The following paper was originally prepared for a graduate level Old Testament survey course in seminary. This paper is a reflective essay written in response to Aviya Kushner’s book The Grammar of God. This paper explores multiple topics including my own initial exposure to the bible, how our family of origin influences how we read the bible, and how a Church influenced by purity psychology has resulted in mistranslation of ancient scriptures to avoid reference to the body. This paper has been modified for publication here.
Kushner Reflection Paper
In contrast to the world of Kushner’s upbringing, the world in which I grew up was not a world where religious texts were sacred. Reading Kushner’s book was an invitation to look through a window into a childhood vastly different from my own. Kushner’s book opened my eyes not only in appreciating the unique language and nuance that her interpretation brings to the Old Testament, but also the role of family of origin in explicitly shaping one’s view of sacred texts and hermeneutics. In this paper I will explore how growing up without exposure to the Bible influences the beliefs and practices I bring to the text today, how the translations and reading practices of my initial exposure (as an adult) to the bible impacts my beliefs and practices presently, and how Kushner’s interpretation and narrative exploration of Genesis 3:8–9 surprised me and enlightened me. At this school we talk often about how families of origin shape the attachment style and world views that become foundational to our spiritual life, but this was the first invitation to consider a more explicit shaping of our hermeneutic by families of origin.
My childhood bookshelf was home to a white patent leather bible. It’s pristine pages contained sacred text partnered with art depicting the inhabitants of the Precious Moments world. I did not spend enough time with this book to remember the translation- or to even make an informed guess. Neither the words it contained or the wide eyed innocence of the children depicted on the pages felt relevant to my young life, so the bible remained on my shelf. Instead, the sacred texts of my childhood were its neighbors on my bookshelf. My librarian mother loaded my bookshelf with classics: Lewis Caroll, Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, Lois Lowry, E.B. White, and, a favorite of late childhood, an unabridged and uncensored edition of Grimm’s Fairytales. This is the context I brought to bible reading when I began reading the bible during my first year of college.
Through providence in the form of an undeservedly large scholarship, I found myself- a defiantly non religious student- attending a conservative Christian college. On my first day of college, I sat at a tiny desk in a bible class and began my first real exposure to the text via the recently published NIV1 translation of the bible. I can name the costs and benefits of my first exposure to the bible occurring in an academic context. One benefit to this late exposure was the opportunity to make the choice to believe or not believe the text on my own, with less concern that my choice to be a Christian was an adoption of theology that was not mine. Additionally, being exposed initially to the bible in an educational context meant there was a framework given to understand the bible from not just a spiritual context but also an academic hermeneutic and a context in which difficult questions about the text were allowed and encouraged. Drawbacks I have experienced from having my first exposure to the bible in an academic context include a tendency to engage with the bible as a primarily academic text rather than a source of life and connection to God.
After my initial exposure to the NIV during college, I began to explore other translations. As a Spoken Word poet, I prefer the cadence and rhythm of the New Living Translation as my primary bible for personal text. When I’m adapting a portion of scripture to spoken word I use multiple translations and often studies of individual words in the text to create my own interpretation. Much like a visual artist’s interpretation of a biblical narrative, my interaction with the text as a poet is to create an image in the listener’s head using words, while acknowledging, like the artist’s image, my poetry is not the text.
My favorite chapter of the Kushner text was the chapter on memory, though perhaps because it aligned most with my own understanding of memory, the nuance she added served to confirm rather than challenge or surprise my understanding of that text. The chapter which produced the most margin notes, questions,and challenges for me was the chapter title “Man”.
I had no idea that the names of the men and women listed in biblical genealogies included, in the original Hebrew context about the person’s “physical reality and emotional destiny”2. Knowing this makes me aware of how much context is inherently lost in the process of translation. In the future this may encourage me to not skip the genealogical sections of the bible, and to include the name in character studies since “using a name to define life is as old as Adam and Eve.”3
I particularly benefited from Kushner’s exploration of the body and body references in Genesis 3:8. I thought it was beautiful that even when she was “corrected” by her mother, she included the redirect as part of her stream-of-consciousness writing. How often do we edit our experiences in order to conceal that in our process of learning we were, for a time, wrong? In leaving in the description of her processing prior to and following this, I gained interesting and helpful information about the human body, how it is described in the original language, and how God relates to the human body.
I connected with Kushner when she voiced her frustration that “often whatever is bodily is blurred, transformed in translators’ hands”4 and have especially come to recognize in recent years how the western church has historically held views about the body being bad that aren’t necessarily reflected in the text. Knowing that dissociation between holiness and the body is held so deep that it impacts translators’ willingness to include bodily references from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, strengthens the belief in me that it’s more faithful to embrace the body than to, as tradition and, according to Kushner, translators, would like us to believe, to curse the physical body. “The body in the bible is specific, and the degree of bodily detail makes the narrative more intimate, more personal, more deeply human.”5
As a counseling student, simultaneously engaging and digesting the new data presented in Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score as I took this course- it was fascinating to see Kusher’s nuanced translation of the Old Testament support so much of what feels like “new” research on trauma and embodiment6. Her statement that the Hebrew reveals that the body is a signpost and its condition is an indicator of far more than just its condition. It’s affirming and encouraging to hear this scholar’s translation of an ancient text affirm a truth I’m exploring in my professional studies.
One beautiful surprise in Kushner’s text was the revelation that contained within the Hebrew word for torture hides the word for Poverty. “Then as now,” she continues, “poverty opens a person up to torture.”
The Holy Bible: New international version, containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. 1978. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Kushner, Aviya. 2015. The grammar of God: a journey into the words and worlds of the Bible. New York : Spiegel & Grau.
Van der Kolk, Bessel A. 2014. The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.
Tyndale House Publishers. 1996. Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers.
CHICAGO STYLE FOOTNOTES:
1The Holy Bible: New international version, containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers. 1978).
2 Aviya Kushner, The grammar of God: a journey into the words and worlds of the Bible. (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 66.
3 Ibid., 68.
4 Ibid., 70.
5 Ibid., 77.
6 Bessel Van Der Kolk, The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. (New York: Viking, 2014)