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.

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