Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Man Who Gave God an English Voice

Thomas Nelson publishers sent me a review copy of David Teems’s new book Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice.  I was not required to write a favorable review, which is good, because my review is not entirely favorable.

It is mostly favorable, though.  William Tyndale is a difficult figure to biograph.  Much of the detail and structure of his life is lost to history, and many biographical accounts turn into a survey of the historical literature (“Foxe tells us that… but this is unlikely, as Peter Ackroyd observes…”) rather than a portrait of the man Tyndale himself.  Teems avoids this trap without failing to acknowledge the difficulties the historian faces in reconstructing a life from such fragmentary documents.

The strength of Teems’s treatment is in his thematic approach to Tyndale’s life.  While the details of exactly when and where Tyndale lived, moved and wrote are lost, the shape of his life remains doubtless: educated early, inflamed to publish an English translation of the Bible, exiled from his native England, publishing on the run, a sort of literary terrorist, a 16th century Julian Assange, finally captured and burned for his heresy.  Teems takes each of these major movements and studies what we can of Tyndale, while drawing out the themes in greater detail through other visionary writers who experienced the same things: Shakespeare the fellow wordsmith, Czeslaw Milosz the fellow exile, St. Paul the fellow enemy-of-the-state.

All of these dramas Teems captures well, and perhaps in this way we can come to an understanding of William Tyndale with or without the details in place.  Teems writes like an author who knows his subject.  He falls consistently into the present tense discussing William Tyndale.  Tyndale for Teems is not a historical figure to be studied, but a person with whom a reader can have a person relationship, someone he wants to introduce us to.  All this is to the good.

Where Teems frustrates me is in his fanboy cheerleading.  From the beginning this biography reads like a Protestant hagiography.  Tyndale is consistently compared to the original authors of scripture.  His influence on the English language is beyond that of Shakespeare or the King James Bible.  His stature of a crafter of words is parallel with Walt Whitman.  And Wycliffe’s Bible before him is marginalized, while the KJV’s dependence on Tyndale is magnified.  Now, I would argue that much of this is accurate, but Teems does not begin by making such an argument, but by assuming that everyone ought to know that it is the case.

More troubling to me was Teems’s extremely anti-Catholic attitude.  Granted that he is taking one side in a very polemical debate (Tyndale versus More, with Tyndale ultimately put to death over the disagreement), Teems handles his perspective a bit heavy-handedly.  In the forward he writes,

At the heart of medieval Christianity, if indeed it had a heart, was a reliance on fear and manipulation.  The capacity to inspire terror in its faithful ws the first rule of order and domination. The only modern analogue might be radical Islam, with its commitment to jihad.

He does end his forward with a blanket apology, saying that, “In fairness, the Catholic Church today is not the same Catholic Church it was in 1500. I hope this might serve as an apology. It is difficult to write about religion and not offend.”  I never found myself offended, but I often found myself making a “get a load of this guy” face while reading.  The Catholic Church is also compared to the Nazis, who after all also burned people they disagreed with.  Of course, Teems hastens to add, he is not saying they were the same thing.

With all that said, this is a much less polemical book than it might have been, and many of the most rhetorical bits are the quotations from Erasmus, Luther, More and King Henry VIII, all men who pulled no rhetorical punches.  The most exciting aspect of the book, to me, was the careful attention paid to language itself: to the process of translation, to the cadence of a line, to the Englishing of English, to Tyndale’s preference for words of Saxon origin over those of Latin or French origin, much like Professor Tolkien.  That is how we ended up with “God is love” rather than “God is charity,” or “Blessed are the peacemakers” rather than Wycliffe’s “Blessed are the maintainers of the peace.”

All that said, I give a rather enthusiastic recommendation to Tyndale.  It effectively deals with so many areas that it is sure to scratch somewhere you itch.  It is a bit of light reading if you’re an academic, and a bit of challenging reading if you’re mainly into Amish romance and Ted Dekker.  One could do much worse.


America’s Unjust War

As I’ve detailed before, there are two major ways of thinking about wars.

Realists believe that war is a simple necessity, and must be handled realistically.  You will try to minimize civilian casualties, and try to obey international treaties, but you will do these things for realistic reasons: to minimize blowback and the creation of new terrorist groups, and to ensure further cooperation with world governments.  Henry Kissinger was very prominent and straightforward in aligning himself with this way of thinking.  If you watch movies like The Bourne Identity you will see this kind of thinking exemplified.

Idealists, on the other hand, hold that certain ideals are more important than these “realistic” concerns, whether these ideals are matters of tradition, religious belief, morality or hopes for the future.  These ideals will mediate the wartime activities the idealist will engage in, even when those activities would be advantageous from a realist perspective.  In the Christian tradition in particular, two forms of idealism have emerged: pacifism and the just-war tradition.

Christian just-war theorists hold to the ideal that God has revealed a moral code that applies not only to Christians but to all mankind, easily summarized as “love God, love others.”  Loving other can mean using force to defend victims from aggression, but also means loving the attacker in the process.  So where the just-war doctrine has flourished, the church has developed a tradition to make concrete what that means: it means things such as not intentionally killing non-combatants, making terms of surrender clearly known, using proportional force, using all possible means prior to using force, caring for surrendered and imprisoned enemy combatants, and so on.  Just-war theorists do not believe these concepts apply only to Christians, but that they are moral laws that apply to all humans, so just-war theorists have tried to persuade governments to adopt these as military policy, and to see these concepts embedding in laws and international treaties so that even realists will follow them, even though they do not share the Christian’s ideals.

Christian pacifists agree with all of the above ideals (that killing non-combatants is wrong, etc.) but in addition hold an ideal that Christians are called to imitate Christ specifically in his refusal to utilize violence against the injustice of the world, and rather to suffer on behalf of the world.  Christians pacifists will join with just-war theorists to call on their national governments to use just force, but do not see the nation as a force called to be pacifist in its own right.  From the pacifist perspective, only the church is a community capable of living nonviolently, because only the church recognizes that Christ is Lord.

All of this I take to be uncontroversial, though it is admittedly oversimplified. (John Howard Yoder wrote a short book entitled Nevertheless: Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism that identified and critiqued around thirty different forms of Christian pacifism; there is no way to speak for all at once.)  I take it to be uncontroversial that Christians, when confronted with the choice of participating in an unjust war or unjust action in war (even where the policy is not embedded in national or international law) has the duty to refuse that service.  What should be uncontroversial but is not is that the United States is currently ideologically committed to an unjust war: the so-called war on terror.

In the last two weeks a bill passed the Congress permitting the government to imprison U.S. citizens detained on U.S. soil indefinitely without trial if that person is suspected of being a terrorist.  Radical conservatives like Rand Paul and radical liberals like Denis Kucinich spoke out against the bill, but it passed overwhelmingly.  The language of the bill allows suspected terrorists to be held in military prisons without charges or trial, as enemy combatants, “until hostilities end.”  Meaning, until the “war on terror” is won.  So this is not merely a metaphor, like the war on drugs or the war on poverty.  This is an actual war with actual military agendas and actual wartime legislation.

And a war on terror cannot possibly be a just war.  A just war requires that the enemy be given terms they can meet in order to surrender, requires the possibility of surrender in the first place (who could surrender on behalf of “terror”?), requires proportional force, requires the capacity to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.  For these reasons, from a Christian moral perspective, terrorism has to be dealt with as a criminal issue, not a military one.  That could be justified, but this cannot.

As such, I feel that all Christians at this time are called to lay down arms and refuse to fight this unjust war.  Further, I feel that all Christians are called to come together to witness to the state the injustice of its actions, its ideology, its framing of this war.  This recent bit of legislation is just one example, but one that even realists can oppose for its realistically frightening implications.

What do you think?  Is the war on terror a war?  Can it be a just war?  At what point are Christians expected to allow their morals to dictate their loyalty to the nation?

Sometimes Money Divides Us: The Possibility of “Economic Friendship”

Money is a way of turning unlike things (services, rare metals, time) into a common medium for exchange.  In that  way, money can bring together two people who are looking to exchange such unlike things.  But sometimes money can keep people apart as well.  Just picture two neighbors: one guy who fixes refrigerators for a living and needs his car fixed; one guy who fixes cars for a living and needs his refrigerator fixed.  But in this economy, both have been laid off and neither can afford to hire anyone to fix his broken stuff.  Money is a common medium keeping them apart.  If they are going to get together, it will be because they stepped outside of the money economy.

In many of our churches, we shy away from discussing money for fear that the subject will offend parishioners, drive them away, and divide us from one another.  Occasionally you’ll get a sermon about tithing, or about money managements or stewardship, but even in intimate small groups, where people will openly ask one another, “When did you last look at porn,” nobody will ask each other, “How much do you make each year?  What do you do with your money?”

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove considers this reticence a strong division within the church.  He suggests a practice of “economic friendship,” following Jesus advice to “use money to make friends (Luke 16:9).”  He says,

[I]f your church is anything like most, you probably has some members with what we call “surplus capital.”  Others in your congregation most likely carry some debt – a mortgage at six percent interest or a credit card at sixteen percent that won’t be paid off for forty years.  Now, imagine a conversation if people from those two groups sat down for a family business meeting to talk about money.

Some exchanges could probably be arranged among this group at no cost to anyone.  If the person with extra money invested in a mutual fund with an average six percent yield agreed to cash out her investment and pay off her brother’s credit card bill, she could save him an incredible amount of money in compounded interest.  If he, in turn, paid her back at the same rate that the mutual fund had been paying, she would go none the poorer for it.  But they would both probably get to know one another better.  Who knows what gifts they might discover that they have to share with one another?

Wilson-Hartgrove observes that this isn’t even a generous act, it’s simply a decision to invest in relationships with fellow church members rather than investing in large financial institutions.  Christians in the church are being divided from one another (or remain divided) by their daily decisions to deal with financial institutions instead of trying to follow Paul’s command to “bear one another’s burdens.”

What do you think?  Does money sometimes divide us?  How so (or how does it not?)  Do such economic friendships have any place in the church?  Do economic practices fall under the purview of the church?