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Bibliotheca: Achievement Unlocked


If my greatest reading accomplishment in 2020 was reading 100 books in a year, my reading accomplishment for 2021 was finally reading my entire Bibliotheca set in a little over nine months.

For those unfamiliar with Bibliotheca:

Bibliotheca is an elegant, meticulously crafted edition of the Bible designed to invite the reader to a pure, literary experience of its vast and varied contents.

The text is treated in classic typographic style, free of all added conventions such as chapter and verse numbers, section headers, cross-references, and marginalia.

I received the set way back in December of 2016 and despite picking it up on occasion never really read it in any serious way.

I don’t really have any deep spiritual/theological nuggets of wisdom to offer as my approach was really about getting lost in reading scripture as literature. So instead, allow me to offer my thoughts as tracked via Goodreads:

Volume I: The Five Books of Moses & The Former Prophets

I would give the design and materials of Bibliotheca 5 stars but I am not going to lie, by the end of this volume I was slogging through the kings and their continued insistence on doing evil in the sight of God. Seems almost sacrilegious to give the Bible 3 stars but hard to say “I really liked it” given the content… ;-)

A few things struck me while reading in this format: it really reads like the ancient text that it is, there is a lot of violence, and there is very little obvious doctrine or theology. My perspective leans heavily in this direction, but I was struck by the narrative drive of scripture. It is about the relationship of the people of Israel with their God. It is not abstract theology but often blunt and ugly history but with a God who is faithful.

Reading, Re-reading and Reinventing Paul

I have something of an obsession with the idea of reading more deeply in a subject and thus coming away with a deeper knowledge of one specific topic, idea or area of thought.  Please note that I said “the idea of” as I have pursued this idea in theory a great deal more than I have actually practiced anything like it.

This is why I have a rather large collection of books on conservatism for example.  Or the entire American Presidents Series.  Why I purchased a number of books that act as primary documents of sorts for Black History Month.  Oh, and shelves of books on myths, legends and fairy tales.  I often act as if collecting books on a subject will force me to read more deeply in a topic and thus gain knowledge (see yesterday’s post).

Alas, I rarely get beyond a book or two and soon the collection stares at me from the shelf mocking me… (I never got to the primary source books for Black History Month).
a stack of books on Paul
But I am here not to castigate myself, but to report on my current assignment which I am actually managing to stick with so far: reading books on Paul (another of my mini-obsessions).

100 books in 2020, Big Books in 2021

My big picture reading goal in 2020 was to finally crack the 100 books in a year mark which I have been approaching for a few years. I was able to accomplish that and so look for a different approach in The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-One.

Side note: I always feel a little guilty about counting graphic novels, novellas and other forms of very short books in my books I have read count. But this is in tension with my desire to read 100 books and to track every book I have read. And to be fair, I listened to a number of audio courses which are equal to quite large books given the number of hours involved. So I will call it even.

I will admit to sometimes being put off by very large books for two reasons. 1) hard to get to 100 if you are reading large tomes 2) I struggle to stay engaged and get a lot out of large books because I don’t always have the large blocks of time required to read such books well. I started thinking about this even as I was on track to read 100 books in 2020.

But as a way to challenge myself and read some books that I have had on my TBR pile for some time and have had recommended to me multiple times, I decided to declare 2021 the year of big books.

I also want to attempt to focus on some key interest areas in my reading: classics, books on conservatism, books on writing and books on faith and/or theology.

Cover of Job by Edward L Greenstein

Job: A New Translation by Edward L. Greenstein

I will admit I bit off more than I could chew with Job: A New Translation by Edward L. Greenstein.

The book of Job has often been called the greatest poem ever written. The book, in Edward Greenstein’s characterization, is “a Wunderkind, a genius emerging out of the confluence of two literary streams” which “dazzles like Shakespeare with unrivaled vocabulary and a penchant for linguistic innovation.” Despite the text’s literary prestige and cultural prominence, no English translation has come close to conveying the proper sense of the original. The book has consequently been misunderstood in innumerable details and in its main themes.
Edward Greenstein’s new translation of Job is the culmination of decades of intensive research and painstaking philological and literary analysis, offering a major reinterpretation of this canonical text. Through his beautifully rendered translation and insightful introduction and commentary, Greenstein presents a new perspective: Job, he shows, was defiant of God until the end. The book is more about speaking truth to power than the problem of unjust suffering.

Hard Cover Front Piece

I lack the knowledge to truly judge the translation and while the issues raised were in some ways fascinating, I really only finished it because I had invested time and energy in reading half of it. It is a provocative book by an eminent scholar but I think the line between scholar and educated lay person is a tricky one.

However, the meanings of many words and expressions in Job are based on guesswork. One if often hard pressed to reconcile the language and translations with the traditional Hebrew text. There is no delicate way to put it: much of what has passed as translation of Job is facile and fudged. Translators have for the most part recycled interpretations that had been adopted earlier, dispensing with the painstaking work of original philological investigation that might lead to new and proper understandings. Modern commentators have made use of the ancient translations, but these were themselves all too often in a quandary. Accordingly, traditional interpretations have often held sway, and translators have usually followed suit, imposing their notions of what the book is presumed to be saying on their largely unsuspecting audiences.

Introduction, xviii

I found the translation readable and the introduction thought provoking but I was constantly distracted by the footnotes and a sense that Greenstein was flipping the understanding of Job on its head and I was in no position to judge the result in any definitive way absent significant study and reading.

Consequently, Job is parodying God, not showing him respect. If God is all about power and not morality and justice, Job will not condone it through acceptance. This response may not accord with the image of pious, Bontshe the Silent-type Job that most interpreters have wanted to find in this biblical book. However, Job’s defiance, a product of absolute integrity, is not the only radical or surprising feature of the book in the read presented and defended here.

Introduction, xxxi

If you are a person of faith or have an interest in the theological ramifications of the book of Job, to read it is to wrestle not with the challenges of translation but with the nature of faith and of scripture.

Gloria Dei est vivens homo, wrote Saint Irenaeus: The glory of God is a living man. Might not the Author of Life look with favor upon this brilliantly resistant creature, this unappeasable critical thinker, this supremely lonely and dissenting figure, this Bartleby with boils—unswayed by the sublime, scratching his scabs in the land of Uz? That might be the rankest heresy: Let me know, bishops. But consider what Greenstein’s nonpenitent, polarity-reversed Job has done to the ending of the book. As before, with the experiment over, Job is blandly restored to a state of health and wealth; as before, God upbraids the sententious friends, the Bildads and the Eliphazes and the Zophars, and sends them off to make some burnt offerings, “for you did not speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job.” The quality or valence of this honesty, however, has turned upside down. It has become a kind of white-knuckle existential tenacity, a refusal to disown oneself even in the teeth of the windstorm. Maybe that’s what this God, faced with this Job, is telling us: Bring it all before him, the full grievance of your humanity. Bring him your condition, loudly. Let him have it.

James Parker’s review in The Atlantic

This review by Patrick T. Reardon is a good place to start to get a sense of the challenge and the consequences.

Greenstein’s Job is a bold, highly original challenge to centuries, if not millenniums, of scholarship and theology.  It is a no-holds-barred assertion of a new way of looking at Job, the honest, upright gentile who, in the biblical book, is afflicted with waves of misery from God and asks the Deity: Why me?

As with so much when it comes to reading, your mileage may vary but if you like challenging approaches to scripture this is that. the very least you understand the immense challenges involved in translating a work such as Job.

Review: Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation

Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation by Christopher Bryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick Take:

I picked this book up at Half Price Books because it seemed like an interesting, and short, exploration of an important subject. I did enjoy Bryan’s approach: an acknowledgement of the contributions of historical criticism and a return to reading scripture in its context but with it an understanding that we read from a position and from within a community – the community of faith.

The author brings a strong literary perspective and even has an appendix focused on liturgical readings that truly bring out the literary or rhetorical element of scripture. There is a lot of academic “name dropping” and references, and the author is British, so if you are not familiar with the debates within the academy this might be distracting and confusing. I felt like I knew enough to get through it but probably would have gotten more out of it if I had a deeper knowledge.

I didn’t make the connection until writing this post, but I have Bryan’s Render Unto Caesar on my bookshelf and have been meaning to read it for some time. And his novel Siding Star has been on my Amazon wish list for a couple of years. Hmm, might need to dive a little deeper into Bryan’s work.

Any who, if you are interested in approaches to scripture and have some knowledge of the debate this is an interesting and readable volume.

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