The Bible’s humanity

This weekend, Mr. Bookworm and I finally got around to watching “Koran by Heart,” an HBO documentary about an annual Koran memorization contest held in Cairo during Ramadan.  The documentary followed three ten-year old children — a boy from Tajikistan, a girl from the Maldives, and a boy from Senegal.  All three children were manifestly bright, curious, and possibly possessed of photographic memories.  And all three were trapped in a system that makes memorizing the Koran in the original Arabic (and none of these three children spoke Arabic) the apex of education.  In other words, this was a sheer memory exercise, unaccompanied by understanding and analysis. Indeed, the boy from Tajikistan was functionally illiterate in both Arabic and Tajik.  This show, more than any other we’ve ever watched, got Mr. Bookworm thinking about the vast chasm between the Western and Islamic worlds.

Spending an hour and a half watching a show about the Koran, which included periodic translations from the text, got me thinking about the Bible.  Around the world, billions of Christians and Jews read the Bible.  It is a living text.  Although last updated two thousand years ago, with the New Testament, it is as vital today as has been at any time during its history.

I don’t believe the Bible’s continuing vitality is simply because people of faith teach it to their children, and have done so for thousands of years.  I believe its ongoing relevance and resonance come about because the Bible is an intensely humanist document.  I cannot think of another religious treatise that is so people-oriented.  God is certainly there, as the creator, covenantor, moralist, teacher, guide and judge, but the Bible is fundamentally a story of human kind:  its virtues, foibles, fears, frustrations, good and evil.  It remains valid today because, while cultures change, people don’t.  We recognize ourselves in the Bible.  Our times may dictate the morality and other lessons we take from the book, but we are all there, every one of us, in all our permutations.

In the same vein, Yiddish is an intensely human-oriented language.  While the Inuits may have a lot of words for snow, jungle dwellers a range of words for animal and plant life, and farmers an endless repertoire of weather and crop words, Yiddish has words about people.  Not blunt, broad words, but myriad delicate words that contemplate the nature of humanity and all shades of human behavior.

Only Yiddish has such words as schlemiel and schlemazel.  You may already know the difference between those words:  the schlemiel spills the soup; the schlemazel gets it in his lap.  Or chutzpah, which is defined by looking at the man who kills both his parents, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.  And how about mensch, which sounds exactly like the German word for person but, in Yiddish, means so much more:  a Yiddish mensch is a truly decent human being.  He’s not just a sentient ape; he is the apex of what ordinary people can aspire to be in their daily lives.

I don’t have anywhere else to go with this post.  I just thought that both the Bible and Yiddish are unusual insofar as they are intensely aware of human nature.


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  • suek

    I’ve said that we’re RC.  As is my SIL.
    She’s contacted my husband (her brother) for more info about islam because her church has been approached by some muslim women about some sort of joint meetings, and she wants to learn more about islam.  She’s also a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, to the extent that in her college years, she was an SDS (is that right?) member.  I think this was before their violent days, but their political philosophy was still what it was.  We don’t discuss politics at family events.
    My husband studied Arabic for a year at the DLI (Department of Language Instititute) in Monterey, and was assigned to Saudi Arabia for a year.  He had a lot of interaction with the locals in the course of his duties, and found them to be “good” people.  He was aware that females were sometimes taken out to the desert and “didn’t return” – but “that is their custom”.  I’ve been stunned at times to hear his acceptance of the unacceptable  –  because “that is their custom”.  We don’t discuss islam these days.
    So…he’s offering books for her to read, and reassuring her that indeed, muslims/arabs are “people of the Book”.  He made that statement to me in discussing his conversation with her.  I asked him “if they are people of the Book, then why is it absolutely prohibited for anyone entering any muslim country to bring the Book with them?”
    For the first time in one of these discussions, he fell silent.
    As I said.  We don’t discuss islam much.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Matthew 7:15-17  Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

    As I have said before on this blog, I know many Muslims that are wonderful human beings. That does not detract from the awful realities of the Quran and Islam.

  • MacG

    Book,  I have to agree with your post especially the part where we see ourselves in it.  For a Holy Book there sure is a lot of unholy behavior recorded.  To me this ‘warts and all’ approach is one of the characteristics that give its unique flavor and for me vouches for its inspiration. It hides not the fickleness of the human, the ethically challenged beings that we are.  I think the bigger picture or the white of the pages behind the printing, beyond this story of mankind’s self centered, myopic way we read of a G-d who pursues relationship with us, to engage on our level, instructing beyond ourselves on how we ought to treat our neighbor.  As we see modeled by Jesus how far he went to restore broken relationships.  For the Christian, Jesus was the final atoning lamb slain before the world began.  G-d for-ordained that there should be a path back for all would seek Him.  There is not only judgement but justice and beyond the judgement paid restored, resurrected lives.  In distinction from the Koran, the Christian scriptures say that we are spiritually dead in our flesh and need to be ‘born again’ as it were, ‘That which gives birth to flesh is flesh but that which gives birth to spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I say you must be born again’.  With man this is impossible but with G-d all things are possible.  G-d our Heavenly Father (origin) does not give gifts as the world does, is not an abuser as the world abuses, but gives life as Jesus proclaimed ‘I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly’.  We have never wandered so far or sunk so low that there is not hope of a holy do-over. This is true hope and true change.

  • David Foster

    suek…”because “that is their custom”…Several years ago, I sat in on a college philosophy course taught by a guy who was not a stereotypical lefty academic—he developed a sophisticated critique of cultural relativism, ie that “it’s ok because that is their custom” idea.

    Most of the kids in the class seemed almost disoriented. The principle of cultural relativism was evidently so embedded in their makeups that they honestly couldn’t imagine an alternative. 

  • MacG

    Suek “I asked him “if they are people of the Book, then why is it absolutely prohibited for anyone entering any muslim country to bring the Book with them?”
    I will unabashedly use this as my own :)  I love those moments where the response does not hit any trigger words and they are left half-cocked knowing that it’s their turn but can’t see any targets.

  • MacG

    “You may already know the difference between those words:  the schlemiel spills the soup; the schlemazel gets it in his lap”
    Now the theme song to ‘Laverne and Shirley’ makes sense!

  • suek

    I always like the story about the Brit and the Indian in regards to suttee…
    Upon being told by the British officer that the wife should not be burned upon the pyre of her husband, the Indian replied that “it is our custom to do so”…
    And the British officer replied, that the Indian should go ahead and follow his custom.  And when it was done, the British officer said, that since they (the British) had customs as well,  he would follow _their_ custom, and hang the Indian…


    “that is their custom”
    Indeed. Murdering wives is quite a custom. 
    she was an SDS (is that right?) member.
    Close enough to my acronym – they were more like a STD 😉

  • Danny Lemieux

    David Foster – do you remember the outlines of his critique? Please share.

  • MacG

    It is my custom to pray in class…

  • Charles Martel

    When Mohammed first channeled Gabriel, he was fairly tolerant toward the “People of the Book” as he was hopeful that Christians and Jews would heed Allah’s call to return to the oldest—and only true—religion, Islam.
    As the Christians and Jews declined the invitation, Mohammed became more militant toward them. Thus the books of both religions went from being honored texts of revealed truth to corrupted and co-opted versions of the original, uncreated Word of Allah that Mohammed was channeling. This excuse is invariably offered when somebody poses a question like why “the Book [Bible]” is not permitted in Muslim utopias like Saudi Arabia. For Muslims, it is the equivalent of selling rotting meat at the market when fresh cuts of lamb are sitting there awaiting appreciative buyers.   
    As for Muslims, of course they deserve our respect and consideration as fellow human beings. But that does not mean I respect the pitiless, savage, hateful religion that holds them in thrall.

  • David Foster

    Danny…it’s been awhile but I’ll try to hit a couple of high points. This was shortly before 9/11….one thing the professor did was to mention a couple examples of what “their customer” actually WAS in certain societies. Since it was pre-9/11, the idea that certain warrior societies considered it perfectly legitimate to test the sharpness of their new swords on any random peasant’s neck was a little more shocking than it is today.

    A key part of the critique was that cultural relativism can offer no guidance when multiple cultures must coexist, for purposes of trade or actually living in the same place.

    I extended this point by noting that multiple cultures can actually coexist within a single individual. A good example of this might be a German officer during the Nazi era. I’m thinking of someone like Ludwig Beck, who was simultaneously part of the Prussian military culture, the European Enlightenment culture, the Protestant or Catholic religious culture (can’t remember which), and probably a few others as well. If moral action is determined strictly by “whatever their culure says,” which of General Beck’s multiple cultures should have told him whether or not he should have jointed the anti-Nazi resistance?

    Can’t remember if this source was used in the course, but C S Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, analyzed what he called the Tao, cross-comparing the moral principles of all major religions and noting considerable commonality. 

  • Charles Martel

    A few years ago we were visited by one of my wife’s sorority sisters, her husband and one of their three sons. Patty was a classic self-hating Jew, a not-so-bright Long Island materialist who wasn’t much of a thinker but fancied herself as a sophisticate. As the demands of classical Judaism both befuddled and repelled her (she adored sleeping around in her younger day), she drifted into Ethical Humanism, an anodyne methadone to the heroin of religion.
    Her husband a charming Italian-born heart surgeon, Salvo, came from very modest, probably even peasant origins, but had risen high, thanks to his intelligence. ambition and native charm. He was the consummate European socialist, who actually believed that long vacations, “free” medicine and spreading one’s cheeks to the Russians were the epitomes of enlightenment.
    Their son, Julian, was about 18 at the time. Our chit-chat eventually turned to politics, where I astonished all with my reactionary stances. When the discussion focused on cultural relativism, Julian declared (his mom beamed as he said it), that all cultures were equal and nobody had the right to claim the superiority of one over the other.
    I asked him why, then, his father or mother could possibly object to my line of thinking since, if it was not superior to theirs, by his lights it certainly wasn’t inferior. He had no answer.
    Then I asked him, “If my culture says it is OK to enslave or kill you, could you possibly object given that your culture is not superior to mine?” He had no answer.
    I told him that perhaps a culture that cannot or will not defend its existence is, indeed, inferior, since it will quickly cease to exist. He not only had no answer, he could not understand the problem.
    Freud might have been on to something when he came up with the concept of thanatos, the subconscious urge toward death. Islam is rife with a fascination with and love for death, as is a large part of the liberal sphere, with its fascination with pacifism and abortion. Julian’s instilled lack of desire to defend even his own right to existence chilled me to the bone.

  • Mike Devx

    Charles M says: Julian declared (his mom beamed as he said it), that all cultures were equal and nobody had the right to claim the superiority of one over the other. […]  Julian’s instilled lack of desire to defend even his own right to existence chilled me to the bone.
    Charles, that kind of fervent devotion to multicultural equality is, to me, a sign of an absolute refusal to make moral or ethical *judgment*.  This kind of person refuses to judge; indeed, cannot judge.  The tools required to form a moral or ethical judgment have been excised.

    Your comment is spot on.  Julian will espouse any number of moral or ethical stands, but they’ve been transmitted to him (by his superiors within his intellectual elite).  I am sure every one of his moral and ethical comments would follow exactly the liberal far-left line.  And he has simply adopted these stands via osmosis, without any form of critical thought whatsoever.  Therefore, when challenged, he can defend NOT ONE of them.

    Yes, it is chilling, isn’t it?

  • Mosonny

    One of my favorite pieces of literature is from Steinbeck’s East of Eden, concerning a passage from Genesis and I think fits well in with Book’s theme.  I read this about 40 years ago, never forgot it.  Too, I studied with rabbis growing up who emphasized to me the same that Book talks about, how the figures in the Old Testament/Torah were profoundly human, with terrible flaws, and sometimes even the most praiseworthy sinned.  Abraham made errors, Moses sinned and was denied the Promised Land because of it.  We can relate to those folks, whether they really existed or not, because of those flaws.  Heck, the entire thing starts out with the awareness of Sin in the Garden.  Adam and Eve are pure at their formation, but are easily corrupted.  The first murder takes place over jealousy not soon thereafter (envy being what’s going on with the class war the Left has initiated or perpetuated/worsened. 

    The passage from the book:
    <<“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”

    “I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”
    “Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
    Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.
    Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
    Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”
    Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”
    “You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”
    “Yes. I can talk better with it.”
    “Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.
    While Lee went to the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”
    “No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”
    Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”
    Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.
    “Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”
    “You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”
    “I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”
    “I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”
    “I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”
    “I have heard of them,” said Samuel.
    “You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”
    “I guess so.”
    “It’s a little different from that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.
    “They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”
    Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”
    Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”
    “And you?” said Samuel.
    “I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking.
    “After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
    Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
    Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
    “Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
    “Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
    Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
    “Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
    Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
    Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
    Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
    “Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

  • Charles Martel

    Mosonny, what a wonderful posting. Thank you.

  • Charles Martel




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    Sorry to chime in so much here, but a thought occurred while I was re-reading Book’s description of Mr. Bookworm watching “Koran by Heart.”
    PBS is showing this program for two reasons: 1.) (racism alert!) so that smug white and upper-middle-class viewers can view “colorful” activities undertaken by little brown people and 2.) as a subliminal reassurance that those Muslims are so stupid that superior secular leftists will be able to use them to advantage to gain power then easily send them to the back of the socialist bus once the left has taken over.
    In both cases, most viewers are totally clueless, both insofar as their racism and their misunderestimation of Islam’s cunning when it comes to its desire and ability to ultimately destroy the West.

  • Jewel

    After reading Mosonny’s story, I have an even greater appreciation for the Jews, the Bible AND the Chinese. Well-told!

  • Danny Lemieux

    Wonderful, Mosonny. Charles, I wouldn’t give up on that 18 year-old you described.

    It sounds as if you made him think, even if it takes years for those seeds you planted to germinate.

    What is it about so many doctors and PhDs that they can be so brilliant in their fields and such utter morons in their everyday, real lives? 

  • Ymarsakar

    Our chit-chat eventually turned to politics, where I astonished all with my reactionary stances.

    Unsurprising. Although i doubt they would be able to grasp the concept that you are a moderate and that in reality, it would be me stating things to them that would exemplify true extremes.


  • Ymarsakar

    A lot of people believe expertise in one field transfers over to another. Doesn’t work like that. So the reason why Danny continues to observe people good at A but horrible at B, but think being brilliant in A equals being brilliant in A to Z, is pretty simple. The reason is this: people think their skills transfer, when it doesn’t. People think if they just specialize and become good at one thing, that this means they are leadership material, high class, “supreme” amongst plebes. Doesn’t work like that.

    To become a true master of human skills, you need to actually learn…. more than one skill, you see. I think it’s hard, but you just have to.

  • DL Sly

    Thank you for that comment.  It is perhaps one of the most uplifting things I have read in a long time.

  • Libby

    CM – I’m going to take a wild guess that Julian is quite comfortable in feeling that Republicans, Evangelical Christians, Southerners, and gun owners are inferior to both himself and most other cultures. Let’s hope he ponders your points and reconsiders his moral relativism.
    This reminds me of a situation at my parents church a few years ago. The were members of St. John’s Episcopal cathedral in Denver, and the church created the Abrahamic Initiative, “a bridge-building effort among Jews, Christians and Muslim” with a Muslim as its leader. He refused to touch (as in shake hands) or even make eye contact with female parishioners (while within the church), and yet their liberal female friends were OK with it. They were so thrilled with the opportunity to explore interfaith relationships that it never occurred to them that they were being treated as inferior to men.

  • Ymarsakar

    Free will is one of those important concepts underlying capitalism, government styles, and theologies.

     It takes sharp study and critical thinking to understand the lay of the land there. Conveniently, the Left does not respect the existence of free will.

  • Ymarsakar

    Has anyone watched the movie Book of Eli? It was a rather strange movie. There is a lone traveler that carries an important book across post apocalyptic MidWest America.

    People want what he has, notably a special kind of book. Basically what happens at the end is a few interesting plot developments and conclusions, where the person that owns the only copy of the Holy Bible, brings the book to a community that is rebuilding civilization.

    One faction wants it as a weapon, to be used to convince people to obey.