The Bible With and Without Jesus

The Bible With and Without Jesus coverThe Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently
Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
HarperOne (October 27, 2020), 512 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $28.99

I was familiar with Amy-Jill Levine from one of her Great Courses offerings, so when I saw this book advertised it immediately caught my interest.

Levine and Brettler do a real service with this title because it is easy for those of us who come from a Christian tradition to interpret the entire Bible, including the Hebrew scriptures, through a Christian lens. Obviously Jews do not do that.

The authors cite several passages in which Christian and Jewish interpretations differ. For example, in the Jewish interpretation of the Garden of Eden story, there is no suggestion at all of original sin, and Eve is not singled out for blame.

Levine and Brettler explain that while the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews was obsessed with Melchizedek, the priest-king is only briefly mentioned in two places in the Hebrew Bible. The first is Genesis 14, where, they suggest, “the Melchizedek story can be removed from Genesis without creating any narrative gaps,” indicating that it is likely a later addition. The other Old Testament mention is Psalm 110. They state that medieval rabbinic commentators say little about Melchizedek, perhaps because of the Christian fascination with him.

There are many other examples. They discuss almah (Hebrew: young woman) vs. parthenos (Greek: virgin), the story of Jonah, and the Son of Man in the book of Daniel vs. in the synoptic gospels.

For those interested in how key passages of the Hebrew Bible might be read when the Christian perspective has been removed this book will be an engaging resource.


The Ancient Celts

Ancient Celts coverThe Ancient Celts, Second Edition
Barry Cunliffe
narrated by Julian Elfer
Tantor Audio, February 05, 2019
print version published by Oxford University Press
$17.47 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Often when we think of the Celts we think of the cultures in Scotland and Ireland. Perhaps that’s because those areas are where Celtic culture has survived in its purest form. As this book describes, however, Celtic peoples lived throughout Europe in the ancient world. In fact, the Celts reached as far as Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. The people that Julius Caesar called Gauls were Celts, and Celtic people lived in Iberia, modern-day Spain.

Cunliffe considers a wide range of evidence. He spends considerable time looking at the archaeological record. He discusses the first-hand accounts by Caesar and the descriptions of the Celts by the Roman historians. Cunliffe is a careful scholar, pointing out where the archaeological account is lacking, and reminds us that Caesar and the ancient historians had a particular point of view and agenda.

The author spends a chapter discussing Celtic religion and mythology and its interaction with Roman mythology and religion. Fascinating stuff.

The book is expertly read by Julian Elfer, who kept the book interesting even through the parts of it where the material was quite dry. Of course listening to the audio version meant I missed the spelling of certain words and terms, but Elfer’s narration made this book a thoroughly enjoyable experience.


A Pilgrimage to Eternity

A Pilgrimage to Eternity coverA Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith
Timothy Egan
Penguin Books (October 15, 2019), 382 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $15.99

I like travel books and I enjoy books about an individual’s spiritual quest, so what better than a combination of the two?

In A Pilgrimage to Eternity Egan describes his travel along the Via Francigena, the pilgrim’s trek from Canterbury to Rome. He makes the trip in two segments, returning home to the United States about halfway through. His son and later his daughter accompany him at various times and his wife joins him for the end of the journey. Blisters on his feet cause him to take part of the trip by train and later by rental car, but this does not bother him terribly; his one rule seems to be travel must be on the ground and not by air.

In addition to describing his journey and the marvelous hospitality he received along the way, Egan includes several diversions. He writes about history, reminding us of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism and the atrocities committed by John Calvin. He includes some personal history, including the story of a predatory priest in his hometown. Nonetheless, Egan isn’t anti-religion. He sees the value in it, and even has the hutzpah to seek a personal audience with the pope. He must be content with seeing the pope with a small group of pilgrims.

Egan delivers an entertaining travelogue and some valuable insights into the spiritual path.


Tasha: still thriving

Today is All Saints’ Day: November 1. All Saints’ Day only occasionally falls on a Sunday and I rarely publish a blog entry on a Sunday. But I always blog on All Saints’ Day. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that I don’t write about All Saints’ Day on November 1, but I write about bringing Tasha home from the shelter.

TashaIt was on All Saints’ Day in 2005 that we brought Tasha home with us. When we took her to our vet she said that Tasha appeared to be about a year and-a-half old. That would make her sixteen and-a-half today. She is doing pretty well for an elderly dog.

Our girl has lost some weight, but that in many ways is a good thing, as with her arthritis the weight loss makes it easier for her to get around. She is on three medications: one for her thyroid, a probiotic to help her keep food down, and a pain medication for her arthritis. The original pain medication caused her stomach problems so the vet switched her to a different medication, which is a lot more expensive, of course. But that’s what we do for our child.

Tasha wants much shorter walks these days, but some things have not changed. She still insists that someone head into the kitchen to start dinner at around 6:30. She still leaps and bounds through the great room after dinner when it’s time for her cookie. And immediately after that she herds us into the bedroom where we put our feet up on the bed, read the newspapers, and enjoy our evening libation. That’s when she gets her chew, for which she waits impatiently.

We are pleased and grateful that Tasha continues to do so well.


We Need to Talk

We Need to Talk coverWe Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter
Celeste Headlee
Harper Wave (September 19, 2017), 258 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $12.99

If you have not watched Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation” skip this blog post and go watch it now. It will be time well spent. It has had over twenty-two million views so far. Really.

This book covers much of the same territory as her TED talk, but in an expanded form. Celeste clearly explains how to have an open conversation with anyone, no matter what their beliefs, without letting your own biases interfere. That is something I find it nearly impossible to do with those who support that blustering individual with the orange hair who currently lives in the White House. But Headlee says we can do it. She has an interesting perspective on this:

quoteThere’s no evidence that people who are aware of their own biases are better able to overcome them than those who are unaware of their biases. And no matter how much thought you give to the issue, you’re probably not aware of all the prejudices that influence your thinking. They’re called unconscious biases for a reason, after all.

She goes on to say:

quoteThe goal of an honest, respectful dialogue is to open our minds,
not to change them.

Wow. Straightforward. Simple. And so difficult.

Celeste is of a mixed-race background, and she directly addresses those issues. Her grandfather was African-American composer William Grant Still and his wife was the pianist Verna Arvey, who was white. Celeste describes the challenges they faced in that marriage. She writes about when they had to drive nonstop from the west coast to the east coast because in those years neither white nor African-American motels would rent them a room.

Headlee is an experienced, skilled interviewer on NPR, yet she honestly describes her own errors and mistakes in interviewing people.

This is a great book on how to have a conversation, but really, if you haven’t seen her TED talk go watch it before reading the book.


The Story I Am

The Story I Am coverThe Story I Am: Mad About the Writing Life
Roger Rosenblatt
Turtle Point Press (April 7, 2020), 277 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $16.99

I have been familiar with Roger Rosenblatt for some time, though I have read little of his work. He regularly reviews books in the New York Times Book Review and he reviewed a book recently that I wasn’t interested in reading, but the reference in the credit line to this book caught my attention.

The book, the subtitle suggests, is supposed to be reflections on writing. Much of it is, but many essays only touch tangentially on the subject of writing. The essays come from a variety of sources: Rosenblatt’s novels, his memoirs, including The Boy Detective about his coming of age in New York, reviews in the New York Times Book Review, and essays in Time magazine.

There are some interesting and enjoyable passages, but for a book of essays that was supposed to reflect on the writing life, I felt that it came up short.


The Sirens of Mars

Sirens of Mars coverThe Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World
Sarah Stewart Johnson
narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Random House Audio, July 07, 2020
$19.60 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I guess one can say that one has truly become an audiobook aficionado when one decides to listen to an audiobook based on the narrator.

The book The Sirens of Mars caught both Terry’s and my attention when we read about it. Terry bought the hardcover at Barnes & Noble. I had finished my most recent audiobook and was looking for the next, so I pulled up the title on Amazon. I saw the audiobook was read by Cassandra Campbell, who narrated the biography of Dorothy Day that I enjoyed so much. That clinched the decision to make The Sirens of Mars my next audiobook.

Campbell is an accomplished voice actor, who has narrated many audiobooks, most notably that long-time bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing. She does a skilled job of reading this book, making me feel as if the author was doing the narration. Even the best readers make errors, however. At one point she used the word epithet when it should have been epitaph. (I recently saw someone make the opposite error in print. What is it about those two words?) But this does nothing to diminish Campbell’s superb skills as an audiobook narrator.

Author Sarah Stewart Johnson is a planetary scientist, one of the few women in that field. She beautifully interweaves three stories: the observers of Mars from the nineteenth century on, the various NASA Mars missions, and her own life story. The latter two converge, as she was on the science teams of a couple of the Mars Rover missions.

I was particularly sensitive to the author being involved in the search for possible life on Mars as I wrote an essay in 1976 which I titled “Gazing Towards Mars” about the Viking Mars mission. I tried to sell the piece but was unsuccessful. I said we were lonely here on earth and wanted evidence that there was life elsewhere in the solar system. That hasn’t changed in the past forty-four years.

It was only two decades after I wrote that essay that the rovers found water and gave us hints that life might once have existed on Mars. The Sirens of Mars offers a thoughtful and enlightening perspective on human attempts to understand the Red Planet.


“Doesn’t anyone know how this game is played?”

I heard Giants broadcaster Jon Miller ask that question in a frustrated tone of voice after an odd play that invoked an obscure baseball rule. Miller didn’t like how the official scorer scored the play, and, as I recall, he may have been unhappy with the call on the field by the umpire as well.

I ask that question about some less obscure aspects of baseball these days. I’ve learned to accept the designated hitter in the National League during this COVID-19-shortened season, being grateful just to have baseball.

The one thing that does irk me, however, is the concept of the “opener” as opposed to a proper starting pitcher. That’s someone who pitches only an inning or two at the start of the game.

For example, in the final game of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, the Dodgers started Dustin May, who pitched only a single inning. He was followed by two more pitchers who each picked up two innings, and then by Brusdar Graterol who pitched a single inning. Finally, Julio Urías pitched the last three.

That’s not the baseball I grew up with. I was going to blame Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who played in a more traditional era, but Houston Mitchell wrote in the Dodgers newsletter:

quoteKeep in mind that Dave Roberts doesn’t decide who is going to start. He has input, yes, but the front office looks at all their flow charts, their crystal balls, their sabermetrics, their Tarot cards, their performance metrics, their Magic 8 Ball and decides who will start.

OK, Dave is off the hook.

And the Dodgers are in the World Series. We actually have a World Series this year, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles.

That’s something to be thankful for in these crazy days.


two earbud sets

I have two wireless earbud sets? Yep, two.

I wrote a while back about buying a set of wireless earbuds for my iPhone from a company called Letsfit and how much I liked them. As I expected, they are great for listening to my audiobooks when I’m doing yard work and I don’t want sweat to damage my expensive hearing aid.

earbudsBut then there is my laptop, which I use for Sunday morning worship at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Hemet via Zoom. I had been using wired earbuds, but I decided that they were a bit too restrictive. Since we are unlikely to return to indoor in-person worship anytime soon, I thought a wireless solution would be better.

My hearing aid uses an Apple technology that allows it to connect to multiple devices. So I can use my hearing aid with both my iPhone and my iPad. But here’s the thing with Bluetooth. Bluetooth earbuds only connect with one device. My Letsfit Bluetooth earbuds are paired with my iPhone and if I want something similar for my laptop I need a separate pair.

I searched Amazon and found a set for $19.95. (Prices for all of these things seem to fluctuate frequently.) The average rating was 4+ stars with input from over seventeen thousand users. I ordered them and paired them with my laptop. They work great for Sunday morning Zoom worship.

Something interesting. When I fired up my laptop and put the new set of earbuds in my ears, the voice that said “Connected” was identical to the voice on my Letsfit earbuds.

I guess the underlying technology is the same on all of these products.


How You Say It

How You Say It coverHow You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do—And What It Says About You
Katherine D. Kinzler
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July 21, 2020), 253 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $20.99

As a writer and as a reader I place a lot of emphasis on the written word, and I think a lot about writing and styles of writing. However, the spoken word is important to me as well. I spent nearly four years in Toastmasters, leaving only when changes to the program made the organization less appealing to me. A linguist will tell you that language is about the spoken word far more than it is about writing. That was the message in John McWhorter’s Great Courses series on language families which I recently watched. It is the spoken word that interests Katherine Kinzler in this book.

Kinzler wants to understand, and wants us to understand, how the spoken word affects how we perceive other people. She is not a linguist, rather she is a psychologist. However, in doing the research that forms the basis of this book she took a multidisciplinary approach, working with individuals in multiple fields, including linguistics. She writes with the approach of a linguist, saying, for example, “African American English is a dialect of English like any other (including Standard American English).”

The author writes about the misconceptions that people have, for example that an ethic Asian might have difficulty learning a non-Asian language such as French. She describes how bias is pervasive in the media. In children’s movies, such as Aladdin, she points out that the bad guys have accents and the good guys don’t. Kinzler explores how an accent can have a negative impact on a person being hired for a particular job, even when they are fully qualified.

This is interesting material, and it presents an important set of social issues of which we ought to be aware.