Wolf Hall debuted on PBS on Sunday. The reviews were generally favorable but there was some concern of anti-Catholic bias which was a criticism of Mantel's books on which the series is based. (See Gregory Wolfe in the Washington Post.) Hilary Mantel's books tackle an important but confusingly complex time in history. Many are the books on the entertaining times of King Henry VIII. Sex, religion, violence, it's all there. It is the time of the beginnings of the English Protestant Reformation. Mantel's books tell the story of Thomas Cromwell who along with Thomas Cranmer facilitated Henry's manipulation of English religion. Henry seemed to be out for himself mainly and he used religion to serve his best interests. Cromwell and Cranmer and many other priests, pastors and monks got caught in his religious machinations. It's hard to see much spiritual good coming out of all this. Yet, God does bring good out of even our worst intentions as the Bible and history make clear. Henry's time known for ecclesiastical reforms inspite of Henry. The English Bible was making an appearance. The Book of Common Prayer was put together. Both of these reforms have been around for a long while and have had an enormous positive impact on Church Life.
While Henry leaned first one way toward Catholicism and then toward Protestantism depending on how it pleased him at the moment, religion in his realm suffered and many people paid for his vacillating with their lives. But, he did one thing that breathed Life into his realm. In 1538, he ordered English Bibles to be put in every parish church and 5 years later he made it a crime to read the Bible unless you were a religious official. Apparently, he was convinced the common person was unequipped to handle the Bible. There were arguments and even fights breaking out in the pubs and on the streets because of what people were reading. Henry's solution: silence God's Word. Henry blamed the devil for all the commotion and in order to stop all the devilish misunderstandings of Scripture, Henry took the Bible out of most every one's hands, except for those trained to understand it.
It's a common problem. The Bible is a dangerous book. It shook up Luther and Calvin. It started Wilberforce and the abolitionists on the path toward ending slavery. It fortified Martin Luther King and others in the fights for civil rights. Anyone who heeds it's teaching could become a radical.
As we watch Wolf Hall and perhaps do some more background reading, keep track of the Bible. What place does God's Word have in this history? I think Henry unleashed a powerful cultural force for good when he put Bibles in the pews. What he didn't see happening was how it would stir things up. He was not very good about discerning the spirits though; the devil didn't do it!