Monday, December 15, 2003

So there are nice things about having a mother who's a librarian. She brings me home books. On the other hand, there are some bad things: she brings home books.
This week's "Matthew, I thought that this might interest you" is called God's Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible--A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal, published this past August by St. Martin's press, and now widely available.
Short version? Don't buy it.
Longer version?
  • The author--Bryan Moynahan--seems to be confused as to whether he's trying to write a hagiography, a biography, a thriller, etc. ad inf. This lamentable fact is almost certainly due to a desire to make the book appealing in as wide a variety of circles as is possible. After all, a book about a guy who was persecuted by the Roman Catholic church for having the audacity to translate the bible into a language that people actually spoke? It's a story that sells as well today as Foxe's book of martyrs ever did. And why not capture the biography market, too, without appearing stuffy? So. Quite a nice attempt to cover all the bases at once, but please, hire another 8 guys.
  • So. I mentioned John Foxe's Book of Martyrs [yes, it can also be spelled Fox, but Foxe looks cooler.]. Nifty book, btw, that details the early Protestant martyrs. For quite a long time, it was this book beside A Pilgrim's Progress and a bible as one of the first that nice English Protestants would want in their homes. What's the problem with this being the source that seems to get the most prominence in Moynahan's study of Tyndale? Oh right, the fact that it's polemical, anti-catholic, and tends to invent stuff to fit its needs for proselytizing &c. Now, of course, Moynahan does use other sources, but Foxe is the one who seems to be kept constantly in view of the reader.
  • The hagiography, as mentioned above, annoys me. The book sets up a fairly vicious Thomas More against Tyndale, and celebrates Tyndale with hardly more than the occasional equivocation. Now, was more ruthless in routing out heresy? Sure. And it wasn't a nice time back then, so yeah, heretics got burnt. I don't mean to minimize how we all should rightly be appalled at that fact, but it's history. A more balanced presentation of Thomas More would have helped [throw in some nice details, make him look a little appealing], as would have a more balanced presentation of Tyndale done for him.
  • um... forgetting that Latin is an inflected language, and that syntax isn't crucial to meaning? Kind of a big thing to forget, and indicative of the lack of full understanding about how languages are used to convey meaning. Yes, the Vulgate was written in a particular style. But that's just one possible translation.
  • Perhaps a little less waxing rhapsodic about how gorgeous Tyndale's phrasing is? Yes, the man had a way with words. Maybe a little bit of explanation about why, rather than bludgeoning the poor reader with interminable lists of examples of nice turns of phrase. Y'know, maybe some talk about scansion? explaining How latinate cadences--the cursus tardus, the cursus planos, the cursus velox--work to make it sound good, rather than just saying--well, Tyndale studied rhetoric at Oxford, so, man, he knew what he was doing? I dunno, stuff like that? If you're going to talk about language, make a freakin' effort to do it decently!
  • There are quite a number of decent comments about word choices. I like the discussion (73) about why Tyndale chose "love" instead of "charity" for the greek 'αγαπη from the text for 1 Cor. 13.13, basing his decision on the Old English "lufu" rather than on the Latin "caritas."
  • The book, on the whole, does not seem overly well organised. Moynahan bounces from one idea to another; the book could use a decent editor's hand in reshaping and reordering most of the material.

  • Ok, I'm done complaining. The book entertained me, at least. I didn't have too many overpowering urges to throw it down in disgust. Just a general feeling that the book could be a lot better, had the author picked an audience and written to that audience. And maybe been a smidgen more balanced... fortunately, not something a cursory review like this one has to attempt to do.