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.

Revered Wisdom: Judaism

This was, unfortunately, a very disappointing read.  The author’s in this tome, took an interesting topic and completely killed it.  What was supposed to be the historical background of the second half of the Old Testament and an overview of Jewish literature, turned into a biased/prejudiced slog through history and a superficial slice of Jewish authors.

JudaismJudaism by Charles Foster Kent & Gustav Karpeles, was given to me by my parents for Christmas.  They know I like to read about Biblical history as well as expanding the pool of authors I select from.  This book seemed to them to kill two birds with one stone.  What they didn’t know is that this book is a compilation of two different books.  Kent and Karpeles wrote separate books and the publisher of the edition that I have, decided to abridge both books and smack them together into single volume.

Kent’s work is from 1945 and some of his language is very dated.  He also writes with a somewhat arrogant tone.  He does a good job giving the background to books of the Old Testament such as Esther, Isaiah, and Nehemiah.  This interested me because sometimes I think we lose context by not knowing the history of what was happening when these books were written.  Knowing the context gives more meaning to what was written, in my opinion.  However, every now and then, Kent makes these remarks like, “Of course we know…” or “Obviously it couldn’t be…”.  It irks me when authors make those evaluations when there is some doubt that there is 100% certainty.

Karpeles’s section on Jewish literature was more modern, but was sparse when it came to actually discussion works of Jewish literature and authors who wrote them.  Instead, it was a long discussion of the Bible and the Talmud, which no one will argue is the foundation of Jewish literature, but there’s much more than that.  For example, Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and Motl The Cantor’s Son is now famous for being the origin of The Fiddler on the Roof, yet it’s not mentioned in this section.  If I were Karpeles, I would’ve wanted to give readers a sampling of Jewish authors, rather than spending time on works that are already well known.

This book was a two star.  It was slow going and I think it could’ve been written better.  I’m pretty sure there’s much better books out there so I do not recommend this book.

Heart of the Story

Even though I grew up in a Christian family and community, parts of the Bible have always been hard for me to understand how they fit with other parts.  For example, how do all of the battles and kings in the Old Testament have to do with Jesus and his teachings in the New Testament?  I’ve heard pat answers from pastors and friends, but with this book I finally got answers as to why they fit together.

Heart of the Story Heart of the Story is written by a prominent Christian author, Randy Frazee.  The premise of the book is to identify the core of the various individuals and events that span the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  What Frazee suggests is that it’s God’s love that connects it all.  Each chapter covers either an individual, e.g. Esther, Daniel, Ruth, Adam and Eve, etc.  Or it discusses a span of history such as the many kings of ancient Israel from Saul to the Babylonian conquest (if you’ve ever read 1, 2 Kings, 1, 2 Samuel, 1, 2 Chronicles, you’ll be glad to read the condensed version in ten pages).  The New Testament covers the birth of Jesus, his ministry, and his death, Paul’s mission work, and John’s writing the book of Revelation.

What I liked was how Frazee connects the theme to each story, but also gives evidence from each story that relates to the theme.  My only complaint is that there isn’t enough of this.  The evidence is pretty much the details that I knew from church and private school.  I wanted deeper details that move beyond what I know.  But at the conclusion of the book I realized that the book’s purpose isn’t for me, it’s for those that are new to reading the Bible, new to understanding God or religion at all.  So overall it was a good read, well written, but I wasn’t the intended audience.