The Power of Music — Holiness Hitches a Ride

I feel bad for the psalms, that collection in the Bible called psalmoi, “songs.” Their music, the tunes supposed to accompany them, has been lost to us. Melodies such as “The Lilies,” Doe of the Morning,” and “Do Not Destroy,” affixed to the introduction of individual psalms are mysteries to us. We have no idea how they go – what key, what tempo, how loud or soft. Are they “happy” or “sad,” lilting or ponderous? We don’t even know how to translate some of the terms that likely refer to original tunes. Mahalath, for example, or gittith.

The Particular Exasperations of Learning Biblical Hebrew

“The language of God,” Biblical Hebrew. I’m off soon to teach our third week’s class, and we’re in the thick of it now. The alphabet (or aleph-bet) is kind of fun — little ditties, the novelty of recognizing letters completely different from what we see in English, of reading from right to left. But the rose is paling as we get into “weak roots” and the finicky needs of gutteral letters. Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, a.k.a. “Hebrew Bible,” because… ok, you get it… can be exasperating. So many rules that hardly qualify as rules for all their exceptions, shape-shifting letters, and other letters that simply disappear from the words you’ve laboriously memorized. But what a thrill to recognize the multi-layered nature of sacred text, to be able to unpack a single Hebrew word to yield a full sentence, to see the wordplay for oneself, and to contemplate the possibilities and limitations of translation. I hope the students catch that energy at least as often as they grimace at “compensatory lengthening” and “virtual doubling.”

AWP Surprise Highlight

Stephen Dunn, poet extraordinaire. Among my favorites, a riff on the Leviticus scapegoat. It’s a prose poem in which God sympathizes with the goat and calls this method of atonement yet another human sin. I’d love to write it out for you here but haven’t asked permission. Do check it out yourself (I bought What Goes On, in which it’s featured with other best and selected of Dunn’s poetry). I got to hear SD read twice(!) at the AWP conference this past week, once during a tribute to him (great presentations by all — thanks, Kathleen Graber, for the Deadwood recommendation!) in which I learned that he never ever pointed his shotgun at a student, but he did blast bad poems out of the air over the campus pond. I’m off to practice my shot.

Bible at the Movies… Again

Job and Proverbs. Texts from those (very different) biblical books launch the two movies that I’ve seen most recently — Secretariat and True Grit. Stories about determination and perseverance, success in the face of misfortune and seemingly impossibilities. But this wee post isn’t about the movies so much as to note how they begin — with biblical texts, both from the Old Testament, yet opposite in sense. The character Job in the Bible is described as a righteous man who nevertheless suffers tremendously. He challenges the accepted theology that he must have done something to deserve this corrective punishment from God. (We readers know that he has do nothing wrong.) The whole book questions this situation of undeserved suffering and God’s role in it. When God finally answers, it’s not an answer per se (though some find an answer in it). Rather, God goes on and on about the intricacies of the natural world. It’s a strange response with some intriguing implications, which I explore a bit in Bible Babel. And it’s frankly quite beautiful. The poetry is exquisite and the images evocative. Among them, praise for the graceful, strong, and swift horse. So that’s how Secretariat begins. True Grit begins with a pithy saying from Proverbs, a book full of pithy sayings. What those proverbial sayings have in common is a solid sensibleness — that everything follows as it should. So, live responsibly, work hard, be decent, and you’ll enjoy good reputation, health, and material success. Quite the opposite of Job. But “the wicked flee when none pursueth” is a fitting beginning to the story that True Grit tells. (Interesting: a Coen brothers film; the Coens also made A Serious Man, based on the book of Job.)  It also lends the whole a kind of biblical righteousness patina… and so invites faith-based interpretations and contemplation such as and but doesn’t require Bible-based religious faith to appreciate. And I’ve been thinking: how about a True Grits restaurant? Love the grit(s).

“Enough” and Challenging the Bible in The Christian Century

If you have a chance to check out the Sept. 21 issue of the Christian Century, I hope you’ll have a look at my “Living by the Word” essays. Ironically, one of them pushes the idea of “living by the Word” to include actually challenging that Word. The other concerns a particular word that I’d like to see more of these days — “enough.” I also composed more personal companion pieces for the “Century Blog.” One describes my great Aunt Esther, who definitely had enough, despite giving everything away. The other meditates on challenging authority, even when that authority is God. I hope you’ll have a look. And if you have a chance, do let me know what you think.

The Writing’s on the Wall

Ah, the power of the written word. Did you know that this phrase comes from the Bible? This phrase, which we use to tell that something’s sure to happen, comes from Daniel, one of the latest books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Today’s quote of the day puts a new spin on it. Here’s an excerpt from Bible Babel that explains the phrase’s biblical roots:

A Time to Lose

        I attended a funeral recently — “untimely,” one might say, because the man who died did so at his own hand. There was so much about it that defied expectation, defied logic. There’s the suicide itself, of course, an act that makes sense only to the person killed, if at all. But there was more about this funeral that messed with my head… and heart, though I’d never even met the man. C. was a physician who specialized in medical ethics and the work of alleviating end-of-life-suffering without assisted suicide. So, there’s that. Plus, one of the readings struck me as particularly odd.


Kagan, Justice, and Judaism

Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court got me thinking about Jewish traditions of justice, at least as the Bible suggests and reflects. Near as I can tell, it bodes well for the work she’d be doing. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that justice is a major preoccupation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) — the Jewish Bible.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Kagan and Obama.jpgOne thing that makes me optimistic, if Kagan is informed by these roots, is how the Bible clearly champions justice while accepting that the just thing is not always immediately clear. Rather, doing justice requires wrestling with the particularities of certain circumstances (think of all those specific “laws” in Exodus and Leviticus, for example), balancing absolute “thou shalt nots” with the fact that sometimes we do anyway, and determining where and when is the most just thing actually mercy.

Gordon Brown and Amos

Our neighbors across the Atlantic are typically less Bible-happy in political discourse than we in the States. So Gordon Brown made news by (mis)quoting the Good Book recently. The British Prime Minister, facing attacks from political rivals, asked his church audience to recall “the great story of Micah in the Gospel.” But Micah is an Old Testament, Hebrew prophet; “the Gospel” is “the good news” of Jesus; and the gospels are books of the New Testament.