When a war goes on for some 1,500 years it’s impossible to remember exactly who did what to whom and first set into motion the terrible process of bloodshed. The good guys become the bad guys, and vice versa. Wash (in blood) and repeat.
I’d offer a corollary to that saying: “One man’s troublemaker is another man’s visionary.” Next year, for example, marks the 400th anniversary of when the Christian Church finally got a craw full of a lowly astronomer named Galileo Galilei, whose scientific observations showed a troubling fact: the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the opposite—which the world (and more importantly the Church, in interpreting scripture) had always believed.
The clear proof of Galileo’s discovery was there. But there was a problem: if people found out the Church was dead wrong about one thing, they might start wondering if it was wrong about others.
So Galileo had to be eliminated. The Inquisition banned his books, charged him with heresy, and forced him, under threat of torture, to recant his troublesome findings. Then they placed him under house arrest, for the final years of his life.
After the final verdict was passed, Galileo is said to have whispered to a friend near him, “And yet, the Earth moves.”
It was not until 1992, when a spacecraft named Galileo was on its way to Jupiter, that the Church apologized.
Was Galileo an isolated instance of speaking truth to power? Far from it.
A century before Galileo’s “heresy,” a British scholar and gifted specialist in languages named William Tyndale had the revolutionary idea of translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into English and printing it on Gutenberg’s newfangled printing press so that lay persons, and not just the clergy, could read it.
It was a monumental and painstaking work, that had the potential to change society and even human history. Rest assured that the Church rewarded him for his landmark work. How?
You guessed it. He was charged with heresy. Unlike Galileo, Tyndale was not given a chance to recant. He was sentenced to execution by strangulation and afterward his body was burned at the stake. Clearly, he had been a dangerous man.
When I first read Tyndale’s story I knew his name sounded familiar, and finally it struck me. Our church’s Sunday School literature, throughout my childhood, was printed by a large company called Tyndale House publishing.
I had mixed feelings. Galileo had a spacecraft named after him, William Tyndale a religious publishing house.
But something bothered me. How could I have spent 20 years in church and yet not know the history of William Tyndale, who was in some ways the Galileo of the Bible, and how his life had been ended?
If Tyndale Publishing had any guts and sense of fairness, they would publish a brief history of their namesake on the inside cover of all those millions of Sunday School books and in its newer publication “The Living Bible,” which might have been subtitled, in the interest of full disclosure, “For the Dying Tyndale.”
It made me angry, and a cynic. Till this day, people in some churches and who hold other positions of power label anyone who doesn’t agree with their views as troublemakers and heretics, as worthless sinners.
On the bright side, at least the Church doesn’t carry out executions any more. But as dramatically and suddenly as history sometimes shifts, it’s not unthinkable that we could return to the days of Galileo and Tyndale and other martyrs within our lifetime. And as we all know by now, truth is no defense against heresy.
And yet, the Earth moves.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website.