Robert Alter Embraces the Beauty of the Bible

Robert Alter, translator and literary critic, releases his translation of the full Hebrew Bible in December, with publisher Norton calling it the "capstone" of his renowned career. But it might be his next book, The Art of Bible Translation (Princeton Univ., Mar. 2019), that raises eyebrows among biblical scholars, with its line of fire about "the disastrous failures of modern English-language translations," Alter says. "Some people are going to get their backs up. They’re going to say, ‘Who is this twerp who doesn’t have a PhD in biblical studies to be criticizing us?’"

The "twerp" is an 83-year-old professor emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967. In The Art of Bible Translation, Alter slams translators educated in elite academia, from Oxford to the Ivy League, as tone-deaf and prone to introducing a Christian theological spin that he says the ancient Hebrew text does not support. Common translations of the treasured Psalm 23 line read "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever," which Alter says implies the existence "heaven." But, he notes, "the Hebrew Bible spends no time talking about ‘heaven’ or an afterlife or ‘souls.’ Ancient Hebrew has no notion of these ideas. My translations scrupulously eliminate all souls."

Alter’s central argument is literary, however. "Not only do the modern translators lack a clear sense of what happens stylistically in the Bible, but also their notion of English style, its decorums and its expressive possibilities, tends to be rather shaky," he writes. "The essential point in all this is that the Hebrew Bible by and large exhibits consummate artistry in the language of its narratives and of its poetry, and there must be an answering art in the translation in order to convey what is remarkable about the original…. The literary style of the Bible in both the prose narratives and the poetry is not some sort of aesthetic embellishment of the ‘message’ of Scripture but the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed."

Look at the creation story in the King James Version, Alter says: "The priestly author of the creation story and the flood story offers beautifully choreographed cadences that convey his sense of the grandeur and the harmoniousness of creation. If you translate it in a way that destroys the cadences, you compromise the religious vision of the author." He adds: "My book offers an analogy. We are all enchanted by Moby-Dick. The prose is wonderfully rhythmic, with many lines that remind you of Shakespeare, Milton, and the King James psalms. If you remove those cadences, you just have a story about a whale and a crazy, onelegged captain."

Michael Coogan Says God Is Not On Your Side

Michael Coogan, a scholar of the Bible and other ancient texts, wanted to cap his half century of studying and writing about the Bible with a provocative work aimed not at other scholars but at general readers. In God’s Favorites: Judaism, Christianity, and the Myth of Divine Chosenness (Beacon, Apr. 2019), his message is this: the Bible is not divine. It’s not literally or metaphorically true. And, though you might choose God, no God has chosen you.

Coogan, professor emeritus of religious studies at Stonehill College, tells PW that he unravels the Bible’s authority by showing scripture is not "God’s word about God’s people but rather projections of people’s own needs and prejudices onto a God. If you want to believe in the biblical God, you have a problem." As Coogan details in the book, the Bible and the concept of chosenness have been used to justify imperialism, murder, genocide, and prejudice.

God’s Favorites goes from A to Z, Abraham to Zionism, moving century by century, dissecting prophets, apostles, psalms, and more. Coogan locates biblical passages in the wider historical and literary record; he also debunks the belief of some American Christians that the U.S. is the "New Jerusalem" and modern Israel is a step on the path to the Second Coming.

That the Bible was written in installments across time is not unique, Coogan writes. "Its ideas and values, its laws and institutions, its stories and myths, even its idioms resembled those of neighbors and rulers of the biblical writers, the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, and others."

"These are stories of sibling rivals, rival wives, rival territorial claims," Coogan writes. "Only later are these melodramas and conflicts elevated to be called a divine ‘choice’ and to provide rationalization for a people’s claims to superiority and power."

Coogan notes that the Gospel of John was "written when the separation between traditional Jews and Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, was widening." He adds, "The Gospel’s pejorative view of ‘the Jews’ reflects that separation, rather than being a hostility toward all Jews of all times. Yet that is how it was interpreted soon after, and for most of Christian history: Jews were labeled ‘Christ-killers.’"

God’s Favorites begins with Coogan expressing his "naïve hope" that, no matter what they think the Bible says, people will give up "creationism, patriarchy, and homophobia," and with them the tribalism that leads to division and violence; he calls for abandoning "the myth of divine election, which has caused walls to be built and wars to be waged between members of the human community rather than uniting it." He concludes: "Fundamentally, we are all one tribe, one species, with no group, ancient or modern, specially chosen."

Kathleen Sprows Cummings Chronicles the Search for an American Saint

For nearly 150 years, American Catholics longed for a patron saint, someone who represented the essence of their national character, like Ireland’s St. Patrick or Spain’s St. James, an exemplary soul who could carry their prayers to God. It took generations of struggle for prelates, nuns, and laypeople, from the American frontier to the halls of the Vatican, to successfully bring before the pope a dozen potential saints.

"And the irony is, we still don’t have a patron saint," says Kathleen Sprows Cummings, author of A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American (Univ. of North Carolina, Apr. 2019). Cummings is associate professor of American studies and history and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

"Canonization may be fundamentally about holiness, but it is never only about holiness," Cummings writes. "In the United States, it has often been about the ways in which Catholics defined, defended, and celebrated their identities as Americans."

Among the many campaigns for sainthood Cummings writes about, she zeroes in on the epic, convoluted, seven-decade drive for recognition for St. Elizabeth Seton, who was finally canonized in 1975. Cummings’s account is packed with the personalities and travails of devoted supporters as they mustered the money and the moxie to persevere through setbacks and deliver to Rome three essentials for canonization: volumes of records of her accomplishments; testimonies to her life of holiness; and proof that prayers to Seton prompted God to work miraculous medical cures for two direly ill people.

Seton, who was born in the U.S., founded the Sisters of Charity, the first Catholic women’s religious community established in the U.S. without formal ties to a European congregation. So why isn’t she American Catholics’ patron saint? "America changed," Cummings says. "We changed our vision of what it means to embody American holiness. Saints tell us more about the culture in which they are canonized than the culture in which they live."

Now that Catholics are firmly ensconced in every aspect of American society—culture, government, academia and more—there’s no longer a need to prove that an American could be saint-worthy. There may be no single saint who could be seen as the American exemplar, a patron saint to all, Cummings says.

Even so, Cummings has a saint of her own: St. Anne-Thérèse Guérin (Mother Théodore, 1798–1856), founder of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana, who died in 1856 and was canonized in 2006. One of the leaders of the cause for Guérin’s sainthood, a sister in her early 80s, came to a class Cummings was teaching and told the story of how Mother Théodore defied a bishop to establish her order, inspiring Cummings to write A Saint of Our Own and to name her third child Anne Therese.

Miroslav Volf Believes Theology Makes a Difference

The true purpose of theology, what it "ought to be, but largely isn’t," is to illuminate "what matters most—the true life in the presence of God," write Miroslav Volf and coauthor Matthew Croasmun in For the Life of the World: Theology that Makes a Difference (Brazos, Jan. 2019). Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, teams up with Matthew Croasmun, an associate research scholar and the director of the Life Worth Living Program at the center, to deliver a manifesto to Western Christian academic theologians. It begins with a cry: "Do something."

Volf says he and Croasmun wrote this urgent call hoping that readers would be moved, because "theology, once the queen of sciences, has become irrelevant today. It is on its way to rusting in a home for the elderly." Volf and Croasmun cite diminished demand and lost esteem for the field and the fact that theologians today talk more about finding jobs or publishers than finding God. Meanwhile, they write, many churches "employ the Christian faith primarily as a set of ‘skills’" for managing life.

The authors aim to make theology relevant in an era of "creeping meaninglessness," Volf says, by engaging in "great questions of who we are as humans and what is our purpose. What is a truly good and flourishing life? We have a hard time formulating a positive vision about how to shape a life and share it with the world." The two took on the challenge because, they write, it is more effective to say "I have a dream" than "I have a complaint."

Contemporary tensions are another reason why theologians need to step up, the authors argue. In For the Life of the World, they write that the work of theology can help Christians "nurture a culture of respect in pluralistic societies and… help craft political regimes of respect." Theologians must align themselves with the ideas they are expressing, Volf and Croasmun note, like "pilgrims seeking understanding."

The book devotes a chapter to the "first theologian, Paul." Modeling themselves on the apostle, believers need to be engaged authentically, not just theoretically, in seeking a life aligned with God’s purpose and presence, the authors argue.

Volf, a Croatian-American immigrant, grew up a Protestant amid Catholics and Orthodox Christians in a Communist nation and witnessed the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia. Having seen violence and religious suppression firsthand, Volf in the book tells theologians that they must avoid "participating and giving ammunition to religious wars, becoming tools and weapons for cultural, economic or political conflicts." Instead, he writes, "We must talk about religious freedom and what it entails, about who we are as human beings and what we ought to desire. If I don’t have this freedom to orient my life this way, I’m not free in any area of life."

Lauren Winner Explores Dangerous Practices

Lauren Winner, associate professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and an Episcopal priest, wrote a book in 2003 on the beauty of Christian practices, Mudhouse Sabbath, in which she described them "all prettied up in a historical vacuum." Fifteen years later, she offers a different approach in The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (Yale Univ., out now).

In Winner’s view, God’s flawless gifts are "damaged" by their human recipients, who overlook the potential for Christian practices to be distorted or misused for destruction, violence, and exploitation. "Because nothing created is untouched by the Fall, Christians should not be surprised when lovely and good, potentially gracious Christian gestures are damaging, or when human beings deploy those Christian gestures in the perpetuation of damage," she writes.

Winner gives examples from the past: the Eucharist was turned into a pretext for murderous attacks on Jews, who were falsely accused of desecrating the host in centuries past; the Bible was twisted to justify slavery as biblical obedience to one’s master; and too often today, baptisms have been trivialized—celebrated as private parties with "creepy baby-face cakes," she says.

But although sin riddled humanity cannot help but misuse or misunderstand God’s gifts at times, Winner writes, people can still recognize the damage that Christian practices can cause and turn to repentance, redressing for past sins and consciously trying to avoid extending the damage into the future. For example, she notes, the church community can "scrutinize its baptismal rites and determine to baptize only at Sunday congregational worship or at deathbeds." She calls on readers to recognize the twisted past when baptisms were violently forced on Jews and other non-Christians and "look for hints of anti-Judaism in your reading of Scripture."

Winner commends a practice of lament, which is "the way Christianity holds together original sin and moral responsibility," she writes. "To lament is to recognize that human creatures cannot wholly repair the world. I can repent of my habit of praying only for citizens; I lament the sin-soaked structure of misbegotten desire that means I will sometimes inevitably pray for the wrong thing."

There’s very little use of I in this book, however. Winner’s earlier books include two memoirs, Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life and Still: Notes on a Mid-faith Crisis. She has also written several works that synthesize biblical exegesis, cultural observations, and personal stories, including Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.

Winner says The Dangers of Christian Practice is "a scholarly departure" because she is not a theologian and the book is "fundamentally concerned with theological questions." She took this approach in order to do a deep exploration. "The topic has been haunting me for a long time," she says. "Practices are deeply important to me, as a priest and personally. I care about this stuff because I love it."

Cathy Lynn Grossman is a former religion, spirituality, and ethics reporter for USA Today.