So here’s the experience of reading it all in a page-to-page, book-to-next-book sequence. Front to back. Whew!
When I set forth, I had no clue there could be three different routes (or more) in going straight through what I knew as the Old Testament.
That, in itself, raises many questions about what’s considered important and how one part relates to the others.
I had chanced upon references to Sophia, or Wisdom, as having attributes similar to those of Christ, but I had no idea how many of her descriptions come largely in the Apocrypha, those strange books that aren’t included in the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles. In tracing her fuller dimensions, I find them helpful in comprehending the concepts of both Christ and the Holy Spirit, and of infusing a feminine sensibility into our perception of the Divine.
Yes, there is an evolution in the definition of the Holy One over the centuries, though in the Biblical narrative it’s far less systematic than I had hoped.
The war-god undeniably reigns over the Israelite history up to the Babylonian exile, and the imagery is largely male, despite assertions to the contrary, and somewhat confined to a place, as in accompanying the troops or residing in the Tabernacle, the Ark, or the Temple.
What happens during that captivity transforms the descendants of Jacob into Jews — that is, the people of Judah — and does so far more profoundly than I had suspected. For starters, God is liberated from a specific place and becomes accessible to its chosen people everywhere. Some of the most powerful thinking in the Bible, in fact, arises in this upheaval — during the tragic buildup to the defeat, during the captivity, and then in resettlement in what had been the southern kingdom.
What my straight-through reading has given me is an awareness of proportion. I no longer view the Hebrew Bible — the part I’ve known as the Old Testament, even without the Apocrypha — as the “old half” of the Bible. It’s the bulk of the Bible. The New Testament sits atop it, like the visible part of an iceberg, merely a fifth of its volume.
Listening to the Jewish authors in Congregation reflect on its books, I sense how differently they relate to these stories than do we Gentiles. Few Christians live out these dramas, nor are they essential to our identity. No, for most, it’s all “back then” in antiquity.
Gordon Lish’s essay is the one I found least helpful. His diatribe starts off quibbling with his daughter, even before he launches into a defense of himself as a Jew who stopped attending services right after his bar mitzvah.
Here I am, sensing how much I’m an outsider, a visitor, appreciating the wonders of this culture and its legacy, which has nonetheless shaped my own. But then Lish throws it all back in my face.
“The bible, Jewish or otherwise, is all Christian to me — an alien object, uncongenial to me, pestilential at its worst. It is the Christians who own all of the parts of this book, from whichever sources its gorgeous sentences may have once issued. Try this sentence of mine: The Christians owned the bible owned the bible even before there were Christians.”
Nothing like stereotyping, is there? But it gets worse.
“Don’t you know that the Christians have title to all the objects of the world?
“They even own, as they could any instant prove, my body and probably yours.”
Is he trying to pick a fight? This could be dirty.
Lish then launches into a rant against the Word and those who examine it legalistically, a charge that now turns on “the side-curled whose scholarship totemizes a text” and thereby Christianizes it, which he sees as being as far from Jewish as you can get.
It took me a while to realize who the side-curled are.
I am curious about how he’d react to the line of thinking that emerges from viewing the Word as Logos, affiliated with the Holy Spirit and Sophia, and I have been deeply offended by his bigoted smear (substitute one word and we’d rightly hear the howl of anti-Semitism), yet now suddenly he’s throwing the Chassidic in with me.
It’s a troubling essay from a troubled man, and frankly I’d rather hear from his daughter Jenny.
But he also forces me to admit that my approach to these books is largely unconventional. Though raised in a mainstream Protestant household, I came to Quaker faith as an adult, and see it very much as an alternative Christianity.
Lish fails to recognize that for many nominal Christians, the Bible is a distant echo. Many Catholics openly admit to knowing little of it. For Protestants, it’s essential, the center of the sermons that are at the center of the worship, even when many today keep the book at arm’s-length. It sits unopened on a dusty shelf or at bedside, like the Gideon Bible in the motel drawer.
One point where Lish could build an argument, at least in the English-speaking world, comes in the weight of the King James translation on our perspective. Other authors in Congregation deal with its impact and the ways it colors and distorts the content, even for Jews conversant in Hebrew.
Even in the Greek Orthodox services, where the English passages are chanted in contemporary translations, the Lord’s Prayer is congregationally recited in its King James richness, addressing who art in heaven, thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Ahem.
The twist I hadn’t recognized until now is how much the shadow of my grandfather has stood over this project. He, with his eighth-grade education, though I hadn’t known that part until the past decade, claimed to have read the Bible end-to-end five times. What I do know is how much our interpretations would diverge. His were, I know, highly dogmatic and conventional, as Uncle John, with his degree from Yale Divinity School, tells me, A copy of the painting of Jesus knocking at the door, invoking Revelation 3:20, was the most prominent visual piece displayed in their house, in all of its hollow religiosity.
Our own house was more timid in its expressions of faith. We had a watercolor of a farm scene over the mantel instead, one by a respected cousin. Dreary, as in a snowless winter, all the same, with not a person in sight, not even Jesus knocking at the door.