July 17, 2019

Book review: “The Book of ‘Exodus’: A Biography” by Joel S. Baden

In 1955, early in his struggle for civil rights, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. likened the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to the destruction of the Egyptian army in the biblical book of Exodus: “The Red Sea opened, and freedom and justice marched through to the other side.  As we look back we see segregation and discrimination caught in the mighty rushing waters of historical fate.” Three decades later, the Exodus story — God leading the Israelites from slavery and oppression in Egypt through many years of wandering in the desert to the Promised Land — was a foundation stone of an entirely new reading of the Bible, called liberation theology.  The Latin American theologians and activists who developed this then-radical Catholic approach argued that Exodus shows a God who is always on the side of the poor and who wants everyone to live free from all kinds of slavery.  In this context, sin is whatever people do to keep themselves or others enslaved.  Although the Vatican initially condemned this thinking, which implicitly put the church hierarchy with the “Egyptians,” liberation theology has come to permeate much Catholic thinking, particularly that of Pope Francis. Addictively readable and […]
July 15, 2019

Book Review: “The Art of Bible Translation” by Robert Alter

Many readers are likely to dismiss Robert Alter’s The Art of Bible Translation as inside-baseball for Bible scholars.  After all, the Bible is the Bible, right? Well, not really.  The Bible means different things to different faiths.  For Jews, it’s the Hebrew Bible. This, with some adjustments, is included in the Christian Bible as the Old Testament along with the Gospels and other books of the New Testament. Over the past two centuries, Bible experts from both religions, operating separately and together, have worked to better understand the language, culture and times of the writers who produced these works.  The goal: create translations that get closer to what those writers were saying — to the meaning of their words.  For both faiths, the books of the Bible were divinely or spiritually inspired, and it’s extremely important to get right the lessons they transmit about God and humanity. A proliferation of Bible translations There has been a proliferation in Bible translations since the middle of the 20th century, each striving to be as accurate as possible in taking the words from the ancient languages and putting them into English.  Of course, scholars being scholars, there are endless debates on the best […]
July 10, 2019

Book review: “Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography” by June Purvis

Emmeline Pankhurst was a prim, proper, middle-class Victorian Englishwoman who, on a day in early July, 1914, a few days before her 56th birthday, was rearrested by authorities for her work promoting the campaign to bring the vote to British women. She was rearrested under what was called the Cat and Mouse Act, a government effort to solve the knotty political problem of what to do when Pankhurst and her followers were arrested and then refused to eat or drink. These women, the government felt, couldn’t be permitted to go on such hunger strikes (although men were) because think of the bad publicity if a women died this way.  To say nothing about the creation of a martyr. Violent force-feeding was employed, but that left the women nearly as physically debilitated as the hunger strikes themselves.  In at least one case, an emetic was smuggled into prison in the hopes of causing the force-fed food to be regurgitated. So, a year earlier, the Cat and Mouse Act had been approved by the House of Commons, the House of Lords and King George V.  Under it, writes June Purvis in Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography, “suffragettes or ‘mice’ in a state of […]
July 8, 2019

Book review: “Christian Flesh” by Paul J. Griffiths

The cover of Christian Flesh by Paul J. Griffiths is a warning that this book of moral theology is not for the faint of heart. It is a detail from Caravaggio’s 1601-1602 painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, and it shows the heads of the resurrected Jesus and the doubting apostle nearly touching and the Savior with a grip around Thomas’s hand.  Jesus has pulled the hand to the wound in his side, just below his left nipple, so that the disciple’s extended forefinger has entered the wound up to the first knuckle. (In John’s gospel, this is what Jesus tells Thomas to do although there is no indication he actually does it.  Caravaggio, as usual, amps up the drama.) The painting is visceral, raw and, some would likely say, crude.  So, too, is Griffith’s book. “Sweat, blood, spittle” The beliefs of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, are rooted in the dual nature of Jesus as God, part of the Trinity, and as a real, flesh-and-blood human.  Yet, that flesh-and-bloodness is often given short shrift, except for the passion and crucifixion. There is a kind of daintiness with which the physicality of Jesus is approached.  Yes, we can imagine him talking to […]
July 3, 2019

Book review: “Unnatural Causes” by P.D. James

Sylvia Kedge, the young physically impaired woman who was the secretary of murder victim Maurice Seton, has just had an emotional melt-down, and one of the policemen is pushing her wheelchair down a path as detective Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard watches. He had discovered that he did not like her and was the more ashamed of the emotion because he knew that its roots were unreasonable and ignoble.  He found her physically repellent… He wished he could feel more sorry for her, but it was difficult to watch, with a kind of contempt, the way in which she made use of her disability. This scene is from the 1967 crime novel Unnatural Causes by P.D. James, and it contains more psychological nuance and insight that all of the pages of all 70-plus books by Agatha Christie. The forumla I mention Christie because, in the 1960s, when James began writing mysteries, she was the gold standard.  She and other mega-seller authors, such as John Dickson Carr, had developed a highly popular and highly entertaining formula which emphasized the puzzle aspects of the crime.  They were, in essence, daring their readers to solve the mystery before the all-knowing detective made his […]
July 1, 2019

Book review: “Medieval Children” by Nicholas Orme

About midway through Nicholas Orme’s fascinating Medieval Children — a history of what it was like to be a child in Europe in medieval times leading up to the Enlightenment — he notes that an engraving from 1659 shows a boy playing with small balls, called bowling-stones. We would call them marbles, but that word, he points out, didn’t come into use until later in the 17th century. It got me thinking about marbles which had a short moment of interest for me in my childhood — round and hard, made of glass (I guess), and used for games.  I don’t think I played many games with them.  In my recollection, they were just fun to roll around in my hand or in a bowl or a cloth bag.  They clicked together nicely.  I admired them as objects. Marbles That got me wondering if kids today play with marbles.  I’m sure they’re being sold somewhere to someone, but how widespread are they as a child’s toy in this era of digital entertainment?  And in this era of heavy parental protection against all dangerous things, such as swallowing small round objects? (As a young boy, my brother Tim once swallowed a […]