Using Koine Responsibly

Title: Exegetical Gems from Biblical Greek –
A Refreshing Guide to Grammar and Interpretation
Author: Benjamin L. Merkle
Genre: Biblical Studies / Translation Theory
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 6/16/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

This book targets a specific audience: people who have already studied at least a semester or two (or equivalent) of koine Greek. If that’s you and you’re looking to enhance your understanding and/or brush up on your long-neglected biblical Greek, I highly recommend this book (also this youtube video). If you don’t fit into that category (which might be almost everyone who regularly reads this blog…sorry to bore you!), this probably isn’t worth your time. It might give you a basic overview of the kinds of things that knowing koine Greek can (and can’t) help you with in New Testament exegesis, but the frequent Greek text and technical jargon will probably make it an exercise in frustration.

The book is divided into many short chapters that cover grammatical issues related to case, tense, voice, mood, etc. Each chapter describes the concept under discussion and provides an example of how understanding it can help in accurate interpretation in a sample passage. There were a few times where I would have liked to see a little bit more thorough argumentation in the interpretation section, but that is the price of brevity I suppose. I appreciate that the author carefully avoids reading more information into a grammatical construction or vocabulary choice than is actually warranted. The whole book illustrates how a knowledge of biblical Greek should be used in ministry, avoiding the pitfalls of common exegetical fallacies.

Overall, this is an excellent resource for sharpening your understanding and use of Koine. If I were a professor of biblical Greek this would be at the top of the collateral reading list for second year (or maybe even second semester) students.

The KJV & Vernacular Translations

Title: Authorized – The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible
Author: Mark Ward
Genre: Theology / Translation Theory
Pages: 154
Rating: 5 of 5

“If the King James Version was good enough for the Apostle Paul, then it’s good enough for me!” Obviously, this statement is (mostly) a caricature of the KJV-Only or KJV-Superiority positions. However, it demonstrates that when it comes to discussing the merits of various English Bible translations, reasonableness and graciousness far too often take a backseat to emotional appeals and exaggerated claims (from both sides).

This book is probably the most gracious, even-handed discussion of the King James Version that I have ever read. It starts with a thoughtful chapter on “what we lose as the the church stops using the KJV” – mostly a sense of historical value, continuity, uniformity, and grandeur when it comes to the language.

The author then goes on to talk about what we gain by having the Bible translated into modern vernacular. He discusses the biblical rationale behind having vernacular translations. For example: the New Testament was originally written in vernacular Koine Greek rather than grand/archaic Classical Greek, the Apostle Paul repeatedly speaks of the necessity of communicating in easily understandable language , the KJV itself was intended to be a vernacular translation back in 1611, the continuously changing nature of language, etc. He answers common objections and shows the reliability and spiritual value of many modern language translations (e.g. the ESV & NIV) without disparaging the historic value or scholarship of the KJV.

He does not go into detailed scholarly arguments about manuscripts and textual families since this is a popular level book (and those arguments are tremendously overblown). However, he does provide this website as a resource to show the slight differences between the different editions of the Greek New Testament that underlie the KJV and more modern translations.

If you are curious about Bible translation or think that the KJV is the only “definitive” English Bible translation fit for mature Christians I urge you to read this book. If you are interested in a slightly more scholarly approach that does go into manuscript/textual issues I would also highly recommend The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism by D. A. Carson. It is quite a bit older (1978), but the general principles discussed in it still hold true.

A closing quote from the book:

I want to change the paradigm we’ve all been assuming. Stop looking for the “best” English Bible. It doesn’t exist. God never said it would. Take up the embarrassment of riches we now have. Make the best use of our multi-translation situation, because it’s truly a great problem to have. (p. 137)

Bio of a Megalomaniac

Title: The Great Successor:
The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un
Author: Anna Fifield
Genre: Biography
Pages: 336
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 6/11/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Given the snarky subtitle of this book I wondered if it was going to be a bit on the satirical side. However, the author provides a serious, well-researched portrait of the eccentric North Korean dictator. She is able to offer some details of his early childhood, school years in Switzerland, rise to power, and political maneuvering at home and in the international community.

Rather than portraying Kim Jong Un as nothing more than a deranged lunatic, Fifield seeks to understand him. She strikes an excellent balance between recognizing him as a canny politician and as a brutal, entitled egomaniac who couldn’t care less about the suffering he inflicts on others to maintain absolute power, an obscenely luxurious lifestyle, and the “adoration” of his people.

Personally, I would have liked to learn a little more about what is faced by religious people (who must be in the extreme minority) in North Korea, but maybe there was no way for the author to obtain this information. Overall, I was very pleased with this book as it provided an informative overview of this horrible little man and his devastated country while seeming to maintain a bit more objectivity than is usual with this topic.

Manipulation & Exploitation

Little Drummer GirlTitle: The Little Drummer Girl
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage
Pages: 430
Rating: 2 of 5

I recently noticed that this book had been turned into a TV series, so I decided that it was finally time to knock it off the TBR list. I was curious to see how LeCarré would handle a female protagonist since all the other books I have read by him are pretty male-centric. It turns out that Charlie, a sex-obsessed actress who dabbles in radical left-wing politics, spends most of the book being manipulated and exploited by Israeli intelligence and Palestinian terrorists. Most of the time she is running on pride, stunned shock, lust, and/or anger. Hardly a strong female lead, but most of LeCarré’s male protagonists are some combination of angry, pathetic, and loathsome, so I suppose Charlie is par for the course.

The overall plot of the book follows Charlie’s “recruitment” (aka kidnapping, browbeating, flattery, and Stockholm syndrome) by Israeli intelligence and her subsequent mission to help track down a major Palestinian terrorist operating in Europe. Throughout the book Palestinians are portrayed relatively sympathetically (and who doesn’t feel compassion for people in refugee camps?). Israelis, on the other hand, are seen primarily through the lens of angry statements of suffering Palestinians and in the person of pragmatic, brutally efficient agents. Ethical explanations by the Jewish characters are little more than casual dismissal of concerns (“we’re saving Jewish lives”) or disillusioned near-agreement with the Palestinians that Israel’s behavior is from the same mold as that which perpetrated the Holocaust. To me the whole thing came off very one-sided and anti-Israeli.

Overall, this book featured the usual gritty realism at which LeCarré excels (thus 2 stars instead of 1). However, a plot centering on the manipulation and exploitation of a young woman and laced with anti-Israeli rhetoric was just plain angering and depressing. LeCarré is always on the disillusioned/angry side, but this was a bit much even for him.

16th Century Conspiracy Theories

Title: The Afterlife of King James IV:
Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King
Author: Keith John Coleman
Genre: History
Pages: 280
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 4/26/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not influence the content of the review)

Any time a famous/infamous person dies there are those who cause a stir with “he’s still alive!” conspiracy theories. This is nothing new. King James IV of Scotland, brother-in-law of King Henry VIII, died at the battle of Flodden in 1513 and was eventually buried in England…probably.

This book collects and discusses a number of alternate stories that circulated after the battle and were exploited for political gain by various factions. The book’s subtitle gives the impression that these were mostly of an Arthurian “taken to faerie” variety, but that is not really the case. There were a couple “prophecy” stories and a one with a “once and future king” vibe, but most of the widespread stories discussed here were of a more mundane survival, exile, betrayal, and/or misidentified corpse variety. It felt a bit bait-and-switch, to be honest. Nevertheless, it was a relatively interesting look at the fog of war, human tendency to react with conspiracy stories in the face of unexpected tragedy, and political exploitation of misinformation.

Bob the AI

Title: We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
(Bobiverse: Volume 1)
Author: Dennis E. Taylor
Genre: AI/Space Exploration Sci-Fi
Pages: 308
Rating: 4 of 5

The feel of this book reminds me of Andy Weir’s The Martian, but with slightly less believable science, a lot less profanity and a lot more hating on Christians. All religious people in the book are caricatured as fanatical proponents (or cowed followers) of anti-intellectual dominion theology with atheism being apparently the only viable opposing viewpoint. Shallow, broad-brush characterization of viewpoints other than the protagonist’s/author’s is a fairly pervasive element, but if you can look past that it’s a pretty fun book.

Our geeky, sarcastic protagonist (Bob) dies, having just signed a contract with a cryonics corporation. He wakes up 117 years later as an AI copy of “original Bob’s” brain, that is made into a self-replicating space probe. The storyline fragments as we get more Bobs, each with his own variations in personality and interests. Plot threads include survival, exploration, politics, warfare, terraforming, social engineering, etc.

I listened to the Audible edition read by Ray Porter. Some of his accents and voices were a bit off when they were supposed to represent other nationalities or TV/movie characters (e.g. his Admiral Ackbar sounded more like Sean Connery at first), but overall his narration gave each of the Bobs their own personality and brought out the frequent humor/irony/sarcasm without overplaying it.

If you like your stories to have a tight plot and/or are easily offended, you should probably give this a miss. If that doesn’t describe you, this book is a fun semi-scientific look at some possible challenges and discoveries in the areas of AI and space exploration.

Restoration

Happy Resurrection Sunday! I hope you enjoy my attempt at blank verse poetry. I wrote this for Easter one year after reading Paradise Lost.

Perfection reigned in Eden’s beauty new.
The man and woman lived in blissful love,
At peace with God, in fellowship divine.
One rule alone they had, a test of faith:
To trust the loving heart of God and live
Or doubting eat and thus give birth to death.

The tempter sowed the seeds of doom-filled doubt:
“True love would not forbid a thing so fair.
This wondrous fruit will make you just like God
Who holds you back from glory, not from death.”
Deceived and proud they ate, defying God
And bringing death upon the human race

And so death reigned o’er Adam’s sinful race
Until the coming of the Lord of Life.
Though God the Son He laid aside His crown,
Came as a servant to this broken world.
He felt its sorrows, wept in grief and pain,
Faced all temptations, yet he did not sin.

As both eternal God and Son of Man
He paid man’s debt in infinite degree.
His guiltless soul was charged with all man’s sins,
And, suffering the Father’s wrath, he died.
Now all was finished; sin was overcome
And death defeated as he rose again.

For those in Christ the fear of death is gone.
Their faith in Him comes ringing down the years:
“In Adam all men die; in Christ they live.”
“For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
“Although they kill us, they do us no harm.”
“One short sleep past we wake eternally.”

One day the blessed hope will come to pass:
The time of restoration of all things
When Jesus Christ returns the dead are raised,
The earth made new, the Kingdom come at last!
No pain, no grief, no death forevermore,
And so shall we be always with the Lord.

– By Joel E. Mitchell

Glorified Fan Fiction

Firefly - Big Damn Hero by [Lovegrove, James, Holder, Nancy]Title: Firefly: Big Damn Hero
Author: James Lovegrove & Nancy Holder
Genre: Glorified Fanfiction
Pages: 336
Rating: 2.5 of 5

What geek wouldn’t jump at the chance for another dip into Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe? This book gives you that opportunity… kind of.

The plot takes place sometime during the original series, so all the main characters are alive. I was going to say “alive and well,” but they all seem to be in especially foul moods and even more prone to violence than usual. Sometimes they act and sound like themselves, but the authors seem incapable of sustaining the right tone (or any kind of consistent tone), jumping from overly-folksy to properly snarky to very vanilla in both dialogue and narration.

Add to this an overlong plot that takes forever to get off the ground as the authors work in references to half the episodes in the original show, and the whole thing feels like glorified fanfiction. Halfway decent fanfiction that offers some interesting backstory and avoids pervy wish-fulfillment, but fanfiction nonetheless.

Indian Evil

Song of Kali by [Simmons, Dan]Title: Song of Kali
Author: Dan Simmons
Genre: Cosmic Horror?
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

I’m not quite sure what to make of this disturbing tale. In it, an American  travels to Calcutta with his wife (who is Indian) and infant daughter in search of a lost book of poems by an author long thought dead. The plot takes forever to get off the ground, but once it does every parent’s worst nightmare ensues.

The author expertly evokes an atmosphere of human misery, darkness, corruption, and horror (some of it too explicit for my taste) that appears to be driven by a great cosmic evil. There’s just enough wiggle room for possible lying, hallucinations, nightmares, etc. that you can’t be 100% sure how much of what is going on is truly supernatural.

If that was all there was to it I’d probably give it an “amazingly atmospheric but a little too disturbing for me” rating. However, the author also seems to be indicting Indian culture in general as almost completely calloused, corrupt, disgusting, and evil. Putting the fullest expression of that accusation in the mouth of an Indian character doesn’t make it any less insulting.

Overall, the book was horrifying and convoluted enough that I kept reading just to see where it was all going. However, once I was done I felt like I had read the ranting of an ethnocentric tourist who visited India, didn’t deal well with culture shock, and decided to turn his negative experience into a horror story. (Also, this is my fourth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).

Nothing but Rabbit Trails

Title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Author: Laurence Sterne
Genre: 18th Century Classic
Pages: 540
Rating: 3 of 5

Have you ever wanted to read a book that was one long string of digressions and rabbit trails, detouring through risqué jokes and never quite getting to the alleged point of the story? Then this is the book for you! Our narrator and eponymous hero isn’t even born until somewhere in volume 3 (of 9), and we learn far more about the life and opinions of his absurdly opinionated father and sweet, eccentric Uncle Toby than his own.

The whole series-of-ridiculous-digressions “plot,” naughty jokes (more than half left to the imagination and self-censored with lines of asterisks), and other weird typographical  choices (a marbled page, curly lines representing the plot up to this point, chapter lengths varying from a couple dozen pages to a single sentence, etc.) were amusing at first and made my chuckle occasionally. However, 540 pages of it (and this is a relatively low page-count edition) was a bit much. Also, I read this in an edition completely without explanatory notes of any kind, so I’m sure that a lot of the literary-allusion humor was lost on me. It was interesting to read as an example of British humor before the straight-laced Victorians, but I’d suggest getting an annotated version of some sort if you decide to read it so that you can fully appreciate it.

And one more thing: I’m using this for my Very Long Classic (>500 pages) category over at the Back to the Classics ChallengeMy edition was 540 pages and many (most?) are significantly longer.