Interview with Sarah Ruden

In the past month, I interviewed Sarah Ruden about her new book, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (published by Pantheon Books), and her new translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions (published by The Modern Library). The two interviews can be found here and here, respectively.

In the run up to the interviews and in their wake, Sarah and I traded messages about Augustine, the Bible, and other topics. Sarah kindly granted me permission to reproduce parts of our exchange here in an edited format.

Garrett: I can’t help but begin by asking: Is there a work of Greek or Latin literature that is unduly overlooked? Or, to put a different spin on the question, is there a work of Greek or Latin literature that should be better known or more widely read by Christians?

Sarah: I’m an interested party, because I’ve translated this work myself, but still I can’t resist recommending Apuleius’s Golden Ass, a comic novel of the mid-second century A.D. The book gives vivid pictures of ordinary people’s lives at a time of great growth in Christianity. Also, the story is full of moral and religious themes and offers the most detailed account to date of a religious conversion; the conversion is to the worship of the goddess Isis, but the differences from and similarities to Christian conversions are fascinating in themselves.

Garrett: Is it hard for us moderns to understand the religious world of first-century Jews and Christians? How do we get inside it? I recently read Mary Beard’s SPQR, and I was reminded of the brutality of the period but also of its vitality and richness. By contrast, religion in American seems more uniform and perhaps less risky.

Sarah: Just yesterday, I had a discussion with a young relative who was visiting my husband and me, and I think that what I told him helps me answer you, though in very broad terms. Traditional pagan religion gave almost no value to personal and individual belief. Very often in modern America, you hear, “I believe in God, but what goes on in church does nothing for me.” That would have horrified any respectable pagan; nobody cared whether he believed in the stories about the divine, or in the supernatural at all, but sacrifices and other rituals were NOT optional: they stood for his membership in his society.

The Hebrew Bible, quite early, had started to challenge such an attitude, and the early followers of Christ rolled the essential rituals back to one, baptism, and greatly stressed “faith/belief/trust”—pistis in Greek. That was the start of a long process of internalization and individualization. But both Judaism and Christianity were still intensely social. Paul’s letters carry over the Jewish emphasis on the sinfulness and righteousness of whole communities; groups were considered to have dynamic, dramatic relationships to the divine, compared to which individual relationships were not such a big deal.

Maybe the impression (which I share) that our religion is more uniform and less risky comes partly from so much of that religion’s taking place in our separate minds and hearts. There are social circles in the United States—which is supposed to be such a religious place!—in which talking about religion, or manifesting it in any way, is held to be in terrible taste, like treating associates to an account of bathroom routines. There’s an understandable desire to avoid conflict, true, but also a widespread and maybe growing feeling that religion should simply be private.

Garrett: Speaking of Mary Beard, I recently listened to a spirited debate from 2015 between her and Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, on ancient Greece v. ancient Rome. So I put the question to you: Greece or Rome?

Sarah: I’m not one of those people who consider Greek culture more brilliant. There isn’t a poet more satisfying than Horace or more fun than Juvenal, both of them Romans dealing with the practical and the ordinary in virtuoso language and with compelling insight. To prefer Plato just because he’s so concerned with the abstract and the speculative is like preferring Thomas Aquinas to Jane Austen—it’s inconceivable to me. And those traditional characterizations of the Romans as cold-hearted bureaucrats and imperialist brutes—well, the actual historical record doesn’t show the Greeks as more virtuously inclined; they just weren’t as stable or organized. The Athenians, for example, were perfectly happy to work thousands of slaves to death in silver mines and build their great monuments with other nations’ tribute; but their material ascendancy—because of their own folly—was so brief that they didn’t wear, so to speak, what they did. It just breezes by in the background to their art and literature, which did last.

Garrett: Since you wrote Paul Among the People, and perhaps even as you worked on The Face of Water, did Paul continue to surprise you in the way he uses language to articulate the gospel or his guidance to the early church?

Sarah: Paul is endlessly surprising and fascinating. For the volume Abraham’s Dice, which is about ideas of chance and providence, I had to come up with a whole new schema to try to summarize what he felt about fate, randomness, and the purpose of life. What he thought and taught just didn’t seem to me to fit in well with anything else, either on the Jewish religious or the Greek philosophical side.

In The Face of Water, I confronted the possibility that the momentous notion of “election”—which culminates in the Calvinist assertion that saved individuals are chosen unchangeably from the beginning of time—owes something to some joyous and lighthearted wordplay of Paul in Romans 8:33 (KJV: “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth”). It looks to me, in this verse at least, not as if he’s naming a special category of people who are inherently “elect” or “chosen” but rather that he’s just pointing out the absurdity of the notion that any force in the universe could haul INTO court for a verdict of damnation those (that is, all of Jesus’ sincere followers) who are singled OUT for a friendly verdict by the ultimate judge, God, through his love. In other words, the divine fix is in. This is part of the courtroom conceit that dominates the passage. The critical words are the jingly enkahlesei (“INdict”) and eklektōn (“EXempted”). Paul’s language wasn’t just Greek; it was also rhetoric, the play of sounds and ideas. That’s how he made his points in detail, and with emotion, and with precision. Since we moderns don’t respect rhetoric, since we habitually condemn whatever’s “rhetorical,” we lose many heights and depths and angles of Paul.

Garrett: One of your stated intentions in the new book is to make the Bible “more of a living thing.” Why do people regard it as dead or distant? Can you explain more what you mean by that?

Sarah: I’m not sure “dead or distant” wouldn’t be overstating it. But, to some extent, the Bible seems a victim of its own success. For a large group of people, the book stands for a tradition they honor or a personal commitment, but usually both; for others, the book stands for everything they resist in thought and culture. I don’t consider it an impingement in any direction to propose considering the book in itself, as an amazing book. In fact, this seems to be a very good time to celebrate together a supremely beautiful work that we possess in common.

In The Face of Water, I’m particularly enthusiastic about pointing out some literal translations and sound effects from, say, Psalm 23; the KJV of it is familiar and widely beloved, yet knowing more about the images and the musicality might deepen listeners’ appreciation; that’s what happened to me, anyway, when I was researching for the book.

Garrett: In the interview, you recommend learning Greek or Hebrew. Do you have a particular textbook or course that you recommend for beginners? And where does one start in Greek, Koine or Attic?

Sarah: I don’t think you can go badly wrong in using any widely accepted, standard textbook. I wouldn’t dare opine whether Koine or Attic should come first, as I never taught Koine, and never taught beginning Greek at all. But I can’t resist saying that I adore the elementary Hebrew textbook my teacher, Victoria Hoffer, co-authored. It incorporates the tough grammar into folk songs and pop songs to make it easier!

Garrett: Your translation of Augustine’s Confessions is out this month. Does the 500th anniversary of the Reformation cast new refracted light on the influence of Augustine’s work? Many of the reformers were inspired by his work.

Sarah: I don’t know about any renewed interest in Augustine regarding the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but clearly the contrast is important. Augustine wanted to study and pray along with a small group of like-minded people, and was yanked and then finessed into religious leadership; he would have been overjoyed had the institutional church been the authority in all things, had it not needed him to assume any authority as a spokesman. Luther had little resistance to leadership once he sensed a crisis. In fact, he had a great zest for leadership, and eventually a real mission against authority.

I don’t know whether you’ve followed the controversy over Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but this to me is an intriguing counterpoint: clearly in the case of Augustine, who wrote the first monastic rule, the reasons for withdrawing from the world were not broadly political or cultural, but deeply personal as well as religious: Augustine was stressed to the point of a breakdown.

Garrett: What are the most famous passages of The Confessions? Do you have a favorite?

Sarah: Some famous passages in The Confessions are the “theft” from the pear tree (2.9), Monica abandoned (5.15; there’s a famous parallel passage in Catullus), the encounter with the drunken beggar (6.9), the gladiator contest (6.13), and the whole episode of Monica’s death (9.17–37). The last one is a fascinating look into an ordinary yet extraordinary woman’s life and mind.

Garrett: In the interview, you talk about the drunken beggar passage in The Confessions.

Sarah: Yes. It’s an important, vivid passage concerning Augustine’s vocation, but it doesn’t get enough attention. It shows how even a momentary, even a sordid sight was packed with meaning of this author. Meaning was his drug of choice!

Garrett: In undergrad, I was required to take a five-sequence Western Civ. course, which formed the core of my liberal education in many ways. It’s etched in my memory that one of my professors, the one who had the most influence on my thinking at the time, referred to Augustine as “that little shit.” I now regret not pressing into what he meant by that. I suspect it has something to do with a feeling that Augustine can be sanctimonious or arrogant. I’ve never quite heard Augustine’s voice in that way. Have you encountered that persona, or at least this attitude toward him, in his writings?

Sarah: In my view, there’s a great deal to admire in Augustine but little to like. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot against his attitude toward women; in that, he really is exasperating. You’ll notice that I translate his diminutive more accurately (translators of an ecclesiastical bent simply cover for him, with “women,” “wives,” “little wives,” and “suchlike”), but my “little women” is in reality too respectful (given the Transcendentalist-influenced literary context in the US): “little ladies” or “womansies” would be better, as the lexicographical evidence points plainly toward contempt.

But the Augustine life story and the Confessions narrative themselves are fairly insulting to a modern women: attachment to female (except Mom) = deadly worldliness and distraction, ergo subtract female (dispatching her to celibate community herself), while retaining precious progeny. Yes, I know to read all this within the culture (in general a lot rougher on women than Augustine was) and intellectual tradition (reaching back to Plato). Still, it stings.

Speaking of the intellectual tradition, I believe Augustine suffers in his reputation simply from being a great intellectual. Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals makes the case against such people in the modern world, and as a conservative writer, he concentrates on people like Shelley and Tolstoy and Marx. (BTW, have you read Orwell on Tolstoy and Gandhi? Whew!) But these high-handed thinkers do go back at least to Plato. They’re writers who have not only the power of imagination, as all artists do, but the imagination of power. They say, convincingly, “The world will be as I envision, or will end badly.” The eventual popular backlash is as powerful as the original popular persuasion. I speculate that this has a lot to do with language, with the intellectual’s deep understanding of inherited and shared experiences and patterns of thought, as these can best be expressed right now, during his lifetime; but of course that influence weakens over time; distant generations struggle even to understand it.

It’s becoming sort of a mission of mine to persuade people at least to be aware of what has happened. This helps in appreciating big ideas and continuities and indebtedness and in feeling connection to benign universal purpose—for me as a Quaker, that’s God. I’ve worked on Plato recently (a translation of Hippias Minor, an early dialogue) and on Paul some time ago (Paul Among the People), and now also on the anonymous Old and New Testament writers (The Face of Water), and it’s like working with Augustine: when I see how skillful an author was with language, how he must have sweated it as a vehicle for his ideas, then the ideas (however they’re shaped on their own) are—friendlier; and they’re friendly in the first place in the Jewish and Christian traditions, which concentrate on the community’s and the individual’s relationship with a loving God.

Garrett: Your work is a potent reminder of how much we miss in translation. This is one reason why I eagerly await your translation of the gospels. Fortunately, readers can find your some of your translations to date in The Face of Water and on your website.

Sarah: The “little doggies” from Mark 7:24–29 of the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is my favorite one.

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