Book Review--God's Secretaries--Adam Nicolson

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You've seen enough of it here, I need hardly say more except to note how very much I enjoyed every aspect of this book. (But what is blogging but the art of saying more when nothing more need be said?) Nicolson gives us more a history of the time from which the King James Bible emerged. We get glimpses of a few personalities and some interesting asides here and there on historical figures.

Some things said were enough to make me want to reevaluate certain figures. For example, St. Thomas More's relentless pursuit of Tyndale is a bit off-putting. While Augustine and others relentlessly squashed heresies, this line from More is not what I really want to consider in the lives of the saints: "and for heretics, as they be, the clergy doth denounce them; and, as they be well worthy, the temporality doth burn them; and after the fire of Smithfield hell doth receive them, where the wretches burn forever." On the other hand, the man was a product of his times and subject to the foibles and failings thereof. As Mark Anthony says of Caesar, "If 'twere so 'twas a grievous fault and grievously hath Caesar answered it." It also forced me to reevaluate my esteem for Lancelot Andrewes who was a pious man but not a particularly saintly one. In short, it gave me a fuller picture of the fallible humans that God uses as implements in His work. I don't know that I will ever think less of St. Thomas More, despite his ferocity, but I do come to have a fuller picture of him as a man as well as a saint.

But the delights of this book were the little details, the subtle points about the fact that the Puritans who were to found Plymouth Plantation, while persecuted, really had it easier than any group in the previous 100 years in England. They were merely exiled to Amsterdam where they continued to do as they pleased.

I recommend the book highly to anyone who wishes to understand better the history of the King James Version. Most particularly I recommend it to those who think that the KJV was largely just a copy of Tyndale or the Geneva Bible. While Nicolson acknowledges those debts and even the shortcomings of the KJV, he also points out how carefully constructed and considered the phrasing of this magnificent work is. Whether we like it or not, the KJV resonate through our language like nothing else--even Shakespeare is a distant second. It is found in the rhythms of Faulkner's prose, it gave rise to the phrases of Martin Luther King's speeches and of Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." It is central to our understanding of our culture, of the United States, and of much of modern literature. It even influences the post-modernists and present-day literature. For a book 400 years old, that is quite the record.

Highly recommended.

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I didn't see anything terribly awful in More's quote given, as you said, the time he lived in. First, everyone believed in the reality of Hell then and his line could be taken as a warning to heretics. If you truly believe someone is going to Hell, you want to warn them in the most harsh way imaginable just as you would scream at someone to get out of a burning building today. And certainly those who first broke with the Church are far more culpable than those who are currently outside the Church, to the extent the latter are culpable at all.

But obviously St. Thomas More is a saint for the sacrifice at the end of his life which is why he is still a very useful model.

Good post; you've gotten me to want to put down my D-Rheims and pick up the KJV, if only for comparison purposes.

Dear TSO,

It isn't reference to the fires of Hell that is troublesome, it is the suggestion that "temporality doth burn them and after the fire of Smithfield hell doth. . ." In other words it is the duty of the government to burn heretics--I find this problematic; however, given the general tenor of the times, as I said, and given that even the greatest Saints live in their times and only truly extraordinary people transcend them, even this disturbing element is understandable.

Otherwise, agreed.



Back then Church and State were one and I'm guessing those of that age couldn't even imagine it otherwise.

Dear TSO,

I think the thought of a Saint almost wishing the damnation of a soul is what I find most difficult. I understand wanting to curtail the damage a heretic can do--but if you burn a heretic in heresy you are sending him or her to eternal damnation (in the theory of the time). This is far, far worse than merely killing someone. It is part of the hideousness that underlies the fact that Hamlet says that he will not kill ?Polonius (I forget who) at prayer for fear that his soul would ascend to heaven. Hamlet wishes to destroy not merely the body but the soul as well. This seems to be the implication of St. Thomas More's phrase, and I find it problematic.

Now, as to whether a person who believes that Jesus is of like substance to God as opposed to the same substance is going to Hell; or whether a person who believes that some of the gross malfeasance observed on the part of SOME church members (selling relics and indlugences) requires a departure from that den of inquity is going to Hell, that requires a different set of parsing skills from my own. I suspect that the ideas we have about God, vague and confused as they are, are far less important than how we obey His commandments when it comes to facing the last judgment. But, I don't know this and prefer to eschew heretical notions myself.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 6, 2004 7:00 AM.

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