This review contains good news and bad news. I’ll start with the bad news: Fire in the Bones is pretty disappointing.
S. Michael Wilcox’s book about William Tyndale is clearly aimed at the Mormon audience. It is published by Deseret Book, and contains numerous references to Joseph Smith as a prophet.
And the story of Tyndale is a fascinating one. Tyndale was one of the great reformers, translating the Bible from its original languages into English, and introducing a number of valuable phrases and concepts, including the word “atonement.”
Wilcox’s book, however, is not a good telling of Tyndale’s story. For one thing, its length is deceptive. While the book clocks in at over 200 pages, it employs short chapters, large type, wide margins, blank pages for chapter division — and so the amount of text actually included is quite meager.
And what text the book does contain is thin gruel indeed. Wilcox stops the story regularly — sometimes every other page, sometimes twice a page — and editorializes at length. The editorials are clearly aiming for a kind of poetic tone, and are sometimes eloquent but often flat. More problematic is their content. They are a curious blend of several themes, including testimony and praise for Tyndale, testimony of Joseph Smith, praise for Tyndale’s bible and the King James Version, bashing of Catholics (including Catholic priests and Sir Thomas More), criticism of non-KJV bibles, and generalized assertions of the superiority of LDS beliefs over (vastly simplified or caricatured) non-LDS (usually Catholic) beliefs.
The editorials destroy the continuity of the book — sometimes several paragraphs in a row are dedicated to tangents about the general superiority of Mormon belief, and this book doesn’t have the space to spare. They combine to make the book nearly unreadable in many parts. A few examples:
“[To Sir Thomas More] the greatest authority on earth was the Catholic Church. A challenge to that body was an invitation to anarchy, a word that More brought into English from the Greek. Tyndale was a man of the Bible, whose authority predated the church. His worship was that of private prayer. . . . Tyndale turned the world to a new sunrise, influencing millions of future generations yet remaining almost unknown. More continued lookign backwards into the apostate night, touching future generations only mildly yet being honored as a saint for remaining true to his faith. Such are the ironies of life.” (165).
“It never crossed More’s mind that the simple power of scripture, when searched in the light of the Holy Spirit, produced a love for the Savior that directed a faithful life in the ways of righteousness. Tyndale trusted the plain power of God’s words, for he worked in them every day. He spoke for the free flow of the Holy Spirit, which would teach the meaning of God’s word. As Nephi testified, “The words of Christ will tell you all things that ye should do.” Tyndale would have smiled at that marvelous sentence, both its sentiment and its sound.” (167).
“More aimed at cleverness, Tyndale struck at clarity. More wrote copiously, Tyndale wrote succintly. More spread anger, Tyndale spread truth. . . . With all of his sophistication, More was aware that his church did need reforming, but he refused to admit it.” (170).
“More constructed his arguments with a lawyer’s skill and a zealot’s fury, but he lacked the pure religion of Tyndale’s contribution to the duel. Tyndale believed in a feeling faith, as suggested in his Answer; More defended a historical faith. [More’s] The Confutation is half a million words of shouting, so loud and long that it defeated itself in its own swirl of rhetoric. It is a broadsword slashing with invective at Tyndale’s smaller rapier thrust.” (172).
“In Catholic cathedrals, the altar sits in the center, the focus of worship, with the pulpit on the side, implying the supremacy of ritual and ceremony. In Protestant churches, the pulpit commands the central position, suggesting that preaching the scriptures is paramount. A Latter-day Saint chapel follows Protestant tradition, with the pulpit in the center and the sacrament table on the side. But that is not to say that preaching is more important than ordinances. In the temple, the altar occupies the focal point, from which teaching emanates. Thus, Latter-day Saint worship balances necessary ordinances with saving knowledge.” (78).
“All of these [scriptures] breathe with the music of heaven that imprints the truths they teach indelibly on the heart. It is not only the words that make them so memorable but also the fluid way they glide so softly through the mind. Few men have been able to write with the pen of heaven, but Tyndale and Joseph Smith were among them.” (84).
This LDS back-patting is needlessly distracting. In places is seems designed to convince the LDS reader that she ought to care about Tyndale. Most of the time, its function is unclear.
Despite the digressions, the book still tells a pretty good story. The history of William Tyndale is sufficiently engaging that (when the book is telling the story) it provides a decent read. It’s a shame, though, that the fascinating underlying history is couched in a book which obscures the gripping narrative, and which is readable only because it ultimately cannot altogether hide the real power of the underlying history.
Now, for the good news. I greatly enjoyed Prelude to the Restoration (also Deseret), and I recommend it. It is a collection of essays that were presented at the 2004 Sperry Symposium, and many of the essays are very good.
The collection of essays is thematically unified and examines a fascinating, often overlooked piece of church pre-history: What were some of the events or people who “set the stage” for the restoration, and how did they do this? The answer is manifold, and often very interesting.
And so we can read about the advances in printing press technology, that (barely) made it possible to print the Book of Mormon by the time Joseph Smith received the plates (Keith Wilson). We can learn about how images and ideas of Christ were preserved through the middle ages and how they affect our understanding of Christ today (Jennifer Lane). We can read about the fascinating Medieval background to some of the hymns in the LDS hymnal (Paul Pixton). And we can read a nice discussion of Tyndale’s contributions to English and to our doctrines (David Seely). Other topics examined include the development of the Creeds, the emergence of Eastern Orthodox beliefs, and the geopolitics that led to the translation of the Book of Abraham. (Did you know what role Napoleon Bonaparte played in the coming forth of the Book of Abraham? I didn’t). Finally, the essays in Prelude to the Restoration contain thorough footnotes, so that readers who want to learn more about Orthodox deification doctrine or early Protestant missionary work among the Indians, for example, can follow up on each topic.
I found Prelude to the Restoration to be a very nice read, useful for readers who have any interest in church history, as it fills in many of the great details of the back story.
(One thing to keep in mind is that portions of the symposium are available for listening online, at http://www.byubroadcasting.org/sperry/default.asp?active=archive . I was unable to locate most of the presentations there, however. And in any case, I’m not a big fan of the recorded presentation — give me a book, any day of the week, over a recording.)
“With all of his sophistication, More was aware that his church did need reforming, but he refused to admit it.”
Does anyone else find this quote a tad crass considering LDS 20th century history?
Thank you, Kaimi. This is very useful.
As a kid, I greatly enjoyed Scott O’Dell’s historical fiction work on Tyndale, “The Hawk that Dare not Hunt by Day.”
Kaimi, “Fire in the Bones” sounds truly awful. Does the author do anything to show that Tyndale wouldn’t have been completely appalled by Joseph Smith and our religion? I wish you’d said as much about the book you liked as you did about the book you hated, though; now I’ll have to go read it myself.
Wilcox’s book is further evidence for a phenomenon I think I’ve seen for a long time: we tend to valorize Protestant heroes and dismiss Catholic ones. that is in spite of the fact that priesthood and ordinance are so important to us and to Catholics but so foreign to Protestantism. My suspicion–a completely off-the-cuff guess–is that it is mostly the result of the fact that most of our early converts were formerly Protestants who brought many of the anti-Catholic prejudices with them. More was no more a villain than Luther, and as much a hero.
I’ve seen what you describe, too, Jim F.
Kaimi, after looking at the conference program, I decided I really need to read
, so I just ordered it. I’ll find out if it was worth it in 3-5 business days.
Jim, I’ve noticed the same valorization of Protestant figures. I think we’re looking for heroes among the wrong set of reformers.
I always preferred Erasmus, maybe because the hard-liners on both sides attacked him so mercilessly. I really don’t see the cowardice others have imputed to him.
Some of the anabaptists sound pretty great, though! I just went to a Mennonite/Amish visitor’s center a few towns to the east, and really enjoyed it. Hearing their stories of being run from place to place until they made the harrowing trip to the promised land of America made me feel a surprising kinship with a people that had seemed very foreign. Er — I guess that’s a complete tangent, though : )
Bill, I agree with you about Erasmus–and I think I’ve hijacked the thread on Kaimi’s post. My apologies. I’ll try to post something on this some time this week so that we can talk about it without the hijack.
I think the protestant founders are valorized because they were making an attempt to move away from apostacy. They failed, not being able to restore the gospel, but we credit their attempts as paving the way for Joseph Smith to restore the Gospel. And I’ve heard St. Francis and St. Augustine quoted in church and conference. I think President Hinckley pretty well Valorized John Paul II at conference. I think Mother Theresa has been highly spoken of. I think a lot of Catholics have more boring stories than protestants, or don’t relate as well to the restoration, so make for harder books to write within the LDS niche market.
Do write that post, Jim–it’d be interesting to discuss the topic of Mormons’ selective valorization of aspects of our Christian heritage directly, rather than having it come up in the margins as it so often does. As I’ve written before, my impressions are somewhat different: while I’ve seen a certain amount of old-fashioned evangelical anti-Catholicism amongst members of the church, my observation is that derision of Protestants and Protestantism is more common. Perhaps it’s just a matter of which indicators were most sensitive to.
John C: What are you talking about? What about 20th Century LDS history is an obvious parallel?
Blacks in the Priesthood comes to mind. If Pres. McKay is praying fervently for the 1978 revelation to come a little earlier, it seems to me that some important people saw the policy as flawed. Meanwhile, other people in the church were writing treatises (long and short) describing why the policy was the just will of God. I am not bashing on the Church here, I just think that pointing out this tendency in other religious movements in a condescending tone is a tad silly.
John C. (#14): President McKay wasn’t the only one who prayed fervently, and was told “no,” in answer to his prayers. So did Harold B. Lee. Pres. McKay was allowed to lift the restriction so that those who didn’t “look black” could have the priesthood and I believe he also was allowed to say something like “People who are ‘black’ from Fiji, etc., are allowed to have the priesthood.” The really interesting thing are the 2 or 3 anecdotes about Pres. McKay when he was trying to be allowed to have it lifted. Gregory Prince (who wrote the biography that was recently reviewed here) shared a story which he heard first hand from somebody who was working at the Church Office Building (I don’t think it’s included in the book). President McKay once came in to an room in the COB muttering to himself, saying something like, “I just don’t know what we’re going to do! I just don’t understand…” The worker asked him what he was going on about, and he told him he’d been praying to have the priesthood ban lifted and had just been given the final, “No, and don’t ask me anymore.”
I agree that we shouldn’t bash other religions for their shortcomings (especially somebody like More. I mean come on! That guy stuck to his beliefs like hot gum on a sneaker. Nobody fits the original meaning of martyr better than him…), but I do think that the comparison of the LDS Church priesthood ban with the straw man drawn by Wilcox is a bit flakey. There was clearly something a little less than clearly understood going on there, in terms of divine mandates.
This probably should have been a trackback. Alas.
If Wilcox is correct, and I have no idea whether he was, there is a significant difference between More and President McKay. That is Wilcox claims More knew the Church needed reforming but refused to admit it, whereas President Mckay was more than willing to implement reform if that was the Lord’s will but he felt that it wasn’t. Regardless, I find Wicox’s portrayal of More as sad. I count him as a man of great courage and integrity.
John: I can see the analogy; but it seems awfully anachronistic. James’ comment sums up my feelings fairly well. Thanks for the answer; I hadn’t thought of this analogy. :)
It has been several months since I read Fire in the Bones. My opinion differs significantly from Kaimi’s. I recommend the book. Although I did weary of the comparisons to latter day prophets, Tynsdale’s story is interesting and I quite enjoyed the additional information about the other seasons in More’s life.
Wright and Prince do tell that story in the bio. And Pres. McKay did the following:
(1) allowed Fijians and Aborigines to be ordained. (Which is an interesting counter-point to the apologetic tactic that the reasons blacks couldn’t hold the p’hood is because the white church members couldn’t handle it. My understanding, and please correct me, is that there is still tremendous discrimination against Aborigines today.)
(2) changed the rule in South Africa. Previously, one had to *prove* non-African descent.
(3) allow the temple marriage of at least two women for whom it was rumored that they had black grandmothers. (This, of course, opens an entire can of worms.)
I agree that Tyndale’s story is a great one. It’s precisely for that reason that it deserves a much better vehicle than it was given. It should be possible to tell the story of Tyndale (with More as a bad guy) in a way that avoids the constant disgressions. There is a time and a place for prophet-Mormon-style “and thus we see” editorializing. Every third paragraph of a biography is not the proper place for such editorializing.
Julie (#19), I haven’t read the book yet, but I heard him tell the story at a lecture upon the release of the book. I could’ve sworn he said somebody had told him the story just three days before. I knew he’d collected and printed more stories like that one… Previously, I think one of the only printed indications of the fact that President Mckay had been praying for the restriction to be lifted was in Arrington’s Adventure’s of a Church Historian. Anyway, thanks for the clarification.
Sorry, I was offline yesterday and couldn’t respond. My point wasn’t to compare Pres. McKay and Wilcox’s characterization of More. My point was to say that we had a problem and while some people recognized the problem (like Pres. McKay), others didn’t (who probably should have) and spent time justifying it (didn’t the Triple Comp index have a section on Negros (highlighting verses regarding curses and such) in the pre-1981 edition?). So it was somewhat hypocritical, I thought, for Wilcox to criticize this behavior in More.