Saturday, October 17, 2020

A somewhat selective personal history

How do our tongues work their magic? That's too big a question. What magic we have in the complexities of language: truth and satire, symbols and sibilance, stems and gadgets, and memory formation that baffles everyone, how we remember and how we forget. 

Words act and they stimulate action. They form us and we form others, or wish we could. They have power and they show weakness. The words of the Bible particularly have power within the thoughts of the Western world. But what kind of power and whose is it? We favor some passages and not others. Just as we use our words to cajole or to complain, to love or to hate, we use passages of Scripture to clobber and we use passages to console! Can you get sweet and bitter water from the same stream? 

Perhaps if the stream is poisoned then let's fix it. 

When I was young, I was read the lessons morning and evening from age 8 to 16. Both Old and New Testament. We were all given Gideon Bibles containing the NT and Psalms. I think my copy is in the basement somewhere along with a few other bibles collected over the years. 

It was a school situation. Such a good idea and no particular pressure to believe, just a requirement to attend assembly twice a day - i.e. some enforced conformity. In those days the world map was pink. We believed in its pinkness, displaying the wonder of the grand British Empire. Colonialism was more important than Religion. Remember the hymn 'O'er heathen lands afar'? Britain was not, of course, heathen. We were run by expat Brits, some a blessing, some a disaster. All of them trained in violence and passing on their training. This is a poisoned stream.

Aged 10 perhaps, I won the school reading prize for reading from the King James Version. I don't remember much about it, just a vague image of the third story where the classrooms and library were located. What did I know? What should I have known or would I have known if I had never gone to that school? This is unfathomable. I am sure it would have been a full set of other prejudices.

I was at such a school because home was not a suitable place for me. Reasons not supplied, and boarding school not my decision. I was neither for nor against except I was briefly homesick a few days after my eighth birthday. And who has a choice at that age?

Awareness grows (slowly) of past experience, the realities of the world wars, the emptiness of the religious teaching, the negative consequences of colonialism. The images of the Shoa on the News of the World stands out. The news of the world was shown at movie theatres. We had no TV. At school, we had perhaps one Jew, one or two Roman Catholics, no non-whites. 

When I left school at age 16 going on 17 and was at university, there was a certain momentum. I continued singing in the tradition. I came from 9 years in a decent school chapel choir, but the music had been nurtured in a violently abusive environment. It is astonishing that I continued in the choral tradition, but all my singing and conducting and composing was preparation for discovering the music embedded in the Hebrew text 50 years later.

Yet within the churches, I reacted first with atheism. It was a gradual process. Then some years later, I rebounded with a fearful fundamentalism. My zeal is part of my character, not always wisely applied.

I am still zealous. It is still a danger. There is a razor's edge, perhaps belonging to Occam, that I walk along. I believe but I have highly sceptical of absolutist claims of all types. Language just doesn't work the way fundamentalists want it to, in a literal fashion as invented by the first translators of the Bible. Fortunately, my zeal was attenuated by the need to work and support my growing family. The family has prevailed in spite of the many common forces that could have torn us to shreds.

What kept us as one? There was a commitment to each other in spite of the difficulties of human relations. Love requires such commitment. This act of will can survive unfaithfulness, fears, compulsions, addictions, and even pragmatism, that suitable response to the insoluble enigmas we all face. We are too mysterious to be known within a limited contract.

So the long and short of it is that I was read the Bible in my ignorance, I revolted with zeal in two conflicting directions, then I studied the Bible for the wrong reasons, a hidden desire to let my fear rule over others and not to face my real demons, then maybe I began to study for some of the right reasons and actually begin to see the shrewdness of the Scriptural message to humanity. 

I think I would date the beginning of this limited maturing to about age 40 c 1985. My self-administered scholarship thereafter was to the Pauline corpus first, then after some near precipitous cliffs, to the Gospels, and then in the last 15 years to the Hebrew canon. 

All this time I remained an amateur musician. Two of my children went into this profession as performers and teachers. 

My two pandemic projects are arranging the music embedded in the Bible, and through the back doors of word forms, analysing the differences between the pointed and unpointed versions of the text. A side trip occurs occasionally when I apply changes to my translation of the Tanakh. 

Sometimes it's a side effect of setting the English text to the music, and sometimes it's a word form that comes up as an anomalous change from the pointed to the unpointed text. I noticed 5 errors in my Leviticus translation yesterday. The principle behind the error recurred another 70 times in my texts. Having seen the error, I realized I might have made similar omissions in other contexts. So I wrote a routine to check and uncovered a bunch more. They are all fixed and will find their way into the next editions. 

That brings me back to the sweet and bitter water. Why continue in this direction? Would I set the Levitical legal passages to music? The section on gleaning could be a comment on the book of Ruth. That is on the back burner as a performance project at the moment.

Does one set bitter water to music?

Leviticus 19:9
And when you reap the harvest of your land, ...

I am about to get into more detail on the state of my programming project to uncover the abstractions in the word forms of the Hebrew language. Somehow a detailed idea of how to organize a language turned into a short personal history, selecting from my canon only those verses I wanted to highlight in preparation for this exercise. Before I continue I should get the SimHebrew concordance working. It might be revealing. I am about 2/3 of the way through - so hopefully will be finished by year end.

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