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Thoughtful analysis of the responsibilities and blessings of a Christian life
on March 14, 2012
This book consists of ten essays, mostly revolving around aspects of the Bible and Christianity. I would not have purchased the book had I known this, but found the essays deeply thought provoking. This is a book I will reread. The author is a thoughtful and believing Christian, and her understanding of what this means is the core belief from which she widely and deeply explores both the New and Old Testaments, and the nuance of language as understood by herself and others. There are entire sections of rigorous analysis when she sternly criticizes several recent Christian commentators of the Old Testament. And her sternest criticism is the lack of charity on the part of these critics, their willful blindness to the beauty of the language and unwillingness to read it on its own terms. Christians can reject, but not denounce, the Old Testament, which is not theirs to denounce. Show some respect, she insists.
And she shows enormous respect for both the New and Old Testament. There are close readings of various translations of the Bible, showing for example instances when charity is translated as love and reminding us of the incredible historic importance of making the Bible available in the local vernacular, a task which caused more than one translator to be killed by a jealous church.
Today in the western Christian world, and particularly in the United States to which the author largely addresses this book, words are a much devalued currency. Millions of words blabbing along daily, immediately replaced by another million. The result is an unavoidable cheapening of words, wherever we find them. The author uses a minimum of words in her essays. She is sparse, which in some cases results in an obliqueness. But each word is carefully weighed, and she insists that we pay attention, that we follow her with the same care and gravitas that she expands on these essays. As readers we are very much the students of this long-time teacher.
The author asks, demands, that we closely examine the text of the book that forms the core of her and presumably the reader's, religion: Christianity. She lost me in that assumption, but the persuasiveness of her textual argument kept me fairly riveted to her analysis, particularly on the importance of laws in the Old Testament and the importance of Moses within that context as the precursor of Jesus' teachings. As a Christian she examines the teachings of the Bible and their relationship to her world, noting with sorrow and anger the failings of the present world, particularly in the United States. But she also describes the Bible as a novelist and teacher of creative writing, reminding us of the beauty of the images, the unsparing vividness of the stories. She laments that Old Testament translations by Christians are often "laundered to remove complexity and loveliness." In another essay she states that Christians have accepted, generation upon generation, the stewardship of the remarkable narrative that is the Bible. I found this a wondrous concept, that a book, even a book as well known as the Bible, needs the constant stewardship of the people studying that book to have a continued relevance, and that this stewardship must include a reverence. "This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale. Reverence should forbid in particular its being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear."
I point out the essays on the Bible because I found them the most thought provoking. But there are also essays that for example discuss 19th century social activists and evangelicals (as that term was defined at the time) such as Oberlin; and, growing up in a world of big, difficult books, Latin teachers and a respect for learning in small town Idaho. She deplores what she sees as the current minimization of human nature and the essence of human beings which she argues can not fully be understood without understanding human beings as created in the image of God. "Lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said." I find these provocative and very old-fashioned statements, but surely it is a gift she has given us in this book that we can be provoked, that we can strive to understand what she so strongly implores us to consider.
The essays are a combination of discursive and rigorous, though unfortunately they veer from one to the other without signposts or logic and the persuasiveness of the arguments decreases. When this occurs, when an exploration of the apophatic and its relationship to a writer's search for the unsaid suddenly veers into a digression about 'people' thinking the United States is too heterogeneous, I feel whip-lashed. The carefully argued statement, the beautifully constructed sentences are replaced by facile statements that are disquieting. The author sets a high standard for herself, and for the reader, in her carefully articulated thoughts, so the lapses or shifts are the more unsettling. She has two pet peeves in this book: fundamentalist Christians (though that is my shorthand, not hers) and the free market (which she also refers to as the inscrutable financial economy). She makes a fair effort to explain the concerns of the former, but is often dismissive in describing the later.
But these are relative nits. I would recommend this book to any person interested in a meditation and analysis of a text that is the cornerstone of a religion at the center of historical and current United States. Practicing Christians living in the United States should particularly find this book a wondrous and thought-provoking journey.