Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Really, Really Important Book

A few years ago while browsing at Borders, a large book caught my eye. It  wouldn’t let go after that. It was called The Beginning of Wisdom, by Leon Kass. I glanced through it and put it back on the shelf.

The next time I was at Borders, the book called to me again. I gave it another look. once more I put it back on the shelf.

One can only read a few large books like this.  They require too much time and too much focused energy. I was not ready to make that investment.

But every time I went to Borders, The Beginning of Wisdom whispered so no one else could hear: “give me a chance. You need me. Take me home.”

That's why that day, at a time my sales resistance was a bit low,  I took the book to the counter, paid for it and then took it into my life.

Leon Kass wore me out for the first hundred pages. 

“Man is not woman. Man is not God. God is not nature. Difference and distinction is the foundational pillar of Biblical thought.” 

He said something like that that many different ways, again and again, until I was ready to put the book out of its misery. And Kass's vocabulary -- what in the name of common sense did he expect from his readers? 

And then, slowly, I was gripped by the power of this truly remarkable work. I began to see that The Beginning of Wisdom was not only the best commentary on the Book of Genesis I had read; it was not only the best commentary on the Bible in my entire (and extensive) library; it was, outside of the Bible, the best book I had ever read on any subject. 

It was like a buried treasure. One digs and digs because the map claims the treasure is there. And one is exhausted by the time he finally sees the ancient chest. But when he does …

The Beginning of Wisdom teaches one how to read literature. It teaches one how to compare and contrast Biblical thought with other philosophical systems. It does not scold. It does not assume one believes in God. It just describes what the Bible claims about reality, the implications of what the Bible claims to be true, and what one does with the conclusions he reaches about those things.

The book invites liberal, orthodox and fundamentalist Jews and Christians, believers of any other religion, and nonbelievers alike, to sit down and discuss this book that has probably influenced more people in history than any other, the Book of Genesis, the book of beginnings.

It took Kass twenty-five years to write his book. He must have known that relatively few people would ever read it. Surely he understood that he wouldn’t make a lot of money writing it. He would have certainly made a lot more money writing YOU TOO CAN BECOME SUCCESSFUL! Even more believers would have read a book like that than will ever read The Beginning of Wisdom. So he was writing a book that believers would be too bored and unbelievers too scandalized to ever read. Who the heck did he think would read this book?

But he wrote it anyway. And by God's grace, Borders stocked it. And by God’s grace I kept passing it on the shelf at Borders until I was compelled to buy it. And by God’s grace I kept on reading even after those first laborious hundred pages. And by God’s grace I allowed the book to capture my attention and keep it for several months.

After reading The Beginning of Wisdom, I went on to read The Great Code by Northrop Free, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy by Thomas Oden and then, praise God, on to the Brazos Commentary series. Little by little, I reentered the world of biblical studies in a way that has lifted my heart and energized my intellect. I have been wrestling with what it means to be a biblical Christian in a postmodern world without becoming either theological liberal or a fundamentalist.

The world is full of books, some of them good. Few of them are great.  Some of these offer a healthy vacation from day to day reality.   Some entertain as they seduce the reader into a new way of thinking. Some offer little entertainment but nonetheless awaken the reader from the contented stupor into which small minds keep drifting through an unreflected life all the way to a meaningless death.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl
God in Search of Man, by Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Weight of Glory, by C. S. Lewis
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
The Seven Story Mountain, by Thomas Merton
Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton
The Story of Civilization, by Will and Arial Durant

When one enters books like these, he is one sort of person. When he gets to the last page, he has become someone else. 

So here is my acknowledgment of debt to the secular Jewish scholar, unsure when he began of the origins or the meaning of this sacred book I had been reading all my life. Here is my gratitude for his twenty-five years of research, his unimaginable laborious hours of labor, his unavoidable doubts about whether what he was doing would do any practical good in the world. I give witness that his work found me one day in a bookstore and that I casually and flippantly opened his book as I have thousands of others, with little respect or appreciation that I had just been handed an opportunity to become wise.

May the Lord remember this testimony on the day of judgment. May the Righteous Judge recall that this writer was faithful to perform what providence had called him to do: write a life changing book at such great cost and which has brought him such little public acclaim. And may what has been done in secret be made known to all. 


mkleberte said...

You wrote - “I have been wrestling with what it means to be a biblical Christian in a postmodern world without becoming either theological liberal or a fundamentalist.”

For me, I found your statement to be the heart of the entire blog entry on the book Beginning of Wisdom.

I too have been seeking the essence of walking in the Spirit, or being a biblical
believer I have to point out,( I love to quote scripture) what may be the obvious,
to you and many scripture students, that the title of the book is part of at least
two proverbs and one psalm.

Pro 9:10 The fear of יהוה is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Set-apart One is understanding.

Pro 1:7 The fear of יהוה is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and discipline.

Psa 111:1 Praise Yah! I thank יהוה with all my heart, In the company of the straight, and of the congregation.
Psa 111:2 Great are the works of יהוה, Searched for by all who delight in them.
Psa 111:3 Splendour and greatness are His work, And His righteousness stands forever.
Psa 111:4 He has made His wonders to be remembered; יהוה shows favour and is compassionate.
Psa 111:5 He has given food to those who fear Him; He remembers His covenant forever.
Psa 111:6 He has shown His people the power of His works, To give to them the inheritance of the gentiles.
Psa 111:7 The works of His hands are truth and right-ruling, All His orders are trustworthy,
Psa 111:8 They are upheld forever and ever, Performed in truth and straightness.
Psa 111:9 He sent redemption to His people, He has commanded His covenant forever. Set-apart and awesome is His Name.
Psa 111:10 The fear of יהוה is the beginning of wisdom, All those doing them have a good understanding. His praise is standing forever.

These verses are from the Hebrew Roots Version Bible. I did not try to soften
the word “fear” by using another version, because when the people heard the
voice of God at Mt. Sinai uttering the 10 Commandments, they were afraid and
told Moses Exo 20:19 “You speak with us and we hear, but let not God
speak with us, lest we die.”

I am just beginning, to grasp the awesomeness of God. His Providence, Grace, and Mercy.

Oops… Did I just slide to the fundamental side of the equation?

I can’t help it I am a child of the King of Kings and I know it and feel it! :>)

David Peterson said...

I enjoyed reading this. It's always interesting to learn how a book has impacted a person's life.

Donald Bloesch was pivotal for me as a way beyond fundamentalism and liberalism.