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What Notta is Reading
December 15, 2017
Yeah About That:
What Notta Is Reading Now
There’s a justifiable claim out there that people don’t read anymore. . Even our so-called President doesn’t read unless the text contains his name – or so the stories go.
It’s not hard to see why. Between TV, social media, 24-hour news and so-called news cycles, sound bytes and video games, we get visual and auditory input that doesn’t seem to require much effort on our part. And we like it so much, we consider ourselves well-informed by them, so here doesn’t seem to be much reason to bother to pick up a book or magazine which might make us think or reconsider what we’ve already decided is so One wonders, then, how bookstores like Barnes and Noble and magazines like Time stay in business. And yet they do. People, real people, are reading and paying attention. Thank G-d for that.
And thank G-d for my students who read. Be it novels or technical magazines or news articles, they are reading. What’s more, a few of them are audacious enough to tell each other what they are reading, what they think of what they are reading, and asking what the others read. Including me. I get the “Miss Jody, are you reading anything interesting?” Inquiry almost once a week. And it is a delight to hear plots and ideas and themes and inferences discussed with the same passion so many talking heads put into hearing themselves talk over each other (one assumes the rudeness stems from a desire to never hear anything that might challenge preconceived and indoctrinated notions).
Then there’s Notta Louden.
She’s as probing with questions about what our students read, what they think of what they are reading and what they learn from the reading as I am. However, she’s terribly circumspect about what she reads. “Oh, this and that,” is her usual reply to the Inquiry. She might mention a news article. She might refer to a magazine series. Her knowledge of literary reference is almost encyclopedic, but, until this last week of classes before our break, she had yet to discuss any particular book or series of books she has read in class.
After a rather lively class discussed World War II and the Holocaust, with the added discussion of The Diary of Ann Frank, I asked Notta about this.
“Eh,” she said with a shrug, “most of what I have been reading would turn these kids off.”
“How so?” I asked. “They seem a pretty open-minded group.”
Notta settled into one of the chairs in my office. Either she or the chair sighed deeply. “You know what our parents used to say: polite people don’t talk about politics or religion.”
“We talk plenty about politics,” I said.
She nodded. “So maybe religion is the last taboo in group conversation. I don’t know why. Half the misunderstandings between Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and this and that wouldn’t exist, if we only talked about it.”
“And listened to each other,” I pointed out.
Notta made the “eh” sound again. “So I’m reading the Bible.”
I did not respond immediately. Our parents may have had a point. Religion is, and always has been, a difficult subject when conversing with a person or persons of different faiths. There is so much room for offense, insult and particularly violence. We live in a time when so many public figures wave Bibles the way a street thug waves a gun, so one does have to tread carefully.
“Are you?” was the best I could do.
“Oh, I’ve read it before. Or had parts read to me. You know the selections for services and bits that sermons use to prove the preacher’s point. For a long time, I thought that was all there was that mattered in the Bible. The rest was all padding, like they had a word- or page-count to meet. Then, not so long ago, I thought it felt more like buying an album – do they still sell vinyl? (they do) – and playing the grooves out of only a few songs. I decided there had to be more there. So I started with Genesis 1.”
“Are you in a study group?”
She shook her head. “I think I’ve lived long enough to be allowed to read for myself. Besides, I want to know what I think before I get someone else’s input. “
“So what do you think?”
She shifted in the chair and one of them creaked. “Oh, I haven’t read all of it yet. There’s a lot to cover.” I agreed. “Of course, you’ve got it a little easier. Your Bible ends with the prophet Malachi, doesn’t it?”
“That part of our Scripture does, yes,“ I said. “That’s our written Scripture, but we have what are transcriptions of Oral Law, too, generally called the Talmud.”
“But that’s written, too, isn’t it?”
“Yes, well, originally it must have been oral.”
“I suppose we have that, too,” Notta allowed, “what with sermons and speeches and so on. But that’s all commentary or somebody else’s understanding of Scripture, isn’t it?” I agreed it probably was. “Not what you or I would get out of it.”
“Not always, but some people find clarification and comfort in the commentary. I suppose they find that and more in the Scripture itself.”
“If they’re looking for it,” Notta said. Her hands suddenly came together, fingers laced, and resting on her denim-skirted lap.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
She drew in a deep breath. “I have begun to think that, if you aren’t looking, you’re not gonna find and the Bible is like any other book. Lots of words on lots of pages. You have to want to get something from it. “
I nodded. It was a thought I had had once before, but never heard someone, especially a Christian someone, articulate before. “So what are you getting out of it? What’s your take on the Bible?”
Her hands opened to rest on her knees. “Well, it’s not a science book.”
“Not in the way we think of science today, no.”
“And it’s not really history.”
Now I made the “eh” sound, extending the vowel sound to indicate partial agreement. “It has history in it, but may not be the best choice for a textbook, no.” A pause.
She leaned forward. “You know what I think? I think the Bible is a love story.”
Now, that was a point of view I’d never considered before, and I said so.
“Think about it: you have the Lover and the Beloved. Lover gets Beloved. Lover loses Beloved. Beloved realizes the mistake, suffers and returns. Over and over again.”
“But sometimes the Lover, if I’m understanding you, can be vengeful. ‘I am a jealous God’1 gets repeated a couple times in the Torah, if memory serves.”
“You know anyone else in love who doesn’t respond to disappointment and desertion with some anger? And who’s to say that vengeance and jealousy isn’t simply our understanding of hurting God? Not to mention the logical result of bad choices on our part.
“No, I think it’s a simple love story of union, separation, regret, troubles that we share with God or blame God for, but God never stops loving us and we always come back to loving God, despite the bumpy roads God takes us on.”
“’Ay, me! For aught that I could ever read/Could ever hear by tale or history,/The course of true love never did run smooth.’”2 I quoted. She gave me a questioning look. “That’s Shakespeare.”
“Oh, now you’re just showing off. But do you see what I mean about the love story?”
“I do, though I have to admit when you first said it, I started thinking more of the romance genre and really hoped you weren’t conflating Scripture with all the steamy love scenes and bodice-ripping.”
Notta grinned at me. “You read the Song of Solomon recently?”
I waved the idea away. “Can we not go there?”
“Yeah, that’s a conversation for another time. But think about it. You know I’m right.”