The Enchanted April


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This novel about the search for happiness was first published in 1923. I have just re-read it from my mother’s worn but lovely copy. The book has been republished in recent years, but the older format speaks its own language. She had folded inside the front cover reviews, now faded and fragile, of the 1992 film made from the book. Let me assure you up front that I, too, enjoyed that film version thoroughly. This post is not a slam on movies made from books — at least not in this instance.  One might wonder, then, why I chose this book for my blog — whose purpose is to keep extraordinary books alive in our imaginations, not slipping out of sight over the cultural horizon — since the book has been made into a film twice (1935 as well as 1992), was early adapted as a stage play (1925) and has recently been adapted yet again, into a Broadway musical (2003). I have not seen any of these older and further adaptations, but their existence speaks of a work whose substance exceeds its original time and place.  At the very least, “Italy” still spells enchantment.

The prolific author, Elizabeth von Arnim, billed herself as simply “Elizabeth.” This copy says, “By the author of “Elizabeth and Her German Garden.” I want her book on my blog because her writing is so nearly perfect. She makes her penetrating observations of character and motive at once succinct, beautiful, and often funny. A book club I once belonged to dissolved in laughter over von Arnim’s novel Vera at the unexpected scene where the heroine looks up to see her husband falling helplessly past their living room window. Death funny? Yes, under von Arnim’s spell. The husband was a conventionally arrogant so and so, as I recall, and there’s an ironic rightness to his demise.  Von Arnim’s heroines are usually mildly trapped in the conventionally stifling marriages which their societies seem to accept as a woman’s rightful state. The Enchanted April takes us along with four English women who, under the sunny influence of a medieval Italian castle on the coast, find the inspiration and courage to reboot their relationships with husbands and other men.

It’s just possible that Elizabeth went on a bit too long detailing these transformations, but who cares? We are there, as a fifth woman with a deliciously long month in which to reinvent our lives inspired by the kaleidoscopic evolution of a fragrant Italian garden in April. Ellizabeth herself had visited the castle, giving her voice added authenticity.

Enchanted April fronticepieceThis faded fronticepiece from the 1923 novel conveys something of the atmosphere of the setting within which the four strangers forge, or otherwise form by quirk or default, new self-awareness and relationships with each other and with the men they invite or otherwise find inserted into their month of joint solitude.

The reason I wish the original 1923 story preserved is twofold: 1) Elizabeth’s exquisitely pungent writing, and 2) the wide and deep exploration of her characters possible to a thoughtful prose writer.

Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony

Let’s not lose sight of this still-useful old timer (my copy is published by Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL , copyright 1967; ISBN: 0-87788-724-1). The author is J. B. Phillips, Anglican priest, who translated the New Testament during the era of the Second World War, in London, UK.

What I find keepable about this work, aside from its author’s devout and humbled Christianity, is the clarity of his observations about the texts which flowed from Phillips’ mental transformation during the years it took him to complete his translation.

He set to his task with his mind fixed in a very conventional — respectful but distant — perception of the Holy Scriptures. Because he dug into the original languages of the Bible, he slipped behind the seductive beauty of the King James Version and the ball-and-chain of some intervening church doctrines laced with human opinion, and surprised himself into a totally new and productive relationship with the books of the Bible, their authors, original auditors and readers.

The book records his discoveries, his doubts and questions — their reassurances and at least partial answers.

Fashions in theology come and go, as in almost every department of life, but the Bible scholar who works with the original languages has the most likelihood of producing a lasting translation. Phillips’ intellect gained substance through his submersion in the spirituality of the early Christians. He found himself a more effective pastor, especially with young people, after he could share the New Testament in dignified but contemporary language.

Shades of William Tyndale, the first Englishman to translate Scripture from its original languages. Tyndale, working under the prying noses of Henry VIII and the Holy Roman Emperor, was martyred for his achievements. By Phillips’ time, Bible scholarship had become safer, and we are blest that he could leave us a completed translation as well as this memoir of his efforts.

Perhaps unknowingly, Phillips experienced the ring of truth that permeates the following passage from the works of another Christian Bible scholar and theologian:

“Acquaintance with the original texts, and willingness to give up human beliefs (established by hierarchies, and instigated sometimes by the worst passions of men), open the way for Christian Science [i.e., Christianity itself] to be understood, and make the Bible the chart of life, where the buoys and healing currents of Truth are pointed out” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy, p. 24. first published, 1875).



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A new Bible study tool has arrived. Contexticon is Web-based software for in-depth research into the original texts of the New Testament — and one does not need to know a word of Greek in order to use it.  Sponsored by the Endowment for Biblical Research, the painstaking work of digging for the original range of usage for key words employed by the New Testament writers is the ongoing achievement of a number of top scholars from universities and schools of theology.  Their research is not only into Bible manuscripts, but into secular writings of the day, so one may see how the NT writers either made similar usage or established special definitions of common words. In the process, the student bypasses centuries of creed, dogma, and sometimes faulty interpretation (not to mention the evolution of language). As the name implies, Contexticon does not simply define words, as would a dictionary, but presents them in broad he context. Contexticon bills itself as an “interactive laboratory for exploring how the words of the New Testament authors were understood by audiences of their day.”  The result is a fresh reading of much-loved texts.

A key feature is that Contexticon is strictly non-denominational. The author/researchers and editors represent a wide range of religious backgrounds but share a common love of the project and a high standard of scholarship.

The software is structured to present complex material in a step-by-step, user-friendly format. Each highlighted word can be studied on a basic level, or one may go deeper — and deeper. Being Web-based, the subscriber owns a package that is automatically updated every time a new term or other improvement is added. This is not free software, but an introductory, one-month subscription is available.

Contexticon has become my go-to tool for New Testament research. The only caveat I have is to state that Contexticon is a work in progress. The research team has posted many key words, but sometimes I have the disappointment of wishing to study the background of a term which they have not yet covered. So don’t give up your Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament or other resource, but do take Contexticon for a test drive! Just Google it and go.

Daughter of Jerusalem


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by Joanne Otto (Fastpencil Press, 2013)

This new novel, aimed at the young adult market but readily enjoyable by adults, plunges the reader into the bustling word of first century Jerusalem. It’s also the world of Mara, a teen-age Jewess, who in her struggle to find and realize her full identity and completeness, has an experience millions might envy. She meets and talks with Yeshua, known to us as Jesus the Christ.

With her older sister just married and suitors already visiting her father, Mara tries to find wiggle room to continue her Torah studies as long as possible before taking up the inevitable duties of home and hearth.  Her inner turmoil is only a microcosm of the ferment in the city. Yeshua speaks the truth to error, stirring the population — now swollen with crowds of pilgrims — to a higher and higher pitch. Many believe; many others long to believe but know more certainly than they know their own names that should Yeshua spark a riot, the Roman overlords would clamp down so hard that the rest of the Jews’ remaining liberties would be swept away overnight. What to do?

Mara’s brief contacts with Yeshua, and after his execution an earth-shaking interview with his disciple Mary of Magdala, change Mara’s life in ways she could not have foretold.

I read this book myself with great interest (the author is a long-time friend), and have since shared it with patients and residents of a Christian Science care facility. Everyone at the facility is by choice a Bible scholar to some degree; many have dug in deeply. Otto’s scholarship is a ready match for the serious Bible student, yet simple and clear enough to engage the beginner.

At 88 pages, the book is snugly packed with its story within a story. The Appendix contains chapter by chapter questions that can facilitate use of the book by a reading group. There is also a glossary of first century Jewish terms.

Recommended reading and sharing!


Island of Peace in an Ocean of Unrest: The Letters of Dorothy von Moltke


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The sub/subtitle here is: An Extraordinary Woman’s Letters Witness Germany’s Descent into Chaos. And by the time one reads through all the book titles, the contents has already been made clear.  The author of the book is Catherine R. Hammond. Publisher: Nebbadoon Press, 2013.

Dorothy Rose Inness was a young South African woman, born into a highly placed English-speaking family. After meeting and marrying a young German count, she kept up a steady correspondence with her parents as she learned to negotiate the mores of east German gentry, circa 1905. As hard-working mistress of a large, agricultural estate and devoted wife of an aristocrat, she had daily contact with all levels of German society. She learned to love her new life, which eventually included five children, and so does the reader, though both come to see and deprecate the cultural characteristics and political mistakes that made Germany vulnerable to Nazism and Hitler’s rough-shod rise to power.

At the same time, this is the story of the rise of Christian Science in Germany, told from an outside/insider’s point of view. This book contrasts the viewpoint of the the well-known Christian Science in Germany by Frances Thurber Seale, the Christian Science practitioner sent by the church to Germany to introduce that movement.

Count von Moltke, after witnessing an attention-getting healing or two, became a student, took class instruction, and became a busy, full-time practitioner in Berlin. He soon was made the first Christian Science Committee on Publication in Germany, charged with correcting misinformation — rumors and half-truths rampant around the new faith and way of life — that would create impositions on the German public. Dorothy early on saw the value of Christian Science and became an earnest student, too. They both worked on the first translation of Science & Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy, into German.

The book consists of letters from Dorothy to her parents in South Africa, woven together almost “as-was” by Catherine R. Hammond. For all the World War I and II films I’ve seen, history lectures attended, etc., this offers the best insight into that period’s sad descent from beauty and purpose into national degradation.  For instance, I had been taught to deprecate Lord Astor’s sympathy with the post-WWI rise of new nationalism in Germany. In Britain, and consequently in America, such Brits were seen as 5th columnists. However, Dorothy saw how Astor’s respectful communication with the new German government helped exempt the burgeoning Christian Science church from the persecution with which the Nazis attempted to flatten other “foreign” churches. By the time Hitler’s radar swept over the Christian Science church, its adherents had been able to grow a much firmer and long-lasting grip on the faith. Astor’s buffer allowed the Christian Science movement in Germany to develop deep enough roots to survive the Holocaust and emerge with strength into modern Germany.

Idioms of the Bible Explained and A Key to the Original Gospels


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The original copyright on this book was 1931 (latest 1985), so I’m not reviewing a resource hot off the press. My copy, purchased in the bookstore of Principia Upper School in St. Louis, MO, is a paperback printed by HarperCollinsSanFrancisco,  ISBN 0-06-064927-5. It’s turning yellow around the edges, being cheaply produced. But oh, is it valuable.

The author, due to his unlikely combination of birth (Assyrian country boy), education (credentialed scholar), and faith (Christian), was uniquely prepared to contribute this work to the wide world of Bible scholarship, translation, and Christian worship. The sad thing is, that his work has not had more impact. The key to his importance is that he grew up a master of the same Aramaic idioms and colloquialisms that were au courant to the writers of the Bible — and to Jesus.

The Middle Eastern languages are noted for swarms of colorful — often flamboyant — idioms.   Here’s a quote from the back cover blurb:  “[Bible writers] wrote for their own people in the plain language of their times, so that even the unlearned might understand God’s Word. Over the centuries, inaccurate translations and misunderstanding of customs and concepts have led to difficulties in bringing the biblical message to contemporary English-speaking readers.”

Some Aramaic idioms we understand readily:  “A pearl of great price”? That’s easy: a great truth. (Matt. 13: 46)  But: “If thy hand or foot offend thee, cut them off”? (Matt. 18: 8) How gruesome! No, not to the original hearers. It was typically-extreme imagery employed to make ones’ point securely:  Stop stealing, Stop trespassing. Just STOP.

The Jews seem to have had a unified sense of life and Life. Heaven and hell were primarily present tense experiences. “Kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 13: 24) would refer to “A universal state; a reign of peace and harmony.” Hell as a location of sorts (when translating the word “Sheol”) was simply a resting place for the departed. We have later Christian doctrine to thank for the concepts of devils as beings, hell as a site of burning damnation, heaven as a place of future reward, etc. Milton, too, is largely responsible for making this imagery concrete to the Western mind and for overlaying that imagery onto the Bible.   [This could lead to a discussion of sharia law. Is it really the ancient thoughts and practices brought forward, or a literal interpretation or misunderstanding of metaphorically-stated, ancient truths?]

When “hell” translates “Gehenna”, I believe it does refer to the burning dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. The Aramaic speakers would have been using the term metaphorically, as disposing of worthless ideas, cultural trash. Lamsa writes that “gates of hell” (Matt. 16: 18) would refer to “evil forces; opposition”.

The Dark Ages were a time when connection with the past was broken. The Renaissance only partially succeeded in reestablishing continuity. The Enlightenment actually created other barriers to the past.  No wonder Mary Baker Eddy wrote what she did in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 24: 4. “Acquaintance with the original texts, and willingness to give up human beliefs (established by hierarchies, and instigated sometimes by the worst passions of men), open the way for Christian Science to be understood, and make the Bible the chart of life, where the buoys and healing currents of Truth are pointed out.”

Just a few more samples. The familiar “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven” is a literal translation of “It is easier to thread a rope through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven.”  We kinda get the meaning of the first, despite its exaggerated imagery. But the second is so reasonable:  The rich man must lose something twined closely about him now, before he is fit for heaven.

“Take the little book and eat it”  = Remember it by heart; make it part of you. (Rev. 10)

“Sweet in my mouth like honey” = I was overcome by the secret the book contained.

“It made my belly bitter.” = I could not impart the secret.

And so it goes.

How Jesus Became God: the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee


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Author: Bart D. Ehrman (HarperOne 2014)

In this book, Ehrman provides a timeline showing the evolution of the way Christians down the centuries have striven to understand the first-century phenomenon of Jesus, in particular, his relationship to God.

The pattern is set in the Gospels:

Mark — Jesus becomes God’s adopted son at his baptism. This is not the second-tier sonship we might envision. In those days in the Roman Empire, a powerful man might adopt an adult man, chosen for the younger man’s demonstrated fine qualities. An adopted son often took precedence over biological sons in the inheritance. The prime example:  Julius Caesar adopted his nephew Octavian, who became the emperor Caesar Augustus while the natural son tiptoed into the shadows of history.

Matthew and Luke:  Further down the line of time and experience, Christians felt Jesus had become the exalted human/son of God through the manner of his divinely induced birth.

John:  Here, Jesus has no human birth recorded. Instead, he is presented as a pre-existent divine being who came to earth as a human and returned to the heavenly realm.  The man Jesus was divinity incarnate.

This summary is a bare synopsis of a very detailed history of Christology, of our attempts to make human sense of the divinely sensible.  It is a tale best told by a non-believer, as here. Erhman has segued from evangelical Christian to a something resembling an agnostic, which seems to help him portray the byways as well as the highways in an evenhanded, unexcited way.  The book provides a valuable tool for understanding Christian perspectives other than one’s own — and certainly can help the thinker evaluate his or her own understanding of Jesus’ identity.

Paul: A Man Who Changed the World

This book was written by Henrietta Buckmaster, published by McGraw-Hill Book Company in 1965.  “My” copy, obtained by interlibrary loan from Wellesley Free library, shows the signs of readers’ love:  Nearly 50 years of food stains, pencil and ink notations, yellowing and mellowing of wood-based paper, frayed cloth cover — all indicative of the treasure inside.

“Paul was the architect of Christianity. Almost every human being in the western world has been influenced by his understanding of the Christ.” Buckmaster’s book is creative nonfiction, with the caveat that everything written about Paul to date had relied heavily on speculation, so that her book, too — based on her deep and wide reading as well as travel to his stomping grounds — emerged from a leap of imagination.

The value of this book to me springs from her research into the world of the 40s and 50s of the common era, setting her spiritual understanding of Paul as closely as can be into the realities of his experience. She brings us there, she brings him here.

The other characters are fleshed out, too. Agrippa, Festus, Barnabas, Silas/Silvanus. What if Buckmaster were writing today, when we know so much more about Phoebe, Priscilla as well as Aquila, Lydia? It’s a mark of her day that every single work in her bibliography was written by a man. And then — there’s Henrietta.

I would like to own a copy of this book, for my own frequent reference.