faith, history, literature, personal

The Middle

A year ago I began thinking about modern scholarship of the Bible, and how I had never seriously considered it. Up until then, whenever I cracked open the Good Book, I took everything at face value. I accepted whatever my evangelical Christian tradition held regarding the authorship or historicity of any given passage. Although I knew Christians who disagreed on specific theological issues (e.g. the role of free will, how to interpret the book of Revelation, what type of baptism should be used, the role of women, etc.) all of us agreed on certain bedrock assumptions including the authorship of the Torah or the factual nature of the historical books of the Old Testament. God inspired a small collection of men to write down these books, and they were without error.

Though I grew up reading the Bible as literally and factually true in all points, I began this blog detailing how I changed my mind about the issue of creation and evolution. I learned what modern science had to say about origins and I adjusted my view of Genesis.  Mostly that was a matter of reconciling science and faith, seeing them as compatible rather than opposed, though it also concerned the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis (and other passages, too, but especially those ones). I first encountered scholars who explained that it was possible to interpret the days of Genesis as long periods of time. They allowed for an ancient universe, though they still rejected evolution, presumably because it meant that humans could not be sufficiently distinct from animals and thus couldn’t truly be in the image of God. Later I read Christians who accepted evolution and had synthesized views of science and the Bible.

Despite changing my views on Genesis and the creation account, I still never considered much of modern biblical scholarship.  All I had been exposed to were those who would defend against the attacks of modernism that had tried to debunk the traditional readings of scripture. So while at Bible college I had learned about the documentary hypothesis concerning the Torah—sometimes referred to as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis for its originators or other times referred to as JEDP for the sources that comprise the Torah (i.e. Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly)—I basically learned that it was an evil theory aimed at undermining belief in the Bible. We never spent time actually trying to learn why anyone would have come up with the theory in the first place.

So in a post I wrote more than a year ago, I explained that I wanted to be a modern day David Lurie, a character in a Chaim Potok novel who wrestles with modern scholarship on the Bible even as it shakes his faith. I began reading James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible to get a sense of what modern scholarship has to say about the Bible. It’s been eye-opening. I’m now more than halfway through the book, taking it real slow. It’s overwhelming at times to have the rug pulled out from under me. I have to sit on the floor for a while and think about it, then get back up, only to have it happen again with each new chapter I read. What follows are some of my thoughts so far, with some examples. I wrote portions of this post immediately after reading passages in Kugel so some of this records my real-time reactions to the book in an almost live-blog format.

Kugel’s book is very unsettling. Each new chapter spends some time looking at a passage first from the ancient interpreters’ viewpoint, and it feels mostly familiar. Much of my evangelical fundamentalist understanding is roughly the same on these points. I can at least see the connection from what they thought to the way I was taught. But then comes the modern scholarship on the passage. And it’s rationalist, and makes the passage come apart and mean something different than I ever thought.

To illustrate how Kugel organizes his chapters, let me give an extended example from the book on a passage that I had never really thought much about before. In Genesis 34 we get the story of Dinah, the lone daughter of Jacob amidst the 12 sons. This is the story known as “the rape of Dinah.” It comes after Jacob flees his uncle Laban with his wives, children, and livestock. Jacob wrestles with God and has his name changed to Israel. Then he meets up with his brother Esau who he had swindled out of blessing and birthright years earlier. Now Jacob and his household settle in the land of Canaan, outside the city of Shechem. A man from the city who also is named Shechem (same as the city) sees Dinah and rapes her. He falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Jacob and his sons aren’t too happy about this, but they agree to the marriage on one condition: Shechem, his father Hamor, and all the other men must get circumcised. They undergo the knife, and while they are recovering, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, slaughter all the convalescing men with swords. It’s all pretty gruesome.

Kugel presents the various lines of thinking by the ancient interpreters on this passage. First, what is the moral of the story? At first glance, it doesn’t appear to have one. But looking closer, they were able to point to the statement in verse 7: “such a thing must not be done.” In context, it might be the implied response the brothers had upon hearing about what happened to Dinah. On the other hand, this might be the voice of the narrator of the story, which would in fact be God who divinely inspired the writing of the text. But if the point of the story is the retaliation for Dinah’s lost honor, why give the story a whole chapter? The ancients were bothered by the apparent lie that the brothers tell when agreeing to the marriage. Simeon and Levi kill the Shechemites even though they abided by their side of the agreement.

Some interpreters said the real reason for the story was the problem of intermarriage. Indeed, that was a problem for Israel’s sons for generations, including the troubling account in the book of Ezra where the men are commanded to divorce foreign wives, which they do. So the brothers did not lie when they said that the marriage was a disgrace and should not take place, and their scheme to slaughter the Shechemites was justified. Some other interpreters thought perhaps the brothers were divided on the idea of Dinah’s marriage to Shechem. Perhaps ten of them thought intermarriage would be okay if they were circumcised, but Simeon and Levi disagreed. So there was no lie because the offer was sincere if not unanimous.

When modern scholars approach the stories of Genesis, they often are looking for an etiological message (a just-so story that explains how something became the way it is). But there doesn’t appear to be anything that the Dinah story explains. For one thing, Dinah completely disappears from the biblical record. The entire incident is only referred to once more (apparently) when Jacob is dying and he gathers his sons together to give them blessings. Simeon and Levi get left out of the blessings because of their violent actions against the Shechemites.

It’s all rather strange for a few reasons. Though Simeon and Levi apparently slaughter all of the Shechemite men in Genesis 34, Jacob himself seems to refer to having conquered Shechem “with my sword and with my bow” (Genesis 48:22). The city of Shechem appears again in the book of Joshua and is apparently re-populated, but there is no reference to what had happened before. Then in Judges 9 there is another reference to a guy named Shechem who lives in the city of Shechem whose father’s name is Hamor, just like in the story back in Genesis 34. Quite the coincidence.

Kugel points out that perhaps there is something that the Dinah story might explain. Perhaps it makes sense of the blessing that Simeon and Levi do not get from their father Jacob in Genesis 49. But a careful reader will note that the curse the brothers receive does not in fact have much connection to the story of the rape and the subsequent slaughter of an entire city. Some modern interpreters conjecture that the story happened at some other time (perhaps the time of the Judges) and has been inserted and retrofitted into the Genesis account to make sense of the fate of Simeon and Levi. So by this theory, Jacob never even had a daughter named Dinah. She was added to the text later with a story of her lost honor in order to make sense of the two brothers who were cursed.

This chapter on Dinah kind of blew my mind.  The more I thought about the passage, the less it made sense with a straight forward traditional reading.  I no longer know what to do with it.  I’m not sure I accept all of the theories of the modern scholars, but I can’t completely trust the ancient interpreters either at this point.  It’s a quandary.

Kugel points out many other compelling reasons to take modern scholarship seriously on matters of authorship and sources when it comes to interpreting Genesis. Many of the stories in the primeval era are etiological (again, an explanatory story for why things are the way they are), so the story of Cain and Abel might be an explanation about the Kenites, nomadic neighbors of Israel or the story of the Tower of Babel might be an explanation about the spread of language and the evils of Babylon’s religion and culture.

So if things aren’t what I thought, like Adam and Eve are not literal people but types, or that the Flood story comes from ancient Mesopotamian sources, what am I left with? A belief that God still exists and reveals himself to humanity. The Biblical accounts are human attempts to chronicle those revelations. But will even this understanding stand up to scrutiny?

The primeval literature (Genesis chapters 1-11) seems less vital, somehow, that it be historically true. It’s mythic and explanatory, an attempt to understand the world and how it got to be the way it is. When it comes to Abraham, it seems more important that he be a real person with a real relationship with God. Scholarship has seesawed on the question of Abraham’s actual existence. But it seems plausible that he was a real man. As I was about to read about the covenant and I was almost scared. After I finished and read how cutting up animals was common practice for covenants, I was relieved that the Abraham story makes sense. Phew. It could be true.

The next chapter was very thought-provoking. Kugel pointed out that there are two very different portrayals of God in the OT. At times he is anthropomorphic, appearing as an angel or man, and does not seem omnipresent or omniscient. The people he appears to seem to “be in a fog” until they realize (if they do) and then they fall prostrate. It happens to Joshua, Samson’s parents, and even to Abraham. It’s hard to mesh this view of God with the more traditional view of an incorporeal, omniscient, etc. being. But the passages that portray God this way seem to be real experiences with the divine. Was it a matter of perception for these people in the OT?

Reading this book makes me feel like I’ve jumped off a cliff and I don’t know where I’ll land. Will it be a 2 foot drop or a 2,000 foot freefall? Will I get battered and bruised on the way down? Will I even land anywhere? There’s no going back. I want to know the truth and face modern scholarship squarely in the face and take it seriously. I don’t want to rest on what I was always taught and accept it blindly. I want the faith I retain to be my own. But I’m worried what this will do to my faith.

Is it possible for me to lose faith? Is there a point at which I could learn something that would make me give up on the Bible? I don’t know. I don’t think I would have been able to say that when I was younger. I was confident, even if I didn’t know everything. I had unshakeable faith. Now all I know is that I have more questions and doubts than ever. But that’s not to say that I’ve given up.

It’s quite a rollercoaster to think through all of these interpretations. While I feel most familiar with the ancient interpreters, even their suppositions are often about problems I never saw in the text. It reminds me of the Talmudic scholars in a Potok novel as they tease out a passage and look at it from all angles. But then the modern scholars come at it and it seems like they’re trying to debunk everything. Take God out of it. Make it entirely a human document. And I don’t know what to do with that. It’s so foreign to me to look at the Bible that way.

A few months into my reading of Kugel I started reading Robert Alter’s Ancient Israel, a translation of Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, with extensive commentary, especially on translation. I wanted to read this book after seeing the smaller version that focused solely on the life of David. Alter’s translations have been praised for their poetic plainness and fidelity to the original Hebrew. I read the first chapter of Joshua, which isn’t a book that holds a lot of interest for me. When I was younger the stories of the taking of the promised land seemed heroic and adventurous, but now they seem a bit more horrific.

What struck me was the literary composition of the first chapter. It’s basically four speeches with a few words in between as connective tissue. First God speaks to Joshua, then Joshua speaks to the overseers, then to the trans-Jordan tribes, and lastly those tribes reply to him. In their reply, they say the exact same phrase (“Be strong and stalwart”) to Joshua that God says to him twice earlier in the chapter. What are the odds? It seems clearly to be a literary element to repeat the same exhortation to the new leader, showing that he is in fact the new leader now that Moses is dead.

A little later, after the famous siege and capture of Jericho and the subsequent treaty with the scared Gibeonites, the king of Jerusalem organizes 5 other kings against those Gibeonites in chapter 10. Joshua and the Israelite army come to the rescue, as per the treaty agreement. They defeat the armies, kill the kings, and then proceed to take city after city. Curiously, they do not take Jerusalem, despite having killed its king and taken every other city of the instigators. Jerusalem, of course, was not conquered until the time of David two centuries later. Why is Jerusalem left out? Is it possible that the entire account is not exactly factual?

Based on his introduction and the notes, Alter is definitely in the modern scholars camp. I like reading his translation because it uses new rhythms and vocabulary to get me out of any ruts I get into when I read a familiar translation. Sometimes my eyes glaze over as I’m reading the NIV or ESV. I feel like I’m ten years old and back in Sunday School. Alter helps get me out of that and see it anew. But with the fresh eyes is a fresh perspective that pulls bricks out of my biblical foundation.

So a few days ago I started another book (someday I’ll finish one of these books) called Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns that gives me some hope that I won’t have to fall off a cliff, or at least not so far down. Maybe some of my biblical foundation can be salvaged. He takes modern scholarship seriously while still taking the Bible seriously. His model for the Bible is incarnational, so just as Jesus is fully God and fully human, the Bible also is fully divine and fully human. Many of my previous assumptions about the Bible made me overlook its human dimension, overriding it in fact. The Bible had to be without any error straight from God or else it was a book like any other. But the evidence doesn’t support such a view. Instead, Enns argues that God speaks to humanity where they are, in their own language and culture, and even in multiple voices that don’t always agree.

So I’ve got more to chew on and consider. For now I’m stuck in the middle.

Advertisements
Standard
book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read a lot of great books in 2015, and I would recommend many of them to interested readers.  But I thought it might be helpful to narrow it down to a smaller list of titles for a year end wrap up.  So here are the five books I would most recommend to anyone, followed by ten more that were also great (and I feel bad leaving off books I liked by Anne Lamott, Patrick Hicks, Marilynne Robinson, and Brian Turner, among others—it was a good year of reading).  I’ve put them in the order that I read them with a brief quote from my original reviews (and a link to the review if you want to see more).  First, the top five.

Complications (Atul Gawande)

“a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.”

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)

“a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.”

Get in Trouble (Kelly Link)

a book so good I reviewed it twice!

“It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.” (blog review)

“It’s this quality of the fantastic, when in the best hands like Link’s, that helps the reader to get out of the ordinary world and see something different, all while shedding light on some part of the ordinary that we often overlook. Plus, it’s fun.” (Rock &Sling review)

Hiroshima (John Hersey)

“And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere.  It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face.  As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons.”

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

“a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.”

And the runners-up

Gulp (Mary Roach)

“the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

“The book is satisfying but not overlong, and still I wished I could spend more time with these delightfully eccentric sisters.  I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes a slightly twisted and dark story.”

God and the Gay Christian (Matthew Vines)

“Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.”

Carver: A Life in Poems (Marilyn Nelson)

“In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.”

Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans)

“a mix of memoir and a meditation on church.  The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together.”

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

“Coates’s writing is an inspiration for me.  He is a writer that I admire for many reasons: love of language, curiosity of self and the world, and deep humility.”

Neurotribes (Steve Silberman)

“a comprehensive and important history of autism […] it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition”

Davita’s Harp (Chaim Potok)

“another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.”

Killing and Dying (Adrian Tomine)

“is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.”

March, Book One (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell)

“This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.”

I hope 2016 brings at least as many good books my way!

Standard
book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, November 2015

November’s books are a varied lot, but they were all pretty great (with one notable exception–I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker).  You might find something you like.

  • NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman is a comprehensive and important history of autism.  He details how two researchers, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore, both discovered autism around the same time in the late 1930s, but came to radically different conclusions based on their observations.  Kanner viewed autism as a rare condition with a strict set of “fascinating peculiarities.”  Asperger, working under the shadow of the Third Reich, however saw it as “not at all rare” and as a continuum, but his work remained untranslated from the German for decades.  It wasn’t until Asperger’s views were rediscovered and disseminated in the 1980s by like-minded psychologists such as Lorna Wing and Uta Frith that views began to shift.  In the meantime, Kanner’s narrow view of autism meant that few got a diagnosis and the help that they needed, and of those that did, he proposed theories (popularized by Bruno Bettelheim) that parents were to blame, especially “refrigerator mothers.”  The continuum model, or spectrum as it is now called, finally took hold in the DSM-III-R of 1987.  One of Silberman’s chapters details the fascinating history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it relates to autism, and how with the inclusion of Asperger’s syndrome in DSM-IV in1994, the way was paved for many more individuals to get a diagnosis.  It is this new understanding of autism that has led to the “epidemic” of diagnoses in the last 20-30 years.  Autism has always been there, but now there is a label to attach to it.  Silberman slaps down the study by Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a link between vaccines and autism, showing how the study was seriously flawed in many respects and was later retracted by the journal that originally published it.  There were many other chapters that focused on different aspects of autism besides the clinical and diagnostic side.  One focused on the impact of the film Rain Man, which was a favorite of mine in high school (not sure how it holds up as it’s been a long time since I saw it).  Another detailed the connections between autism and ham radio and science fiction fandom.  Others chronicled how families cope with autism and how the autism community has begun to define itself.  Overall, it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in autism.
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.  The main narrative concerns Walter McMillian, a man wrongly sent to death row in Alabama for a murder he had nothing to do with.  The twists and turns in the case as they try to appeal his conviction against a hostile prosecutor and law enforcement officers and indifferent courts read like a John Grisham novel (Grisham himself gives the book a positive blurb).  I could barely put it down.  The structure of the book aided this quality: he interspersed the chapters on the McMillian case with chapters on other topics including juveniles tried as adults, mothers in prison, and the mentally ill, so the reader can’t stop.  The stories are forceful and worthy of indignation.  Ultimately, Stevenson has compiled a moral argument for criminal justice reform that is a perfect complement to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Adam Benforado’s Unfair (both of which I reviewed in May and mentioned before).  He provides the emotional heart of the argument in the stories of the imprisoned that the others make in detailed analysis of case law or social science research.  What is the point of our criminal justice system anyway?  Stevenson points out how inhumane it has become as we have overseen the era of mass incarceration: “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken” (290).  I can’t recommend this book enough.
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson is an important book of essays dealing with big topics like democracy, human nature, and the difficulty of history.  It’s not nearly as daunting as that sounds, but it is a bit daunting.  First, she knows a lot about history and literature.  Second, she doesn’t write down to her audience.  It’s not that she is showing off, but she packs so much into her analyses and probing that it sometimes does take a moment to soak it all in. Robinson has a style that meanders in a pleasant way, touching on matters that don’t always appear at first to be on topic, but that she brings around to great effect.  There are many passages I marked because they were so powerful.  For example, when talking about the Homestead Act, she points out that “housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together make the world salubrious, savory, and warm.  I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental” (93).  Or when discussing a number of books that attempt to debunk the Bible, especially the Old Testament for its violence, she proceeds to show how the Torah is heavily interested in the care of the poor, listing many laws that command making provision for those in need.  It’s a rich book, well worth the time and worth rereading.  I had the opportunity to meet Robinson once at a wine and cheese gathering before a reading.  She read from her then forthcoming novel Gilead, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.  At the time, I had only read one of her books, a different book of essays, but when I had a chance to shake her hand, I told her that I thought she wrote beautifully and that I planned on reading everything that she had written.  I’m still working on that project, and I’m the better for it.
  • My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner is a startling and poetic memoir of an Iraq War veteran.  The book is divided into short, numbered sections, and it’s not surprising that some of them read like brief poems since Turner has written two well received books of poetry before this memoir.  To give an idea of what I’m talking about here’s the closing paragraph of an early section where he describes his time in Bosnia, where he was also deployed:  “Fires burned in Mostar and Visegrad, Gradacac, Gorazde and Sarajevo.  Season by season, the dead sank deeper into the soil—each enduring the severe and exacting labor of leaves and rain and sun in their compression of mineral and stone, there within the worm-driven kingdom of hunger, phyla of the blind.” (32)A later section about a house raid in Iraq begins with “The soldiers enter the house” and repeats the phrase like a refrain over and over, each time with a different description of how they enter the house (e.g. “with shouting and curses and muzzle flash” or “with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms”) (The entire section can be read at this link; I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it; it’s worth your time).  I had the opportunity to hear Turner give a reading last month, and he chose this passage from the book.  It’s the centerpiece to the book, a moving description that humanizes the soldiers bursting into the home as well as the Iraqis who are disrupted and traumatized.  The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Turner to play around with memory and time.  Memory often works likes this, brief glimpses of the past disconnected from what came before, a moment captured, but then sometimes intertwined with an image or a person or a feeling to some other moment, leading to another glimpse.  One of the themes of the book is the legacy that Turner feels as he tries to explain why he joined the Army.  He recounts the war experiences of many relatives, including his father and grandfather, and the bonds that are forged by that experience and how it never leaves a person.  In fact, another part of the book explores how anyone can come back from a war zone and try to re-integrate into civilian life.  He describes himself as two persons, one Sgt. Turner who, although dead, still watches the other, civilian Brian Turner, from the cameras of a drone.  It’s a remarkably potent image of the nature of identity integration and the trauma of war as it is carried out in the 21st century.  I began reading the book on Veteran’s Day because I felt that I need to grapple with the experiences of our soldiers and the costs of our country’s decisions to go to war, even when I didn’t agree with the reasons for going to war.  Those men and women went on my behalf whether I asked them to or not.  Turner’s story is only one soldier’s story, but it’s worth knowing when it’s told this well.  [Here’s a great interview with Turner as well]
  • Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, written by Jason Aaron with artist John Cassaday, is essentially a placeholder comic, not really worth the time.  I was pretty disappointed at how predictable it all was: the first arc especially is simply another small band of heroes infiltrating an enemy base.  Set between the first two movies (Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), it is very constrained in what it can do in terms of story and character development.  These first six issues of the comic feature only familiar characters from the movies (with one notable exception at the very end of the collection).  For what it is, a retread of familiar characters in familiar situations, it actually is well done.  Aaron has the voices of the characters down, and the art by Cassaday is top notch, reproducing the facial expressions of the actors with real skill.  But I expected much more from these two creators who have written or provided art for some of my favorite comics (e.g. Aaron’s writing on Scalped and Cassaday’s art for Planetary and Astonishing X-Men).  I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you absolutely cannot wait until the new Star Wars movies come out, and you can read it for free (like I did, from the library).
  • Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok is another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.  Davita’s Harp is the only one of Potok’s novels with a female protagonist.  Davita herself tells the story of her childhood, growing up in New York City during the Great Depression.  Her mother is a Jewish immigrant, but not religiously observant, and her father is from New England privilege, but has renounced the wealth that he came from.  They are Communists (when that wasn’t quite as unfashionable as it would be today) with hopes and beliefs about making the world a better place.  Her father is a journalist who travels a lot to cover strikes and other important events, eventually traveling to Europe to cover the Spanish civil war in 1937.  Her mother is a social worker and very active in the party.  Davita never quite understands her parents and their beliefs, but she loves them dearly and respects their desire to make the world better.  She wants to understand how they changed so profoundly: her mother had been brought up in a Hasidic family (a very strict Jewish sect) but had lost her faith, and her father had renounced capitalism and his wealthy heritage because of some event in his past.  It’s all quite mysterious to Davita.  As she grows, she learns more about her parents and about her place in the world, both as a girl and the daughter of Communists.  There’s a lot of connections to the history of the period, to Jewish identity, and even to characters from other Potok novels, though it’s not necessary to read the other books to find pleasure in this one.  I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and I’m glad that it wasn’t another story about fathers and sons like so many of his others (though I liked those a lot, too).
Standard
literature, personal

The Beginning

As I intimated at the end of my 10 Books post, I do have some thoughts to share about Chaim Potok’s novel In the Beginning.  It started off slower than his other novels, but I ended up loving it just as much as I have the others.  Perhaps one of the reasons it took me longer to get into the book is that I find I read books in smaller and smaller chunks at a time.  I rarely have the luxury to sit down and become fully absorbed in a book and read 100 pages at a time as I did in earlier days.  Now I have to prioritize more which books I even pick up.  I find that I set down a book much quicker than I used to.  I used to try to finish nearly everything I started.  These days, not so much.

In the Beginning is the story of David Lurie, a boy born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  David is a bookish and sickly little boy.  He has problems with a local bully who hates him because he is Jewish.  Because of its historical setting—it starts in the late 1920s before the stock market crash—I knew some of what to expect.  It was a Depression-era story, followed by World War II.  I knew about some of the American anti-Semitism of the time because of Philip Roth’s alternate history novel The Plot Against America.  But I still cried when the narrator and his family find out the full extent of the Nazi atrocities against Jews.

Like the other Potok novels I’ve read, it’s a book about fathers and sons, and the inevitability of conflict.  They’re all told from the perspective of the sons.  In this novel, the conflict stems from expectations, as it often will.  Before coming to America, David’s mother had been married briefly before to his father’s brother.  They had no children before he was killed in a pogrom—an organized anti-Jewish riot, often a massacre.  His father then stepped in and married his brother’s widow according to the ancient tradition of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25: 5-10), though he could have easily gotten out of it.  He is a man of honor and his word.

David looks up to his father, but he doesn’t understand him.  He thinks about his dead uncle whom he is named after, and how he wouldn’t exist if his uncle hadn’t been killed.  He considers the contingency of his being.  Out of death comes life.  I’ve considered my own contingency lately.  Like many kids, when I was little I had a security blanket.  Mine was handmade by my Grandma.  It was red, white, and blue with the number 76 on it for America’s bicentennial.  The thing is, I was born in 1977.  The blanket had been intended for someone else—someone whose existence would’ve precluded my own.  But that baby didn’t survive a full nine months gestation, and so I had a chance at life.  It’s terrible to think my parents had to suffer such grief for me to enter the world.

When David considers his contingency on the death of his uncle David, he still “wants to be [his] own David” (311).  And I need to be my own person, too.  I’m still figuring it out.  In my own family, I’m a bit of an outlier.  I still have the faith that I was taught as a child, but it’s changed.  I no longer attend an evangelical church, instead finding solace in Episcopal services.  On political issues I’m often on the opposite side of the spectrum.  And while both my wife and I came from homes where our moms stayed home, now I’m the one home with the kids.  It’s traditional, except not in the expected way.  Fortunately, none of these differences has lead to any breaks with my family.  We still love each other very much.

As he grows older, David asks the hard questions about Judaism.  He becomes interested in source criticism.  He wishes to defend Torah from attack, but first he must learn what the goyim say.  He starts by reading books given to him by an old neighbor.  He finds books that are critical of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis.  Basically, this hypothesis posits that there are various sources that have been edited together to make up the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible traditionally ascribed to Moses.  Reading these books, even though they defend Torah, is frowned upon by his family and community.  They are dangerous to contemplate and read.  His father will not allow him to read books written by Germans while he is in the same room, even though they are written by important Orthodox rabbis.  No one in the community wants to consider what modern scholarship might say if it could destroy Torah.

I relate to David’s predicament.  When I was in Bible college I had a confrontation with a Bible professor about the inherent worth of studying secular literature.  At the time, I was an English major, and all I wanted to do was figure out how a Christian should relate to and read literature.  In my own way, I wanted to be a David and defend Christianity and the Bible from the evils of deconstructionism and other literary critical theories.  But my professor saw the reading of secular literature as a sullying influence, one that could easily lead one into sin.  Reading salacious stories could inflame lust in the mind, which was just as bad as committing sin with the body.

David’s curiosity for books and knowledge is insatiable.  One of my favorite moments in the book is when David finishes reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  He’s at a cabin on a lake with his family for an August holiday.  He spends a moment reflecting on how great the book is and how his understanding has changed because of it.  Then he goes back into the cabin to find another book to read.  I’m not nearly as prodigious in my reading or intellect as David, but I still relate to his curiosity.  I want to learn about so many things.  This blog is the testament to my curiosity, the place where I lay out what I am learning and starting to think.

In the end is his beginning.  David pursues his studies of the Bible as literature to the tremendous disappointment of his parents.  I’m about to embark on my own intellectual journey on a smaller scale.  Though practically having majored in Bible while at Bible college, I’ve never seriously grappled with any modern scholarship.  I’d like to know what scholars have to say about where the Bible came from and who the original audience for it was.  It’s important to my faith that I seek the truth about the book that is the vehicle for my knowledge of God.  I’m planning on reading through James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, in which he attempts to thread the needle between ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholars.  In his designation, the ancient interpreters are the basis for today’s traditional understandings of the Bible, while modern biblical scholars arose about 150 years ago and are those who read the Bible “‘scientifically’ and without presuppositions” (xiii).  I assume he means the presupposition of belief in its literal truth and divine origin, which in itself would be a presupposition.  I’ll have to read more to find out exactly what he means (chapter One is helpfully titled “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship”).  I say that he is threading the needle because he claims traditional faith, even as he wrestles with scholarship that “contradict[s] the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity” (xvi).  Kugel, by his own account, is a modern David Lurie.  I’d like to find out what he has learned in his journey.  I’ll report back on my own journey.

Standard
literature, personal

10 Books

Not too long ago on Facebook, there was a meme making the rounds of 10 books that made an impression; basically an excuse to list one’s favorite books. I’m a sucker for lists and list-making. No one asked me to make a list, so I figured I’d do one for the blog, with explanations. I’m following the guide of books that made an impression, rather than my ten favorite books (which would be hard to figure out). I’m putting them in the approximate order that I read them.

Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
Perhaps the first book I read by an African American, and considering I was a freshman in college when I read it, that is very sad. Given to me by my sister, a beat up paperback held together with a rubber band. I remember being struck by many moments in the book, first of which was young Malcolm being told by a teacher that he couldn’t be a lawyer when he grew up, instead he should plan on something more realistic. Another moment was his descriptions of getting a “conk,” a lye treatment to straighten his hair. It opened my eyes to a cultural experience that I had never imagined (and later learned even more about when I saw Chris Rock’s Good Hair). I hope to have a lot more to say about Malcolm X soon as I’d like to read the recent biography by Manning Marable.

A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking)
I’ve talked about this book previously and how it changed my views on the universe. Until I read it, I felt comfortable in my insulated worldview of a young universe created approximately 10,000 years ago. It shook everything up.

Rose (Li-Young Lee)
This collection of poems, Lee’s first, is important to me personally for two reasons. I can’t remember reading a contemporary poet’s collection before this one. I was drawn in by the poems about memory and inheritance. It’s a lovely collection. But even more importantly, it was the first gift I gave to my future wife (that and a mix CD—ha! remember those?)

The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
Searing Vietnam stories that show the power of storytelling in the aftermath of trauma. That doesn’t make it sound nearly as good as it actually is. Memory shifts, unbalancing the reader. And the stories accumulate and adhere and echo, and the fiction all becomes more true.

The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)
Layers of fiction where a novel within a novel is more true than the story the narrator of the main novel tells. I’m not sure if I still go for that kind of book, but at the time I read it, I was fascinated by the slipperiness of truth, and how we tell ourselves stories (even bold fictions) to make sense of our lives.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Kathleen Norris)
This book came at an important time in my life. I had recently moved to North Dakota as a grad student and didn’t know anybody there. I was looking for a different church experience and found comfort in the Episcopal service. I also found Norris, first The Cloister Walk and then Amazing Grace. She talked about Christian community that was rooted in history, tradition, and literature. Her books, too, were comforting.

So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell)
When I first read So Long, See You Tomorrow, I didn’t imagine Maxwell would become my favorite author. I read it too quickly for a class assignment. But I read it again on my own, and then his other novels and stories. I don’t think I’ve come across a writer with so much empathy and compassion for other people. And he writes such beautiful sentences.

Virtually Normal (Andrew Sullivan)
This book (along with What God Has Joined Together by David Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni) made me rethink gay marriage. I realized that disallowing gays and lesbians from traditions and social institutions and then condemning them for not conforming to traditions and social institutions makes no sense. And I’m not the only one. Public opinion on gay marriage has changed quite a bit since he wrote the book in the mid-90s.

My Antonia (Willa Cather)
This is a beautiful coming of age story set on the American prairie, tinged with sadness. The title character is only seen at a distance, through the eyes of the narrator Jim Burden. It’s a story told in episodes, much the way our memory works. I supposedly read it in high school, but I had trouble reading for class back then. I read a lot on my own, but I didn’t like being told to read a book. I rediscovered the book shortly before moving to South Dakota. I wanted to read a novel of the prairie, and I ended up falling in love with Cather’s books.

My Name Is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok)
It was hard to choose which Potok book for this list. I’ve only read three of his so far, but I’ve loved each of them (and I just started a fourth). This was the first one I read, and our oldest son’s middle name is Asher. What I love about Potok is that he takes religious belief seriously in his characters. Though his characters live in the world of Hasidim and Orthodox Judaism I can see the similarities and parallels in the fundamentalism I grew up in. Purity and piety are prized above all else. There is no room for art because it is dangerous. Asher Lev wrestles with the twin pulls of God and artistic expression in this beautiful novel. Perhaps I’ll manage to have something worthwhile to say about the current book I’m reading in the near future. I hope not to take so long between posts in the future.

Standard