Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book Review: The King's Good Servant But God's First by James Monti

The King's Good Servant But God's First: The Life and Writings of Saint Thomas More by James Monti

This biography of Saint Thomas More tells his life story using his writings and many of the early biographies, along with the most recent scholarship (the book was publish in 1997, so "most recent" is relative). The book covers everything from birth to death, along with some comments about More's historical impact in an epilogue. The author focuses on More's own writings, examining them in detail.

The historical parts of this book are quite interesting and give a detailed look at Thomas More's life. His early life and his exploration of a possible vocation as a Carthusian monk were new and very interesting to me. His rise in English government, all the way to Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII, is presented in a scholarly and interesting way. More's final years, when he was one of the few high ranking Englishmen to refuse the Oath of Supremacy (acknowledging Henry as the supreme head of the Catholic Church in England), is covered in fascinating detail. His trial and death for treason against the king have an even greater depth than as seen in A Man for All Seasons.

A good third of the book's approximately 450 pages goes through More's writings against the English Protestant thinkers of his time. Reading through an analysis of tract after tract of arguments defending the Catholic faith in amazing detail becomes a bit daunting. While the discussion fills in details of More's life and his character, it is dry and less engaging than the more historical parts of the book. I wish I had skimmed more.

As one might guess from such a deep excursion into More's theological writings, the book is unabashedly Catholic in its admiration of More. He certainly is a model Christian--humble, pious, generous, humorous, and intelligent. His wit shines throughout his life and his final days were filled with prayers that his friends and family and even his persecutors might meet again in Heaven "where we shall be merry for ever and ever." [p. 457, quoted from Roper's The Lyfe of Sir Thomas Moore, Knighte). More's embodiment of both intelligence and happiness is highly admirable. He had such a disposition because of his deep devotion, his profound faith. His love of Christ, especially in the Eucharist, gave him a more profound understanding of the importance of things in life. He kept his silence about why he wouldn't take the Oath in hopes that he would evade martyrdom but trusted that, if it came to that end, he would be given the grace to die a good death. That he certainly did.

I'd recommend the book with a strong caveat about the large amounts of literary and theological analysis that can slow things down.

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