A Wisdom Reading of the Bible

September 1, 2015

Notes on How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel

KugelHow are written documents to be understood? This question has been in my mind as far back as high school English classes when I grew impatient as teachers interpreted literature, especially poetry. They would draw out meanings that they quickly acknowledged had not been in the mind of the poets who wrote these cryptic bits of literature.

I squirmed in my seat, convinced in my own mind that what the poets intended their poetry to say was what they meant and any other imported meanings violated the integrity of poems under study. I don’t know where my commitment to the original intention came from, but it has operated with considerable strength in my various endeavors personal and professional, religious and secular.

One influence may have been ideas I learned at my church, which encouraged serious Bible study. One of the principles I learned there was that biblical texts should be studied much the same way as other ancient documents are studied. Always, readers should focus attention upon the social context when books were written and what the writers intended to say.

What I did not recognize at the time was that my teachers at church also used other practices that were similar to those in English classes, which was to discern meanings from biblical texts that the original authors had not intended.

Despite my having spent sixty years seriously trying to understand and use ancient texts, the tension between original intent and contemporary relevance is an even more challenging issue for me now than it was during my high school years. The ancient text I use most often is the Bible and here the question is: How are we to understand this ancient book as a faithful guide for people in a world far different from anything that writers of old could ever have imagined.

The tension has been increased by many of the disciplines of historical research and literary analysis that have been so prominent in western culture since the Renaissance. New understandings of antiquity and new commitments to historical and scientific principles make it increasingly difficult to determine the original form of ancient documents and the social context and original meanings of the texts, either in their original forms or in the edited versions that now are in our Bible.

During 2015, my reflections upon how to study the Bible have been challenged and enriched by a very long book published in 2007 by James L Kugel, a specialist in the Hebrew Bible who was the Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard from 1982 to 2003.

In the introduction to his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), Kugel describes himself as an Orthodox Jew “and as such, I am a believer in the divine inspiration of the Scripture and an inheritor of many of the traditions of ancient interpreters cited in this book, indeed, a keeper of the Jewish Sabbath, dietary laws, and all the other traditional practices of Orthodox Judaism” (45).

The book consists of front matter, 689 pages of text divided into thirty-six chapters, and end matter. In Chapter 1, “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship,” Kugel gives a brief history of two modes of biblical interpretation: the ancient way that has been most fully expressed in the pattern developed by Rabbinic Judaism in the latter centuries BCE; and the pattern developed by biblical scholars, primarily in Europe, beginning in the late 1600s. He explains why he gives greater value to the traditional mode of understanding and encourages his readers to follow this example.

Most of the book consists of short chapters in which Kugel presents the biblical narrative beginning with “The Creation of the World—and of Adam and Eve,” and concluding with “Daniel the Interpreter.” For the most part, chapters consists of a brief summary of one portion of the Hebrew Bible, the rabbinic interpretation (which he refers to as the “Oral Torah”), the alternative understanding developed by modern biblical scholarship, and an affirmation of why the rabbinic interpretation is more useful to Jews and Christians.

After reading the first half of the book, I became impatient to find out how Kugel concludes his narrative. Skipping the second half, I read the concluding chapter and then wrote a preliminary account of the book. To read the resulting 25-page paper, click “A Wisdom Reading of the Bible.”

Can a “very old” cyclist keep riding the open road?

August 20, 2015
Interurban Trail

The Interurban Bike Trail on the West Valley Highway

With Amtrak’s help, I took my bicycle to Seattle for a family visit to be followed with my first road trip of the summer: 180 miles back to Vancouver, following the route taken every year by thousands of cyclists doing the STP (Seattle to Portland) ride.

Years ago I rode STP in its one-day version, but my plan this year was to do it in three 60-mile segments with overnights in Yelm and Castle Rock. My mileage for the summer is down and at age 83 my daily mileage capability is lower than it used to be.

If I am to believe an Associated Press article that I read in The Seattle Times, however, age may be an even larger factor than I had realized. Both the article and my own sense of things make we ask how much longer octogenarians can keep riding the open road.

The article reports that older Americans continue to buy and drive cars and motorcycles. It refers to “the very old,” implying that 84 (which I’ll soon be) is the significant birthday.

Talking with my daughter, I acknowledged an unexpected level of anxiety, which she shared as we discussed the route the bike map recommended for cycling through South Seattle. After we drove the route, however, our anxieties eased.

The adequacy of the route was confirmed the next morning when I headed south from her home on Beacon Hill. From a cyclist’s point of view, road conditions and traffic on East Marginal Way past Boeing Field were OK.

In past years I have followed Interurban Avenue and West Valley Highway, the arterials through Tukwilla, Kent, Auburn, Algona, and Pacific, continuing on to Puyallup. This year, however, I planned to try the Interurban Trail that parallels most of this route. On the bike map, it looked straight as a string and therefore seemed worth a try even though STP stays on the arterial.

Green River near Kent

Green River near Kent

Misreading the map, I left the highway a few miles before I should have and meandered along the Green River Trail. At Fort Dent Park, I came to the trail I wanted, and for the next 14.8 miles I sailed along an absolutely flat, broad, blacktopped trail with BNSF freight tracks on both sides and Puget Sound Energy power lines overhead on steel utility poles that marched south for miles.

After coffee with a friend in Kent, I continued on the trail completely satisfied with this alternative way of traveling south from Seattle. Occasional gaps offered views of Mt. Rainier, and drainage ditches provided greenery and habitat for birds despite the extreme drought the Northwest is experiencing.

Researching this route since coming home, I discovered that the right of way follows a trolley line between Tacoma and Seattle that ran from 1902 until 1928. A major reason why the trail is so satisfactory for cyclists is that it bypasses sprawling commercial and light industrial areas in Tukwila and Kent while providing access to employers and shopping malls.

Because I was trusting my memory after leaving the trail, I had to follow hunches as I worked my way through Puyallup and Spanaway. Although my instincts kept me on course, I realized that I need a compass and a better electronic guide than my smart phone to research maps while on the road. Maybe it’s time to buy an iPad Mini.

The final segment of the day’s ride was along SR 507 from Spanaway to Yelm. It’s a straight, flat, well-surfaced highway that travels along the backside of Joint-Base Lewis-McChord. Because the road is a commuter route for people working at the joint base or Olympia, the 4:00 o’clock traffic was constant. Although I was getting tired, my legs still felt strong and I continued forward to my night’s lodging in Yelm.

According to the website of this 7,000 town, its name is derived from the Coast Salish Native American language word “shelm,” which means “land of the dancing spirits,” from the shimmering mirage from heat rising from the summer prairie floor.

My room at the Hotel Prairie was one of the nicest I’ve ever enjoyed. My 65 miles for the day was my longest ride since early March. My average speed for the day was within my current range, and the day’s ride encouraged me to believe that even the “very old,” can keep on riding the open road.

Mt Rainier seen from Yelm, Washington

Mt Rainier seen from Yelm, Washington

Meeting Jesus at the Communion Table

August 19, 2015

The Eucharist: Encounters with Jesus at the Table, by Robert D. Cornwall (Gonzales, FL: Energion Publications, 2014)

cornwall-eucharist 1This 34-page essay concerning the central act of Christian worship is volume 10 in a series the publisher describes as Topical Line Drives. They are designed “to demonstrate a point of scholarship or survey a topic directly, clearly, and quickly.”

Cornwall’s focus is stated in his subtitle: “Encounters with Jesus at the Table.” He develops this aspect of eucharistic worship by tracing the historical trajectory of two doctrines: sacrifice, how the Eucharist helps set things right with God; and real presence, how the Eucharist connects us with Jesus.

In the first chapter, he points to the Passover roots of Christian worship at the table and the biblical imagery of Jesus as “the perfect Lamb of God who has been sacrificed for us” (9). He notes other ideas in the biblical accounts: eschatological images, communal meal, and sign of unity. The reference in 1 Corinthians 11 to “discerning the body,” which has been used to “support the idea the idea of Christ’s real presence in the elements,” Cornwall notes, “more likely refers to the presence of Christ in the community itself” (11).

The second chapter summarizes post-apostolic developments. Cornwall cites theologians over an extended period of time, including Cyprian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Augustine, Radbertus, Peter Lombard, and Aquinas. The purpose of this brief survey is to trace the gradually increasing complexity of theological interpretations of how Christ is present in the Eucharist. He concludes the discussion with a brief summary of the developed doctrines.

“The emphasis on Christ’s real presence, as defined by the doctrine of Transubstantiation, and the doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice led to the church taking the step of worshiping the host. If the host (bread) had truly become the divine body of Christ, then it, like Christ, ought to be worshiped. Thus the host was elevated and worshiped. Just being in the presence of the host was sufficient to cleanse one from one’s sins. This meant the actual communion became unnecessary. In the host the person of Christ became tangible to the medieval masses” (20).

This summary of the development of eucharistic theology explains why Cornwall’s treatment of the Protestant Reformation begins with the debate between Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, more than a decade after Luther’s initial posting of the 95 Theses protesting abuses in church practice and theology.

Luther affirmed the symbolic nature of the bread and wine but he also believed that “the symbol contained that which it symbolized. In contrast, Zwingli believed that “the Eucharist served to remind Christians of the event of the cross…Therefore, one eats and drinks the elements of the Supper as a sign of thanksgiving for a work of grace already completed by the Spirit” (22–23).

Omitting Calvin’s participation in defining eucharistic theology, Cornwall turns to Cranmer and the English Reformation. Cranmer did not hold that Christ is corporeally present in the eucharistic elements, but he did not agree with Zwingli’s teaching that they were “bare elements or tokens. Instead, he taught that God was present and working in the Eucharistic moment, bringing the fruit of grace to the participants in the Eucharistic service, as long as they received the elements by faith” (25).

In his discussion of ecumenical conversations in our own time, Cornwall calls attention to the renewed emphasis upon thanksgiving and the diminished emphasis upon sacrificial imagery and violence. He disapproves of the continuing separation of Christians into ecclesial communities that limit access to the table, and he affirms the movement toward agreements of full communion new occurring.

The “concluding thoughts” of this essay encourage contemporary Christians to learn from one another across ecclesial and theological lines. The Eucharist could become a bridge to unity rather than a barrier that keeps churches separated. He encourages churches to move toward weekly celebrations even though that may not be their current practice.

Although Cornwall offers a few hints about ceremony, ritual, and cultural aspects of eucharistic worship, these aspects of the topic are largely overlooked. Little is said or implied about the way that the Eucharist has entered into the politics of church and state. The emergence of broad types—Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, etc.—is left untouched as are discussions about uses of vernacular languages in worship. It is true, of course, that a “topical line drive” has to move is a highly disciplined way, and this the author does.

Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy Michigan and earned a PhD degree in historical theology. His blog can be accessed at http://www.bobcornwall.com.

Bicycles that have shaped the world

August 11, 2015

The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose (New York: Rodale, 2013)


A two-line description on the book jacket tells readers what to expect in this artfully designed book: “From the Velocipede to the Pinarello: The Bicycles that Have Shaped the World.” The book presents its information in a manner that invites even casual readers to keep going. Each of its 50 chapters is brief, from two to six pages in length, and consists of a six- or seven-line synopsis in bold type, photos, graphics, main discussion, and brief notes set off to the side or bottom of the page. Readers can skip along or read carefully according to their interest in the topics discussed in each chapter. A bibliography, notes, and picture credits provide information for readers who want to continue their explorations into the history of cycling.

Ambrose skillfully interweaves specific information about the bicycle featured in a chapter and descriptions of other bikes that had similar characteristics or were closely related to that phase of cycling history. Several chapters feature bikes that were important primarily because of the riders who chose to use them rather than because of the technical features of the machinery involved.

Some of the cyclists are highlighted in the titles or subtitles of the chapters in which they appear. Among them are Frank Bartell, Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Lance Armstrong, and Bradley Wiggins. Competitive cycling on the international level clearly is a primary factor in Ambrose’s selection of bikes. Equally important to cycling history are the biographical sketches of people who developed new uses for bicycles or who established companies that manufactured bicycles. Among them are Jacques Schulz (early mountain climbers), Alex Moulton (folding bikes), Joe Breeze (California-based mountain bikes), Ernesto Colnago, Mike Sinyard (Specialized Bicycle Company), and Alessandro Pinarello (Pinarello Bicycles).

Four chapters focus attention on the development of components rather than bikes: pneumatic tires, lights, internal hub gears, and derailleurs. The final chapter provides a quick summary of futuristic designs.

Ambrose devotes a chapter to the Peugeot PX-10, which was one of the highly acclaimed bikes in the 1970s when I and two of my teenaged children became interested in cycling. It was too expensive for our family, and we had to be satisfied with the less expensive Peugeot PX-8. For several years I owned another bike that is mentioned in a later chapter, a Specialized Allez Epic, one of the earliest bikes using carbon fiber tubing. Although the list price was $800, it cost the family nearly twice that because my wife’s new bass recorder cost nearly the same amount.

Fifty-seven pages (out of 217 pages of text) are devoted to bikes or proto-bicycles that that led to the basic pattern of the bicycle that finally developed late in the 1800s. I was especially interested in the prominence of James Starley and his nephew John Kemp Starley during the pre-history of the modern bicycle. This early history of proto-bikes, however, does not deserve the space that Ambrose gives it. Since there have been so many interesting, trend-setting bicycles, there will always be, disagreements concerning the list to be included in a book like this.

Some of my nominations for bikes and bicycle-related technology that should have been included are these: the development of bicycle tubing by companies such as Reynolds and Columbus, the use of aluminum in bicycle componentry and tubing (as in the Alan bicycle), saddle design with an emphasis upon Brooks leather saddles, the Schwinn family in the United States, the Terry woman’s bike, the Singer or Herse bicycles as examples of touring bicycles, the Kestrel bike, which was a forerunner of the modern carbon fiber molded frames, and the Calfee bamboo bicycle.

Since we are still in the summer season when the emphasis needs to be placed on being out on one’s bike, there may be too little time to read this book right now, and it’s too heavy to carry along on bicycling trips. Cold weather is sure to come, however, which gives you time to buy your copy or make sure that your local library orders one soon. There are other good books on cycling history, but for most people Tom Ambrose’s text is the one most likely to hold their interest.

Bicycling on Portland’s Swan Island

August 4, 2015
Map Study at Swan Island

Map Study at Swan Island


When one of my coffee shop buddies invited me to joint him and a few friends on a bike tour of Swan Island, I gladly accepted. The ride on the next morning was exactly right for a hot summer day: a slow and easy ride filled with interesting things to see and experience.

Swan Island is a sandy spit of land in the Willamette River eight miles upstream from the river’s confluence with the Columbia and close to downtown Portland, Oregon. In the middle 1800s, it was an island with shallow channels on both sides. In order to develop shipping capabilities in the Port of Portland, a deeper channel was dredged on the western side of the island and the excavated material was used to fill in the eastern passage and connect the island to the mainland.

Our guide assured us that the river remembers how it used to be, and when a 500-year flood comes, the river will reclaim its previous right of way.

From 1927 to 1940, the city’s airport was on Swan Island. During World War II, one of the nation’s most productive ship building operations flourished on the island. Today, 70 year’s after the war came to an end, major dry dock repair facilities and ship building operations continue. Other industries maintain major facilities on the island, including Daimler, Cummins, Georgia Pacific, and the Union Pacific Railroad. Major construction of new facilities is currently in progress.

SSignwan Island

Sign at Swan Island

Access to Swan Island is by way of N. Going Street, which is heavily travelled and not friendly to cyclists. On the island itself, motorists sometimes exceed 80 miles per hour as they blast their way along Channel, Lagoon, and Basin Streets, the short, multi-lane arterials that provide access to the manufacturing facilities and office buildings. 11,000 people come to Swan Island on working days.

Fortunately, there is a wide sidewalk on Going Street and sidewalks along the three Island streets. Furthermore, a network of trails suitable for easy but interesting cycling is being developed. They offer the best view of Portland’s traditional harbor-related industrial might that I have seen.

There were only five of us on the tour; we were gray-bearded old men on an interesting array of interesting bicycles. Our guide knew the territory, having spent most of his working career on Swan Island. Currently, he devotes much of his attention to npGREENWAY, an organization that is developing trails through North Portland, with frequent access to the Willamette River, from the Esplanade at the Steel Bridge near downtown to the Columbia 10 miles distant.

The website includes maps of the projected system of trails.

Although I have been closely connected to Portland for more than 70 years, this was the first time I have ever been on Swan Island. During World War II, my dad worked in a shipyard located there. In more recent times, a family friend from Indianapolis spent several years as an executive with one of the Swan Island industries.

For several years my parents in law lived on the bluff overlooking the Island and adjacent industrial land on the eastern bank of the Willamette. The smell of creosote from Mock’s Bottom still comes to mind when I drive or bicycle along the crest on Willamette Boulevard that goes past the house where they lived.

Tribute to a Benefactor

Tribute to a Benefactor

I stopped to have my picture taken in front of a sign for Cummins Engine Company. For generations the family that developed and controlled this company included Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis among the many religious and cultural causes that they supported. I and two of my children are graduates of Butler and I spent most of my career on the faculty of the seminary.

In order to leave Swan Island, our group of cyclists used the Maud Bluff Trail that was opened March 14, 2013. According to an article by Jonathan Maus, this project cost $3.2. Financial support included a grant from a Congressional earmark that Representative Earl Blumenauer had made. The trail itself is 1,700 feet long and includes a steep footbridge over Union Pacific tracks. This part of the bluff hosts the northern-most Madrone-Oak habitat in the Willamette Valley, which persists because the steep hillside faces in a direction that is bathed in direct sunlight much of the day.

Maud Bluff Trail

Maud Bluff Trail

My long-time habit is to be a solo cyclist who pushes hard, taking only an occasional break. I will continue that kind of riding most of the time, but mornings like this one—easy going, with congenial companions, riding in a place of historic interest, with a well-informed guide—will become increasingly important as I move forward into a new phase of my life as an open road cyclist.

(Photos by A. J. Zelada; used with permission)

Easygoing bike ride on Lower River Road

July 30, 2015

Corn Field

July should be a month when the year’s cycling activities reach their high point, but for me family travels got in the way. I was out for solid rides only three times, 60 miles for the month instead of several hundred. For any open road cyclist, this inactivity is a challenge, but for an octogenarian like me it is a potential crisis. With every advancing year, it is harder to keep going. My first rides since coming home have been slow and painful.

Today, with a forecast of 95 by mid afternoon, I did my ride during the morning when the temperature still was temperate. My purpose for the ride was to pick wild blackberries on Lower River Road, Washington State Highway 501, that runs along the Columbia River. From my condo to the new gate that marks the end of the road, the distance is exactly 10 miles. When I started the temperature was 70, with a noticeable NW breeze (http://www.columbian.com/news/2015/jul/12/far-segment-lower-river-road-closes-cars-tuesday/).

The first two or three miles take travelers through the Port of Vancouver, but then Lower River Road passes through a strip of agricultural land that is unexpected so close to a major urban center. Corn fields and herds of dairy cattle are interspersed with nearly dry swales. Near the north end of the road, the Fazio Bros Sand Company mines sand most of which is used for construction in Clark County and vicinity.


In addition to traffic generated by Fazio, the port, and related industries, Lower River Road also services a marina, prison, power generating station, and three public parks. The road is level, well paved, with wide shoulders, and segments of a walking-biking trail that gradually is being developed.

It is extensively used by cyclists and on today’s ride, despite the fact that it was during the working day, several others on two wheels were enjoying this excursion in a semi rural environment. My goal was to put a few more miles into my legs by cycling at an easy pace and enjoying the scenery.

Osprey 2One of the most interesting stops was 8 miles out, near the marina. Two stubs of trees and a utility post were the building sites for active osprey nests and two more inactive nests were located nearby. A county employee was also stopped to photograph these large, sea-faring hawks. She cautioned me to be careful where I stood. Earlier she had stopped at the foot on one of the trees, not noticing the nest. While photographing the other, she narrowly missed being splattered with a juicy glob from a digestive tract high above.

Most of Lower River Road is separated from the river so that travelers can’t see it. Two places provide for public access to the Columbia. One is a viewpoint with trails to the water, situated at a spot where it is possible to discern the place on the Oregon side where the Willamette River joints the Columbia. Fortunately, an illustrated, permanent exhibit gives a brief account of the discovery of the Willamette by Lewis and Clark and helps visitors to identify the confluence that is largely hidden from view.

Much larger is Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park that was opened in 1997. It was named after Paul Haury, a Frenchman who early in his working life was engaged in fur trading in Alaska. Near Astoria, Oregon, he jumped ship to work in the salmon canneries. Wanting to improve his lot, he bought five acres of land on the Columbia near Vancouver to net fishing of salmon.

Sundrenched blackberriesToday’s ride was part of my plan to recover lost cycling capabilities during the next few weeks. Today’s 20 miles were slow and easy, but they are helping my body remember what it is supposed to be able to do. Most of my forthcoming rides will be much more disciplined and aggressive. I know that I can never be the cyclist I used to be, but I want to recover the ability to do metric centuries and more day after day. My training will include a mixture of easy going, opportunities to enjoy interesting places and hard charging training rides. There still is time for two or three multi-day trips before cold, wet weather returns to the Pacific Northwest.

By the way, I did pick blackberries. The peak of the season was half way through July, but there still are places along Lower River Road where luscious berries await an easygoing cyclists like I was today.

Cycling, science diplomacy, and the fresh water crisis

July 25, 2015

Keith Watkins:

My church (First Christian, Portland) is sponsoring a Middle East Forum on Sunday, July 26, 9:00 am and 11:15, with worship in between. Two years ago I posted the following column that reviews a book which discusses one of the most challenging of the Middle East issues.

Originally posted on Keith Watkins Historian:

Shared Borders Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges by Sharon B. Megdal, Robert G. Varady, and Susanna Eden (CRC Press, 2013)

Shared BordersOf course, I gave my permission when Susanna Eden, PhD, asked if she could use my photo of the San Pedro River as cover art on a new book entitled Shared Borders Shared Waters. I had taken the picture from the bridge on Arizona Highway 82 near Tombstone, while bicycling through the region on PAC Tour’s desert camp. Later, I had used it on blogs about roads and rivers in Southern Arizona.

Eden and two colleagues at the University of Arizona were editing a forthcoming book on Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges. My photo would be paired with one of the Jordan River. My photo, by the way, is the one on the lower right corner of the book.

Since I have always…

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