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Learning from John Wycliffe: an Interview with Douglas Bond

Yesterday we reviewed The Revolt: a Novel in Wycliffe’s England.  Today we’re happy to have Bond-11the author of that book answer a few questions for us:

RR (Janie): Tell us a little about your research.  I know you make frequent trips overseas: did you visit Lutterworth or track down Wycliffe papers at Oxford?

DB: This is a really good question. How does a guy like me go about researching a guy like Wycliffe, a 14th century genius? Wycliffe was not only the Morning Star of the Reformation, he was a leading light, a harbinger of all that would be good about the Renaissance; he almost single-handedly brought England civilization. Research for The Revolt began a number of years ago. I have been to Lutterworth a number of times leading my tours (most recently in July), and even more often in Oxford (twice in the last few months teaching a creative writing master class).  I found it intensely helpful to be on location there in Oxford, at Baliol College (where Wycliffe was eventually master), and in many other nooks and crannies that were there in his day.  Much of my research consisted in poring over his writings. I’m grateful for Guttenberg project and other institutions that have made manuscripts available to authors like me. Wycliffe wrote about such a vast range of disciplines. These men were not Dark-Ages roughs as the modern world would like us to believe. The breadth of his learning is nothing short of remarkable. He could write hundreds of pages on subjects for which I did not have the first principles to even think about. A good thing about being a writer is it keeps you humble. I don’t write about anyone or anything because I think I am the expert. As Augustine said it so well, I consider myself to be someone who learns as he writes and writes as he learns.

RR: You mention Bohemian scholars getting involved in Wycliffe’s translation work.  Were other scholars in Christendom becoming interested in Bible translation at this time, or was Wycliffe a true pioneer?

DB: Very good question. Wycliffe certainly was a pioneer in Bible translation, one of the greatest, but others had gone before him, even as far back as Patrick in Ireland who was translating parts of the Bible into Old Irish so he could communicate the gospel of Jesus to the tribes in Ireland, and the Venerable Bede in eight-century England was translating parts of Scripture into Anglo-Saxon even on his deathbed (see Hand of Vengeance). So there is a long history of God raising up scholars, evangelists, pastors, missionaries who were passionate about getting the Word of God in the language of the people.

But there is a great irony here. The established (Roman Catholic) church had created Latin into a sacred language and used it as a barrier to keep the people from hearing the Word of God in their own language.  The constructed doctrine of papal supremacy–that the pope interprets what the Bible says and tells you what it means—made it heretical and unnecessary for you to read the Bible in your own language. But here’s the Spirit’s ironic touché: Latin actually served to unite scholars and students from all over Europe. A student could go from Bohemia or any other language group in Europe to study in Oxford and you didn’t have to sit in a cubicle for months with headphones on doing language training. No need to learn Middle English for the Bohemian student or any other. You showed up day one for lectures and tutorials delivered all in Latin. Wycliffe exploited this and created a conduit for vernacular Bible translation all over Europe, really, all over the world. That’s my kind of hero.

RR:  Interesting point! What was the hardest part of this story to write?

DB: I am a softy romantic. There, the word is out. Probably the most difficult episode(s) to write are about sons losing fathers, or anyone dying. I was just reading to my two youngest last night from The Thunder, my novel on Knox, and was getting choked up at another death scene, the room getting very still as I sniffle away. I lost my father (heaven’s gain) ten years ago; it seems like only yesterday. When I write about a son losing a father (no spoilers), I blubber like a baby.

RR: You choose two points of view to tell this story, one in third person and one in first.  Any particular reason for this, or did it just “seem right”?

DB: Point of view can be one of the toughest decisions to make when writing a book (I have just been laboring over this in my forthcoming novel, memoir-esque from Katharina Luther’s perspective, Luther in Love, working title). The danger for young writers is to think they can go into everybody’s head and know everybody’s inner secrets. Of course that’s the most unrealistic point of view since none of us experience the world that way; I think of omniscient narrator being a usurpation of God’s ultimate perspective; works well for God but looks pretty silly when we attempt it. So I never do that. But in The Revolt I wanted my protagonist to have a bit more intimacy with Wycliffe so I chose the first person point of view for Hugh. But there are so clearly two worlds in 14th century England, so I needed Willard to represent and connect the reader to the cultural, economic, and political world the vast majority of people lived in. It seemed to me that choosing the third person point of view for my peasant would serve as a way to broadly connect the reader to grinding realities peasants lived with every day of their often miserable lives. I do hope it works well for the reader.

RR: Works for me! Were there any incidents or scenes you wanted to include but had to leave out?

DB: I love Anne of Bohemia, and think about her short but profound life every time I see her sarcophagus in Westminster Abbey. I would like to have developed more interaction between Wycliffe and this remarkable young woman. Her marriage plans arranged for her, she arrived in London as a 15-year-old and promptly was married to Richard II. They weren’t even Facebook friends. She had been brought to faith in Christ by Wycliffe’s writings brought to Bohemia and translated in to the vernacular. You could write a whole book about this earnest godly Christian young woman. Janie, maybe you should write it!

RR:  I’ll take that under advisement!  Did Wycliffe actually use the terminology “’of the people, by the people, and for the people’, or is that an approximation?  In relation to that, what was his influence on the development of democratic thought?

DB: It’s not 100% certain that Wycliffe actually said those words. Some scholars believe that John Purvey Wycliffe’s close friend and associate, and the man who would after Wycliffe’s death complete the Middle English translation, actually wrote them. What is clear is that the framers of our Constitution were far more widely read then progressives want us to think. They look at silly wigs and pantaloons and want us to think that men who dressed like that had equally ridiculous and unfashionable ideas. Our Constitutional framers had texts on the table. They were intimately conversant with Western Civilization’s documents of democracy. They were not spinning out some new political theory in a vacuum. “Of the people, by the people, and for the people,” originating in 14th century English, whether penned by Wycliffe for certain or not, further underscores the interrelationship between the Bible, Christian theology, and the influence of the Word of God on culture, economics, and political economic thought. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that dwell therein,” Wycliffe’s favorite Psalm, pretty much sums it up.

RR: Good to know—I thought those words originated with Lincoln!  I was moved almost to tears by the scene where the gospel breaks through in the language of common peasants, read by a common peasant (p. 202).  What touched you the most in researching and writing this book?

DB: This is such an important question. Thank you for asking it. I was touched the most in writing The Revolt by challenges surrounding our life as a family over the last six or seven years. It has been affecting me and working on me from a number of angles during the time I was writing and to the present. I’ve been pressed to examine closely my own heart, my mind, my role, my calling, and particularly the church–how we define the church, and the role of the church, and what that is supposed to look like in our world. Wycliffe had to face this in his time. The takeaway that I hope readers have in hand when they close the book is this: the Church should not be wearing itself out trying to be sophisticated, to be culturally relevant, to be intellectually superior, to be culturally elitist, to parade learning before the world. A minister, as Augustus Toplady put it, ought to leave his learning behind him when he steps into the pulpit, and preach more to the hearts of his people than to their heads. To listen to some men preach one would think Jesus said not, “Feed my sheep,” but “Use erudite shock and awe and blow the flock away with your scholarship.” And then Wycliffe comes along, nothing short of one of the most brilliant minds of the high middle ages, and he bends every brain cell, every stroke of his pen, every public defense before the mighty, risking his entire academic career, his very life, to find the clearest way to placard Jesus Christ to the common people of his day, whatever it cost him. I hope that readers finish the final chapter of The Revolt hearing Jesus words: “Go and do thou likewise.”

A great takeway!  Thanks for taking the time to visit with us.

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