Rereading Narnia

the-magicians-nephewWe’ve been listening once again to Kenneth Branagh’s impeccable reading of Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew. I have always loved this book; it was the first of the Narnia series that I read as a child, and I know it well. Still, hearing this reading brings out elements of the story that I never registered reading it myself — the humor in particular. Some of these scenes are hilarious! You can tell that Branagh is having a ball when he reads Uncle Andrew’s parts, or the scenes featuring Jadis loose in London. I remember being deeply touched when I read the story as a child, but I don’t remember laughing out loud, as I do now, at the comedy.

In any case, it’s a favorite around here, and conversations have been springing up between my daughters. How did old Mrs. LeFay get hold of Atlantean dust, anyway? Why doesn’t Digory get in trouble late in life when he digs up the rings (in The Last Battle), even though Aslan told him never to use them? Is the Wood Between the Worlds related to the mountains of Aslan, and would the witch have died if they’d left her there? Why doesn’t Aslan warn them that she may try to tempt them? (A question I pick up now and then about the Garden of Eden, too.)

It strikes me that I’m witnessing a literary expertise forming, at least of sorts. Lewis himself favored rereadings, and I think he’d be pleased to know how many of us return again and again to his own works — even though he very well might have no answers on the finer points of plotting. But is there any value in getting to know an imaginative world this well? I wonder what others would say about this.

I’d say yes. (Surprised?) The willingness to revisit a book, the ability to stay alert and keep noticing things even after we’ve “been there before,” the effort to connect and harmonize the parts into a whole — all of these seem like useful life skills that can be generalized from reading into other aspects of life. To be able to enjoy and appreciate what’s already familiar is to maintain a level of independence from the need for novelty.

Convenience? Convince me.

This story about the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was on NPR while I was making supper last night. I laughed a cynical laugh.

The story is a giddy pep rally for using “biometric data” — retinal scans, fingerprints, face recognition — to increase tech security by making passwords obsolete. (The Borg, anyone?) It comes on the heels of a week when I’m increasingly aware that technology really does not deliver on its promises because it malfunctions much of the time. Just in the last week, I have:

  • tried to create a connection between my Yamaha keyboard and my laptop; I followed the directions perfectly, everything installed correctly, and then… it failed to work. Files I wanted to save to the computer didn’t get saved.
  • set up a new website on which the software does not work correctly. In the process of trying to figure out the bugs, an update appeared on the dashboard that turned out to be an empty file. So there it is, a place where you can push buttons that are supposed to perform certain tasks… but they don’t.
  • sat down to watch a movie using Chromecast, given to us for Christmas by a relative. 45 minutes later we gave up and watched the movie on the laptop. Chromecast had worked perfectly the day before, but not this day.
  • paid some library fines because two emails sent me by the library to notify me of upcoming due dates did not make it to my mailbox. They’re not in my spam folder either, and other emails from the library have arrived safe and sound before and since. 30 minutes at the mail help site was altogether useless. I’ve discovered that several other emails from other parties also never made it to me.

In each case, hours were lost — hours of my life that could have been spent doing something productive rather than futile, something involving my whole body and mind rather than sitting couchbound staring at a screen. I thought computers were supposed to be MORE rational than people. But this is irrational, altogether capricious activity on the part of machines. “There’s a reason why they do these things,” my husband laughs. “The machines aren’t conspiring against you.”

Said reasons escape me, and the machines aren’t talking. (Yet.) When some merely mechanical device in our home breaks — car, washer, furnace — you can call someone and get them fixed. (This doesn’t happen very often, because they usually work. I don’t have to troubleshoot daily or weekly to get clean clothes.) To do that every time a computer malfunctions would break the bank, but in the abstract world of software, self-diagnosis if often a losing proposition. Which only serves to highlight the basic reality that my life has become involved, sometimes dependent, on technologies I don’t understand at all. And the folks who do understand them are getting more and more of my personal data, and more and more of my money, more and more often — thanks to planned obsolescence.

The two reporters discussing the joys of biometric security conclude with a reference to how “incredibly irritating” it is to remember passwords. But passwords are the easy part. I’d like to keep my fingerprints and retinas to myself, thank you very much. What happens if when I turn that all over to the tech companies and then get hacked? Various sci fi movies come to mind in which sinister characters steal body parts to gain access to biometric security systems.

More to the point, though, is the feeling of selling one’s soul. These security measures are billed as privacy protectors. But they are taking our private data to achieve it. And you can bet they won’t work flawlessly, as promised.

How long will it take before the projected scenarios are based on anything close to reality — rather on the assumption that everything will work as planned, with no unforeseen glitches, and no vulnerabilities? It’s easy enough for the techie to point out that I obviously enjoy some technologies. I’m writing this on a computer; I love my car, my oven, my washer and dryer, etc. But that doesn’t mean I have to love every new development that comes along, or that I shouldn’t do a little personal cost-benefit analysis before signing on to the latest and greatest. A little wise skepticism seems to be in order regarding the  sunny biometric future projected by the Consumer Electronics Show.

More work…?

If we have such an effective attentional filter, why can’t we filter out distractions better than we can? Why is information overload such a serious problem now?

For one thing, we’re doing more than ever before. The promise of a computerized society, we were told, was that it would relegate to machines all of the repetitive drudgery of work, allowing us humans to pursue loftier purposes and have more leisure time. It didn’t work out this way. Instead of more time, most of us have less. Companies large and small have off-loaded work onto the backs of consumers. Things that used to be done for us, as part of the value-added service of working with a company, we are now expected to do ourselves. With air travel, we’re now expected to complete our own reservations and check-ins, jobs that used to be done by airline employees or travel agents. At the grocery store, we’re expected to bag our own groceries and, in some supermarkets, to scan our own purchases. We pump our own gas at filling stations. Telephone operators used to look up numbers for us. Some companies no longer send out bills for their services — we’re expected to log in to their website, access our account, retrieve our bill, and initiate an electronic payment; in effect, do the job of the company for them. Collectively, this is known as shadow work — it represents a kind of parallel, shadow economy in which a lot of the service we expect from companies has been transferred to the consumer. Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it. It is responsible for taking a great deal of the leisure time we thought we would all have in the twenty-first century. (Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind)

OrganizedMindI initially excerpted this passage here to agree with it, but by the time I’ve finished typing it out, I find more areas of disagreement than agreement.

For one thing, the whole passage is overstated. “More [work] than ever before.” Seriously? More than settlers who had to hunt and dress game, clear fields, tend livestock and gardens, wash clothes by hand, deliver their babies and remedy their own illnesses, and build their homes? Does accessing my account online — a process that takes well under five minutes — even compare?

And for each of these fairly trivial tasks we may now need to do ourselves, others are released: balancing the checkbook, calling or driving to the travel agent’s office, writing out checks and envelopes and buying stamps to pay the bills vs. paying online or via automatic deduction. I suspect the net result is that we’re doing less than ever before — certainly not more.

Are we really “expected to” bag our own groceries and pump our own gas? We have these options but are not forced to choose them.

There is an implicit snobbery in the passage as well. “Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it.” Who defines which kinds of drudgery we’re entitled to think of as “the work of others”?

The “shadow work” the author complains that we should expect from companies is transferred to us because the companies themselves, in many cases, are leaner in their use of human labor, thanks to the increasing automation of the workplace. This is something that Nicholas Carr writes about in The Glass Cage, and he’s rightly troubled. The possibilities for job creation are shrinking dramatically because machines are, even considering the initial expenditure of implementing them, cheaper than people. But in any case, automation explains the increase of “shadow work.”

I find this passage less compelling than I did at first reading. But nevertheless, the reason I perked up my ears was the sense that we are increasingly “busy,” and seem to have less to show for it. I’m interested in exploring why this is, and I think this book may have something worth hearing on the subject before I’m finished with it. It’s certainly gotten my attention in its summary of the increase of information, and the stress our daily decision-making load puts on our attentional faculties. It could help to explain the fatigue I’ve become aware of in myself — part of the reason my reading has dwindled so much, and this blog has been so silent for so long.

A Love Observed

991883Now 14 years old, this book doesn’t represent cutting edge scholarship on the marriage between Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. I saw it on the shelf at the library, and as a perpetual student of Lewis I was immediately interested.

A Love Observed: Joy Davidman’s Life & Marriage to C.S. Lewis was apparently written to fill in gaps, and correct misimpressions, in the movie Shadowlands. As a former director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, author Lyle Dorsett brings considerable knowledge to bear on his topic.

It makes for interesting reading. I finished the book quickly, gaining a much fuller perspective on Joy Davidman’s life. She appears in other biographies I’ve read of Lewis, yet now that I’ve read this book I realize that she has always been presented as a peripheral figure, and a somewhat stereotyped one at that. Yes, her New York style and assertive manner were part of who she was. But she was many other things as well over the course of her life, and there is much here about the forces and experiences that shaped her from her childhood health issues and parental relationships, through her brilliant scholarly achievements, to her literary development and troubled marriage, her period of committed communism, her conversion, and her eventual relationship with C.S. Lewis.

If I take anything away from a consideration of Joy Davidman’s life, it’s her unapologetic individualism. She was who she was, difficult for some people to deal with, sometimes explosive, but always faithful to her sense of what was true and good. She did not lapse into habit, or into prescribed roles, and she certainly endured her share of hardship and pain.

While there is a sense of great fulfillment for both her and Lewis in their marriage, there is also a curious mutedness to her life’s impact beyond her significance to him. She was an author in her own right, a fiercely intelligent thinker, a force to be reckoned with. Yet if not for her marriage to Lewis, few would know of her. I puzzle over this, and remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers with its argument that more than mere talent is required for success; one must have certain other personal qualities and interpersonal connections before raw giftedness can achieve its full outcome.

Like any Christian life story, this leaves me with a vivid impression of God’s endless creativity in loving his children and revealing himself to those who truly seek him.

Over Sea, Under Stone

11312I started reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone aloud to my daughters. But as often happens, our pace was so slow that I grew impatient, carried the book off like a lion dragging prey to its den, and tore through it myself. I plan to finish reading it aloud, but at least I know the big picture now, and have experienced the story at the proper pace.

Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the Dark Is Rising sequence, a 4-book series that I missed as a child. Somehow or other I stumbled upon it recently and thought I’d try it as a read-aloud. One daughter in particular is partial to fantasy, and I’m not always sure how she’s processing what she reads. I thought it would be a good idea to work through some fantasy together.

This book is actually more mystery than fantasy. It takes place in a fictional village said to be based on Mevagissey, in Cornwall, and the tale is filled with Arthurian associations, evocations of the ancient past, seaside ambience and in general a sense that we are on the edge of mysteries we only partly understand. The central mystery involves an ancient map (or “manuscript”) three children find in a hidden attic of the old house in which they stay with their enigmatic Uncle Merry. In the process of deciphering its clues, Simon, Jane and Barney discover it will lead them to the grail, engage Uncle Merry as an important ally, and lead them into the path of dark and dangerous enemies. I liked the story’s atmosphere, which balances us at all times between the present and the past, the mundane and the mythic, the material and the fantastic.

OverSeaUnlike Eustace of Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who had read “none of the right books” and did not recognize a dragon till he turned into one, the children of Over Sea, Under Stone bring the right kind of knowledge to the task of interpreting the map and grasping its significance. They know about King Arthur. They quickly intuit how the map — which operates through a sequence of clues — works. They understand natural phenomena, like the behavior of the moon and the tides, and they’ve read enough about Cornwall to know a thing or two about its history. They grasp geography and have excellent situational awareness. (I couldn’t help but think of the book I read immediately prior to this one, The Glass Cage, which discusses how the kind of spatial orientation developed through study of paper maps rather than electronic GPS devices actually strengthens the brain. And in thinking of the breadth of these childrens’ general knowledge, I wondered how a modern-day child’s intellectual toolbox, shaped by a very different concept of education, would compare.)

All in all they warrant the trust Uncle Merry places in them when they confide in him about the finding of the manuscript. He has a role to play, but he considers deciphering the map to be their quest and leaves the responsibility in their hands. The stakes are high, but Simon, Jane and Barney are equal to the task — even though they do commit some of the usual mistakes and make some of the usual naive judgments over the course of their adventure. They face real danger, and I can understand why so many readers have found this to be a page turner.

51NCM9DNnEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The characterizations of good and evil are vivid and powerful. I wonder if, as a child reader, I would have felt the creepiness of the bad characters’ stalking and spying on the children of the story. I think I would have; I certainly did as a parent. Uncle Merry has a mythic grandeur, all clarity and depth and mystery. And like the best stories, his respect for his young compatriots gives him even more heroic force.

I’d like to read the other books in the sequence, of which several reviewers have said that this first book is the weakest installment. I liked it very much. That bodes well for any future forays into Susan Cooper’s fictional world.

*Edited to add (January 2015): I ended up not liking The Dark Is Rising, and never ventured farther into the series.

Automation on The Jetsons

The Glass Cage

The-Glass-Cage-book-coverA few years ago, I read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, which studied the effects of social media on our relationships. Though I really liked the book, I couldn’t relate as well to the earlier portions that focused on the development of robots. “What does this have to do with me?” I wondered.

I feel differently now. A few weeks ago, I saw a headline about developing robot nurses to treat Ebola patients. Last week I saw another headline, this one about a Google computer that programs itself. Drones regularly appear in headlines (and even in YouTube videos when they become the hapless prey of cruising red tailed hawks). More and more, problems I didn’t know I had are being solved through various electronic devices. Where is it all headed?

When I heard about Nicholas Carr’s new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us in this interview on NPR, I was intrigued. Several times as I read it, I remembered Carr’s comment in The Shallows that he missed his less distractible, pre-internet brain. Clearly he’s found it again. A more thoroughgoing discussion of the inroads automation is making in our lives (even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as “techies”) is difficult to imagine. From the autopilot capabilities of the aviation and automotive industries, to the computerization of the medical industry, to the software used by architects, to the GPS on our iPhones and the auto suggest when we perform a Google search — and more — Carr unpacks the question of what reliance on machines does to us.

There are several things I liked about the book (though the picture it gives us is quite sobering). One is Carr’s balanced perspective. He is not anti-technology, but rather a proponent of thoughtful engagement with it. A devotee of the technology-centric approach to life would be hard-pressed to find reasonable evidence that Carr is a strident neo-Luddite and can therefore be dismissed.

The factual content of the book makes it a fascinating read. Though I felt dismayed by many of the developments discussed in these pages, I learned a great deal and found it unfailingly thought-provoking. Whether I was reading about Inuit hunters, Robert Frost poems, airline accidents, Google Glass, or the contrast between human-centric and technology-centric design,  I kept wanting to put the book down and think about it. Carr’s discussion is insightful and encompasses the personal, intellectual, physical, and moral dimensions of automation, leaving us with plenty to think about.

Some of it made me mad. For instance, I read that the Rand corporation did a study using a simulator around ten years ago and reported giddily that medical care would be greatly improved if it transitioned from paper to electronic records. Millions of taxpayer dollars were immediately poured into the process only to reveal a few years later that it wasn’t panning out after all. We can’t go back. We have to live with that — even though it seems to be resulting in worse patient care and higher costs.

Some of it made me sad. When I read that the younger generation of Inuit hunters, legendary for their navigational skills using cues from nature, are becoming dependent on electronic GPS and consequently experiencing more accidents and even deaths, I thought about how quickly the inheritance of knowledge and wisdom can die out — only to be replaced by something vastly inferior.

Some of it made me feel hopeful because it vindicated my own hunches. For instance, did you know that those who use paper maps (vs. electronic GPS) actually grow more gray matter? Did you know that they age better? Well, okay, those weren’t hunches…. but I have felt that my iPhone’s GPS frustrates me by giving me such a small segment of the picture, and making me a blue dot in the center. (It’s similar to the way my Kindle strands me on a single page, without a tactile sense of the context among other pages or an easy way to flip backward and forward.) I’m apparently not alone in my attachment to paper maps.

Edited to add: Today (Nov. 8), I see a news story about how in 2025, 50% of today’s occupations will no longer exist. Before reading The Glass Cage, I would have probably laughed this article off. But the book does include discussion of the impact of technology in the workplace, and in fact automation does replace people. Maybe I’m glad to be in the humanities after all. Robot humanities faculty would be a contradiction in terms… wouldn’t it? In any case, the article exhibits typically rose-tinted glasses regarding the way technology frees people from the monotonous and the mundane so that their work can be more interesting and creative. We’ll just hope that’s not code for “collecting unemployment.”

I suppose that you could put this book in a nutshell by saying it’s an extended development of the familiar mantra “Use it or lose it.” Highly prized skills and capabilities can atrophy when we are reduced to merely monitoring the screens in our lives. But ultimately The Glass Cage exhorts us to think about what it means to be human, and how we can preserve wholeness, risk, creativity, physicality, moral reasoning, and mastery over the gadgets and systems so solicitous to provide friction-free lives before we even ask. Dependence on technology is really dependence on the human entities behind it — entities that may be quite sincere in their belief that they are improving our quality of life, but that have a strong personal interest in commercial success and may not share our values and beliefs. We are better off in the long run if we interrogate the “improvements” that stream our way and think about what really gives our lives meaning. We may find we don’t want so much labor saved after all.

The Bible Tells Me… What?

So here I am, again, writing about The Bible Tells Me So — which I already reviewed here. I’ve continued mulling over the book, bothered by various things. I wanted to return and complete my earlier representation of my experience with it here.

Basically, I think it reflects some degree of scholarly hubris on the part of its author, Peter Enns. I have a lot of respect for him, and I believe his intentions with the book are good and God-honoring. But the overall result is to make the Bible into a book that’s not so much a human-divine hybrid as a human recasting of the divine. It never really deals with the resulting elephant in the room, which is: why bother to read it? There are plenty of other ancient stories regarded as fairy tales. Why read this one as anything more? Somehow, the recommendation to defer to tradition and read in faith rings hollow (quoted in my review) after all that’s gone before.

For instance, after a discussion of how troubling it is that God would order genocide, it suggests that God simply didn’t tell the Israelites to attack and destroy the Canaanites; they just thought he did. Archaeology hasn’t confirmed the story either. Same with the story of the dramatic exodus from Egypt. No archaeological evidence unearthed of Pharoah’s army, and no extra-biblical accounts of the tale. Just stories, then, says Mr. Enns. But that’s okay, because God likes stories. He likes for his children to make stories about him, even when they are filled not with occasional factual errors based on the knowledge limitations of the time, but with grand misconstruals of God’s character and communication with human beings.

It takes the point too far. One wonders how the author feels so confident making a pronouncement of this scale after so many centuries.

One of the main thrusts of the book is that it has been wrongly read — and defended — as a literal historical or scientific “manual for living.” We should not project modern questions and concerns on to an ancient text written by people with a tribal mentality. True enough. It doesn’t reward efforts to wring geology and biology and physics and astronomy out of it. Still, it claims to be “inspired by God.” In the passages about Israel’s history — tales that are not offered as mythical — we can expect to see a flat earth as the conceptual framework, different concepts of time, imprecise numbers, some exaggeration. But assertions of things that never happened? That’s a little different.

I wonder if the author is committing the very error he warns against: bringing a modern sensibility to an ancient text and saying, “This can’t be true. God can’t be like this.”

I’m not saying I don’t struggle with the Bible. There’s plenty there to stop us in our tracks and make us struggle and question and pray and seek answers. I struggle with the violence too, and the many supernatural events recounted matter-of-factly in the Old Testament.

But the fact that I struggle with it doesn’t mean I can make it disappear. In the end I am much more comfortable concluding that somehow, the ancient writers didn’t get it totally wrong. They did capture some aspects of God, however mystifying to me. And even if they exaggerated, the didn’t make up historical accounts out of thin air.

My faith can accept the uncertainty of this. But the seeming certainty of The Bible Tells Me So — a certainty that doesn’t even stop short of proposing that the Son of God “creatively interpreted” the Scriptures he himself inspired — seems to overreach. I was listening for a humility that should accompany study of the Bible, but I had a hard time hearing it in The Bible Tells Me So.

John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)

John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)

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Lessons from a Sheepdog

17654_w185Phillip Keller’s Lessons from a Sheepdog was a read-aloud over the summer. All of us — my daughters, husband, and I — loved it. For me, it was a second reading of this classic by the author who’s perhaps more well-known for A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. More recently, I’ve been working my way through the latter on my own, but Lessons from a Sheepdog remains my hands-down favorite. It recounts the tale of Keller’s border collie Lass, which he rescued as a young man just starting a sheep farm in Vancouver.

When he first came upon Lass, she belonged to a city-dweller, and she was reduced to a life of being hobbled on a short chain because of her chasing habits and general unfitness to be a house pet. The very qualities that made her a poor house dog had the potential to make her a fabulous sheep dog — the vocation for which border collies are bred. But there was no guarantee at the beginning that she would work out. She was three years old, untrained, snarling, and fearful when Keller brought her home. The tale of the relationship that developed between her and her master, and the transformation brought about by a life of purpose, brought tears more than once as we read it.

Maybe it’s because we have always had border collies. Currently we have Lucy, who’s just a few weeks shy of a year old now. We recognized her in Lass.

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But more likely it’s a combination of this enthusiasm for the breed, our memories of our own dogs, and the deep spiritual insight Keller brings to his story. He learned a lot about God through his relationship with Lass, and each chapter explores a different facet of his discovery. The illustrations are vivid and memorable, seasoned with Keller’s knowledge of farming and appreciation for the natural world. The book is a truthful and wise recounting of his spiritual journey.

I’ve reread the first chapter, which tells of the first meeting between Lass and Keller, many times. It’s just… powerful. But this is the first time in many years I’ve reread the whole book, and it was all the more meaningful sharing it aloud with my family. Highly recommended.

Why bother?

“When we reflect that ‘sentence’ means, literally, ‘a way of thinking’ (Latin: sententia) and that it comes from the Latin sentire, to feel, we realize that the concepts of sentence and sentence structure are not merely grammatical or merely academic — not negligible in any sense. A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought — what we have to think with, and what we have to think in. It is, moreover, a feelable thought, a thought that impresses its sense not just on our understanding, but on our hearing, our sense of rhythm and proportion. It is a pattern of felt sense.” (Wendell Berry, “Standing by Words,” emphasis added)

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My eighth grader was asking me last week if I ever thought about whether it was a compound, mixed, or compound-complex sentence that I was writing, and whether I then wrote it down with attention to every phrase and sentence part — adjective, noun, direct object, etc. Brilliant teacher that I am, I extracted the pith of her question: “What’s the point of sentence diagramming?”

She is doomed to diagram sentences, because we use Rod and Staff English. And what she does at the eighth grade level is pretty challenging. I myself only had to practice sentence diagramming twice in all my years of education: in eighth grade, and in a graduate linguistics course. She has been doing it steadily for years now.

Her question is common enough. I have a feeling the only place sentence diagramming is still done (occasionally) is among homeschoolers, and not by all of them. No one seems to like it. (Except geeks like myself, for whom it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle.) And no one seems to know why we should bother with it.

I’m not altogether sure myself. What I told my eighth grader is that it’s like working with legos. Once you learn the different kinds of building blocks, you can put them together to create anything you want without having to think about it. You just reach for what you need, and you know what looks right, and you know how to structure something that will do what it’s supposed to do.

But today I stumbled upon this wonderful definition of a sentence in Wendell Berry’s 1979 essay “Standing by Words.” As is usually the case, he lays his hand with precision and elegance on the heart of the matter. Probably no one thinks in terms of grammatical labels when they build sentences, but they’re helpful in understanding how sentences work — and sentences provide the opportunities and limits through which we can connect with the world outside ourselves. A little tedium is a small price to pay in learning to use them well.

Think she’ll buy it? Her first response was, “I can think without sentences.” But try coming up with an actual thought without a sentence…

 

More than once in The Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns affirms the tradition of debate in Judaism. I wanted to offer an extended quotation toward the end of the book that captures that tradition. I love the picture it gives us of God:

A famous story from the Talmud, Judaism’s early medieval core text on Jewish faith and life, records a debate between rabbis. The debate is over whether an oven that has been made impure could be purified and used again.

The majority opinion was no but one rabbi, Eliezar, argued the opposite, but, alas, to no avail. Exasperated by his colleagues’ dim-wittedness, he challenged them with some miracles. If I am right, he said, may that tree over there move — whereupon the tree picked itself up and moved about the length of a football field. But the others weren’t convinced. They were certain their argument from the Bible was sure, and no moving tree was going to convince them otherwise.

Eliezar wouldn’t give up. He called a stream to reverse course and then the walls of the house to bend inward, but the others responded the same way. Finally, Eliezar asked whether hearing the heavenly voice of God himself would convince them, at which point the voice of God declared that Eliezar was absolutely right.

This didn’t work either. The others responded that God had already given his Torah on Mount Sinai. In that Torah we read that God’s commands are “not in heaven” but right here, available to all. God himself is bound by his own recorded words in Torah, and so even his heavenly voice can’t change that.

At hearing this, God laughed with delight. “My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!”

This story illustrates something Judaism seems to have a good handle on but that many Christians do not: debating each other, and debating God, is what God wants. (Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So)