In Praise of Robert Alter, Part 2

In November 2009, after reading Alter’s translation of Psalms, I sent the following encouragement to a friend who was wrestling with serious questions of faith and doubt. In it, I quote from a footnote in Alter’s commentary on Psalm 34:

I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation last Saturday. I just wanted to affirm that the questions you are asking are good ones: candid, defining, essential, humbling.

The struggle to believe, and finding a practice that honors those beliefs, is lifelong, one that is worked out in countless conversations with tradition (“the democracy of the dead,” according to one writer), family, community (which comes and goes), and Scripture.

Continue reading “In Praise of Robert Alter, Part 2”

In Praise of Robert Alter, Part 1

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I have been a unabashed fan of Robert Alter’s translations of the Bible, since his first, Genesis, appeared in 1996, and my admiration has deepened with each new installment. His most recent, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, is an expansion of his earlier project, The David Story (1999). Where the earlier book was limited to the life of King David found in 1 and 2 Samuel, the new collection also includes Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Kings, capturing the grand sweep of the historical narratives, hence the title. At 880 pages, it is Alter’s most hefty, and perhaps most intimidating, translation and commentary to date.

Since I don’t know biblical Hebrew, I am not in a position to assess or critique the fidelity of Alter’s translations to the original texts. To be frank, it is not clear to me that James Wood, Michael Dirda, or John Updike are, either. That hasn’t stopped any of them from offering an assessment of Alter’s accomplishments. In that vein, I’d like to offer a few brief observations about the virtues I see in Alter’s work.

Continue reading “In Praise of Robert Alter, Part 1”

“From a Wandering Nomad . . .”

For the past few months, Christ Church Vienna has been using elements of a Kenyan liturgy in its worship service. One particular section strikes me as an excellent encapsulation of the narrative arc of the Bible in exactly 100 words:

It is right and our delight to give you thanks and praise, Holy Father, living God, supreme over the world, Creator, Provider, Saviour and Giver. From a wandering nomad You created Your family; for a burdened people You raised up a leader; for a confused nation You chose a king; for a rebellious crowd You sent Your prophets. In these last days You have sent us Your Son, Your perfect image, bringing Your kingdom, revealing Your will, dying, rising, reigning, remaking Your people for Yourself. Through Him You have poured out Your Holy Spirit, filling us with light and life.

This passage was drawn from this site, where the entire Kenyan liturgy can be found. (The original Swahili can be found here.) In addition to its remarkable compression, it shows a gradual unfolding of God’s plan in history from His first appearance to a nomad (Abraham) in the burning bush and His faithfulness to an unlikely leader of an exiled people (Moses) to the underdog king of a tiny nation (David) and, ultimately, to Jesus Christ, God’s “perfect image,” who would bear none of the defects or shortcomings of his predecessors.

The wording emphasizes, without qualification or hesitation, the continuity of the divine conspiracy: through Christ, God did not upend His work in, or change the terms of his covenant with, ancient Israel. Rather, He extended His will and continued to reveal Himself in the acts of Jesus’s passion, “remaking [God’s] people for Himself.”

What a powerful restatement of the Christian view of history, of God’s everlasting kindness to His people! Amen.

Religion or Interior Decorating?

It is rare these days to encounter writer who’s ideas are as finely wrought as his style. I know of one such writer, who offers in four tight sentences this withering critique of modern-day “spirituality”:

Our ethics tends to be something of a continuous improvisation or bricolage: we assemble fragments of traditions we half remember, gather ethical maxims almost at random from the surrounding culture, attempt to find an inner equilibrium between tolerance and conviction, and so on, until we have knit together something like a code, suited to our needs, temperaments, capacities, and imaginations. We select the standards or values we find appealing from a larger market of moral options and then try to arrange them into some sort of tasteful harmony….

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Ascension Day

Screen shot 2013-05-09 at 4.46.38 PMToday is Ascension Day, the 40th day after Easter. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1997), it marks “the solemn close of the post-Resurrection appearances and signifies the rule of Christ in the present (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25).” My preoccupation today is why Christians seem to emphasize the first half of this definition more than the second?

I’ll hazard a guess, rooted in my own experience, that most of us are oblivious to its significance. We’ve simply never given it much thought. We read the accounts of the Ascension as the denouement to the passion narrative in Mark, Luke, and John. We all-too-readily locate the climax of the narratives in the death and resurrection of Jesus—the resurrection simply being too dazzling, too earth-shattering, for us to take much notice of the adjacent and final act of Jesus in which he “was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19).

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Christ the King!

In my inaugural post, I simply want to proclaim, “Christ is King!”

It seems right and good to begin with a statement that contextualizes everything else, gives everything else its meaning and significance.

In subsequent posts, I hope to “note and query” aspects of the Christian faith and the Bible — and of poetry and literature, books and publishing, and the good life.

I take as my guide the words of St. Paul, when he wrote:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

May this blog be evidence of those things—and give glory to Him and his grace, which exceeds our understanding.