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.)