The Grammar of God

“The Grammar of God” by Aviya Kushner is Ms. Kushner’s experience reading the Bible in English for the first time. Ms. Kushner isn’t an immigrant, in face she’s from New York, but until she began graduate school she had never read the Bible in a language other than Hebrew. When she begins her class on the English Bible, she learns, from the very first verse in Genesis, that the experience of reading the Bible in English is not the same as she has experienced the Bible in Hebrew.God

She embarks on a journey to explore some of the subtle and not so subtle differences between the Hebrew and English Bibles. Throughout her journey she weaves in some of the personal moments that are related to some of the texts she is exploring.

When I read non-fiction, I do so with one of two mindsets. Either I’m looking to learn about someone’s life and relate/experience what life is like through their eyes or I’m looking to be taught by the author about the subject upon the book is based. While reading this book I couldn’t figure out which mindset I should use to approach the book, nor which one Ms. Kushner was attempting to have her readers adopt.

On the one hand, she’s explicating texts in both Hebrew and English and discussing the nuances and sometimes shockingly different views of God that are revealed. Then, on the other hand, she’s writing powerful pieces about her family’s background in their neighborhood and the extended family’s experience with WWII.

As much as I wanted to like this book, I feel that juggling both of these objectives was too much and the book fell flat for me. Ms. Kushner is a talented writer and were she to have written two books, one about her family and one about the translations of the Bible, I would have read both. But to keep juggling between two different objectives that were not always conveyed harmoniously, it gives one a headache.

There were specific chapters of the book that resonated with me and it’s these that are my takeaway. In these chapters Ms. Kushner’s talent for writing and connecting with readers shines. In one, she describes how the plight of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt is much more grim and violent than is depicted in the English translation. The other chapter is the history of her maternal grandfather and his journey from Nazi Germany to Israel and Ms. Kushner’s relationship with him.

While I appreciate the point the book is trying to communicate, I can’t say that I would recommend this book to just anyone. I think readers of this book need to be strong readers because they are going to have to wade through two different purposes for this book.

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What is the Bible?

Have you ever respected someone for their method but disagreed with their conclusions? That’s how I felt toward Rob Bell in this book.Bible

As a practicing Christian, and one who’s interested in the Bible as a book and a source of inspiration, I’m interested to learn more about it. Too many times the Bible has been hijacked by fundamentalists who ignore literary, historical, and social contexts in order to prove a point. Personally, I don’t believe this is how it should be used, nor was intended to be used.

Mr. Bell begins by taking a random verse about Moses and applying several questions, almost like a socratic method. Then, he applies historical and social contexts to the verse as well as relating the verse to the story arch, i.e. literary context. Using all of these contexts, the verse comes to life and what was once odd/obscure takes on meaning and we, modern readers, can understand why an ancient writer is including this information.

The problem I had with Mr. Bell’s conclusions is that he takes his method too the extreme boiling down the Bible into “stories” (his words). He forwards the ideas that what is found in the Bible is a library of books and stories that are written by writers that share their experiences based on their current world and interpretations of their view of God. What’s not clear is whether this is Mr. Bell’s ACTUAL philosophy or whether he’s using unspecific language in order to avoid taking a side.

While I believe some of the books of the Bible are/can be just stories, I do not think this is the entire story. I believe that human writers did record the Bible, and because they are human they do not write in a vacuum; history, society, style, and errors exist in their writings. If their writings are to be more than just fables, there has to be divine inspiration. Genesis through Deuteronomy, the historical books, major and minor prophets, as well as the epistles of the New Testament are foundation upon which Christianity is built. To say they are just stories calls into question our origin story, salvation, sanctification, Jesus as the son of God, and hope that God is returning. I’m conflicted on how to respond to Mr. Bell’s ideas. I don’t want to come across as dogmatic or fundamentalist, but there comes a point where what I believe is based on what I consider to divinely communicated ideas. To consider these ideas man-made would make me wonder why I’m even believing what I do. I believe God is a god of love and he used the Bible to talk to me to show me how I can live a sincere and fulfilled life and how I can live with him for eternity.

On the literary side of things, I was annoyed by Mr. Bell’s constant asides. They became obnoxious and obtrusive. I don’t mind and sometimes like informal writing styles and he in general captures this tone. But there were too many tongue-in-cheek comments and parenthetical look-at-me-I’m-clever moments for me to be patient with. Everything in moderation, Mr. Bell.

There was also a lack of organization. By the end of the book I don’t remember feeling as how what I was reading was anything different than what I read at the beginning. Frankly, I think the book could have been half as long as it was and it would’ve been a much improved read.

I don’t recommend this book because if you’re an atheist he’s not going to tell you anything you haven’t heard before. If you’re a practicing Christian, you may have problems with his theology. If you’re just an interested reader, his style and organization are going to leave you in the wilderness.

Before the Fall

I had a conflicted reading of this book. Part of it was that the book was billed as a mystery/thriller and that’s not what was delivered.Fall

The book starts with some New York elites preparing to leave their summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard on their private jet. We quickly meet the characters who will become the crux of the story: the media mogul and his family, banking scheister and his wife, the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant, and the struggling artist.

The plane crashes (not a spoiler, it’s given away on the book jacket) and only the artist and the media mogul’s son survive. From there an investigation is launched into why and how the plane crashed.

While the plot moves forward regarding the investigation we get flashbacks of each of the individuals’ lives and how they came to be on the plane.

Mixed in the plane crash investigation plot line is a sub-plot about how the media, specifically a Fox News-like cable news channel and how a Bill O’Reilly/Alex Jones type character spins the story to find “the truth”.

The big takeaway from this book is the danger of toxic, privileged masculinity. In each layer of the plot, the men who feel they are “deserved” of the things they deem theirs cause the most damage. The author subtlety works this message in and it allows the reader to come to this conclusion on his or her own.

An enjoyable read, with important social critique, better editing and organization could’ve improved this read, but I’d still recommend it.