimpse of John Calvin's pastoral character, as much of the narrative is based on Renée and Calvin's correspondence lasting from 1537 until his death in 1564.

While this book assumes some knowledge of Reformation history, it is certainly not just for historians. Anyone interested in the impact of Reformation events on individual lives will find it a fascinating read. There is an excellent annotated bibliography for those who would like to venture into more scholarly territory. Simonetta Carr is a keen interpreter of history, and I can't wait to see which personalities she will acquaint us with in her future projects!

If you are interested in hearing an interview with Simonetta Carr, please click here.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.