Book Review: The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner

AviyaKushner

If you have been following me on Goodreads or other social media platforms, or been reading the reviews posted here closely, you will know that I have been on something of a theological quest.  Trying to locate scripture and faith more closely to the original narrative and historical perspective; less with the doctrinal and ideological lens of modern evangelicalism.

So I have been reading and listening to a lot of books and lectures on scripture.  Somewhere along the line I stumbled on The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner and added it to my Amazon wish list.  Seeking out something to listen to on the daily commute I picked it up on Audible.

It turned out very different than I expected. I thought it would be more about language and scripture and the insights available from someone immersed in a Jewish/Hebraic background experiencing the english Bible for the first time. And there was some of that.

But most of that was a jumping off point for a memoir about the author’s family and culture and how that impacted the way she viewed and experienced the world. The exploration of the scripture, and contrasting Hebrew and English approaches, was just, or seemed like just, a hook to explore her life and relationships; including her relationship with faith, tradition, and scripture. Mind you, it was interesting and well done but the discussion of issues with translation left me wanting more.

While taking time to post this review, however, it occurred to me that this might be one of those times that listening to a book in the car can result in missing some details and depth.

When you are distracted reading a hard copy you can flip back a page and re-read.  Listening to an audio book you are less likely to take the time to skip back and re-listen.  In this way things can slip by without you even realizing you missed it.

This review by Cory Johnston at The Literary Review made me want to go back and re-read or re-listen:

In fact, as Aviya Kushner argues to great effect in her new book, The Grammar of God, the cumulative decisions of translators across many centuries have dramatically altered how we, today, experience one of the most important and influential books ever written: The Bible. In a thorough, obsessively detailed comparison of the English and Hebrew versions of The Bible, Kushner offers a fascinating and intimate analysis of how the intricacies of language can profoundly impact even the most cherished of our beliefs.

[…]

Kushner’s book is itself quite personal, frequently blending in memoir and family anecdotes, and is far better for it. The Bible is, after all, a deeply personal book for most people. And although one of the main lessons of Kushner’s investigation is that there is more distance and artifice between the original Bible and its modern reader than many would care to admit, she has done a wonderful job of capturing the passionate complexity of the process that has led us here. The history of the Bible’s many translations is in many ways a history of the people who devoted themselves so genuinely to the text.

Perhaps, expecting a more straightforward approach to issue of translation I overlooked those elements weaved into the memoir and reflections.

Regardless, if you have any interest in the Bible, translation or language I recommend this fascinating book.

The Grammar of God Book Cover The Grammar of God
Aviya Kushner
Religion
Spiegel & Grau
September 8, 2015
272

For readers of Bruce Feiler’s Walking the Bible and Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk comes a powerful exploration of the Bible in translation. Aviya Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking family, reading the Bible in the original Hebrew and debating its meaning over the dinner table. She knew much of it by heart—and was therefore surprised when, while getting her MFA at the University of Iowa, she took the novelist Marilynne Robinson’s class on the Old Testament and discovered she barely recognized the text she thought she knew so well. From differences in the Ten Commandments to a less ambiguous reading of the creation story to a new emphasis on the topic of slavery, the English translation often felt like another book entirely from the one she had grown up with.

Kushner began discussing the experience with Robinson, who became a mentor, and her interest in the differences between the ancient language and the modern one gradually became an obsession. She began what became a ten-year project of reading different versions of the Hebrew Bible in English and traveling the world in the footsteps of the great biblical translators, trying to understand what compelled them to take on a lifetime project that was often considered heretical and in some cases resulted in their deaths.

In this eye-opening chronicle, Kushner tells the story of her vibrant relationship to the Bible, and along the way illustrates how the differences in translation affect our understanding of our culture’s most important written work. A fascinating look at language and the beliefs we hold most dear, The Grammar of God is also a moving tale about leaving home and returning to it, both literally and through reading.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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