Sunday, January 21, 2018

God's Bestseller: William Tyndale... Book Review


William Tyndale, Thomas More,
and the Writing of the English Bible—
A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal


Brian Moynahan

Reviewed By

Geoffrey W. Sutton

God’s Bestseller is a plot-driven biography of William Tyndale (1494-1536) and his ruthless antagonist, Thomas More. Character development is lacking due to the limited reliable information about Tyndale’s interactions with others. This is no fault of Moynahan because once Tyndale became known as an evangelical, aka heretic, he fled England to hide in Germany and the Netherlands to achieve his calling—the translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue of English.

Even for readers who don’t know much about history, the book’s subtitle reveals the outcome—Tyndale was a martyr. What Moynahan treats us to is the life and death struggle between Tyndale and More, staged against political and religious battles for control of the Bible, money, and the lives of men and women.

Early on we get a small glimpse of Tyndale’s early years. We learn he went to both Oxford and Cambridge. He then set upon his life’s goal of completing an English translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into English. Such a translation was forbidden by the ruling Roman Catholic Church whose English warrior was none other than the famous Thomas More (1478-1535). In 1524, Tyndale left England for Germany and completed his English translation of the New Testament in 1525. The book became a bestseller despite its illegal status in England.

As Tyndale was working on the Old Testament, another battle took place between King Henry VIII and the Pope. As you may know, Henry was in lust with Anne Boleyn and eager to divorce his first wife, Catherine, who had given birth to Mary, but no male heir. The pope’s refusal to grant the divorce led to Henry’s 1534 break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England, which granted the divorce. The biblical battle runs from the bedroom to the continent as Queen Anne Boleyn kept a Tyndale New Testament at her bedside and was occasionally able to assist reform minded Englishmen until she fell victim to Henry’s penchant for other women.

As the political-religious battle waged between pope and king, More was rooting out heretics and sending them flaming into eternity. Following More’s flameout, Tyndale was eventually captured when he was betrayed by Henry Phillips. During his 500-day imprisonment, Tyndale responded at length to inquiries about his beliefs. In the end, he was strangled and burned at a stake 6 October, 1536.

Only three years after his death, Tyndale’s work provided a substantial basis for Myles Coverdale’s Great Bible (1539) and later, the King James or Authorised version of 1611. More’s legacy includes canonization by Pope Pius XI in 1935 and fame associated with Utopia.

Moynahan is a master of the art of creative nonfiction as he moves the story with lively conflicts between various religious and political characters. He illustrates the main points of disagreement between the reformers and the traditional church with quotes from Tyndale's original translation on such matters as transsubstantiation, priests vs. elders, and love vs. charity. Doctrines hang on the difference in meaning of a word or two. But more importantly, lives are at stake. For Tyndale, Christians do not eat the body of Christ during the Eucharist, they do not need a priest for confession, and 1 Corinthians 13 is about love--not charity and the association of charity with donations to the church. There's more of course--the famous Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith crops up in more than one battle.

 Moynahan keep us close to the action by pointing to familiar landmarks in the main cities of London and Antwerp but he also keeps us close to the era by judicious quotes from the main characters presented in early modern English.

Moynahan, B. (2002). God’s bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible—A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. New York: St. Martins.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Taking Out the “White Trash” A Book Review


The 400-Year Untold History  
 of Class in America



Isenberg states her purpose on page 2 of White Trash: “…by reevaluating the American historical experience in class terms, I expose what is too often ignored about American identity.” She adds a second aim. “I also want to make it possible to better appreciate the gnawing contradictions still present in modern American society.” Her major theme appears to be a persistent lack of equality since the early English settlements gained a foothold in America: “How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people?”

She encourages Americans to “recognize the existence of our underclass.” And offers us a question to answer: “The puzzle of how white trash embodied this tension is one of the key questions the book presumes to answer.”

As we might expect of from a history professor (LSU), Isenberg begins at the beginning—that is, she offers us an English context for the people selected to inhabit the early settlements in America. In doing so, she reminds us that a variety of whites came along with the storied religious Pilgrims and Puritans as well as the Virginia Gentlemen. She does not ignore slavery and the increasingly well-known horrors of African Americans. Rather, she focuses our attention on the laws and attitudes that excluded a white underclass from enjoying the opportunities of the wealthy rulers who governed the inhabitants of the eastern seaboard.

Twelve chapters, with catchy titles and colorful language aimed at classifying the poor whites, expose the uncharitable manner in which the elite used their power to keep a certain group of white people within limited boundaries. We discover American leaders identified common characteristics of laziness, low ambition, and a general uncleanness of people variously labeled rubbish, poor white trash, clay-eaters, and mudsills.

Often, quoted leaders use breeding analogies to refer to the quality of human stock. Blood lines and the importance of good parents are linked as explanations for the status of the poor and their characteristics that serve as missing rungs on the proverbial ladder of success. When the theory of eugenics arrives in the US, we see many leaders embracing the beliefs like converts to a tent revival.

From time to time we learn of plans to improve the lot of poor whites. There are efforts to give ambitious people a parcel of land, which often required the removal of Native Americans. As we move into the 1900s, we learn of the political battles over such efforts as FDR’s programs during the Great Depression when there was visible evidence of downward mobility and later, Johnson’s Great Society. Helpfully, Isenberg points out the uselessness of the occasional celebrations of poor folks who make it. Sometimes she points out the false claims of the rags to riches stories. At other times, she reminds us that such celebratory news stories are rare events and not typical of the vast underclass that remain at a considerable distance from the halls of wealth and power.

By the time I reached the end of the book, I felt overwhelmed by the stories used to support her thesis. Indeed, America has an underclass. Although some of the stories are new to me, I was familiar with others from various sources such as PBS documentaries, textbooks on history and sociology, and living amongst the poor and middle class for most of my early life.
Nations have myths so it is not surprising to learn that many of the American myths were quite detached from reality. What is interesting is the degree to which the myths and belief systems create such an effective class structure.

I am no historian but I like to think of other possibilities to account for a set of findings. Isenberg has focused on the underclass in the early American colonies and the persistence of the poor whites in the American South. Having lived in New Mexico for some years, and finding many poor who were nether white nor of British heritage, it seems her thesis needs to be broadened to consider the influence of the Spanish who ruled vast swaths of what is now the United States. And why not consider the influence of French culture on mid-America—especially since the French held sway where the author lives and works in Baton Rouge?

Another factor that seems to be missing is a careful analysis of the role religion plays in maintaining or limiting the status of poor whites. After all, regardless of which European country the ancestors of America’s whites called home, most Americans have identified with some brand of Christianity. From time to time we hear advice to respect authority in church and in society. Isn’t religion and important factor in the status of America’s class system?

Isenberg’s attacks on breeding myths, blood, and eugenics are important. Such ideas rule even amongst those with graduate degrees in biology and the behavioral sciences. Nevertheless, she appears too dismissive of biological factors in accounting for the factors that make life a significant challenge to acquire an education or job skills that could become the path out of poverty.

Finally, I am disappointed in her lack of consistent comparisons across the historical time periods. Sometimes we are treated to quotes from influential political leaders, including the founding fathers. At other times she delves into the details of a novel or a play. What’s missing is some sort of weighting of the contribution of different sources to an understanding of why we continue to have an underclass.

So far, I am fortunate to have experienced the traditional American Dream. Our first home in America was indeed a filthy, insect infested, block rental house. Both of my parents left school at age 14, which was not uncommon amongst their peers, but considered a factor in poverty discussions. We were fortunate to have help from neighbors--a few white families and one black family--community makes a difference. And my father was healthy enough to work loading concrete blocks on trucks--health is worth a lot. When we needed more money, my mother was fortunate to find employment in retail shops or cleaning homes for middle class fami. In addition to the early start, I am now aware that I benefited from white male privilege. But I recognize, that there are many white Americans who remain poor. And there are many reasons for their ongoing struggle.

I suggest White Trash will be useful to those who are unaware of the attitudes of America’s elite toward the poor and the history of false beliefs about why some people fail to achieve a modicum of independence from reliance on government support and help from area charities. Readers will not find a broad consideration of the causes of poverty or effective ways to raise their standard of living.

Link to the author, Nancy Isenberg 


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