Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, April 28, 2017

BIBLE: 2 Samuel (1-9)

In 2 Samuel David finally becomes king in his own right.  But that doesn’t mean his problems are over.  In some ways they’re just beginning.  The old set of problems (having to live life on the run from Saul) gives way to a new set of problems (having to deal with internal divisions as well as external enemies).  An allied Amalekite soldier comes to David with the news that Saul and Jonathan have been killed in battle.  He says Saul had been badly wounded and asked him to kill him before the Philistines did.  The Amalekite says he was just complying with Saul’s request.  He brought the crown from Saul’s head and the bracelet from his arm to give to David.  David “mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the Lord, and for the house of Israel; because they were fallen by the sword.”  Was David’s grief sincere?  We don’t know.  We do know that Saul is dead.  But if the Amalekite thought he would get rewarded for his services he was badly mistaken.  David asks, “How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thine hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?  And David called one of the young men, and said, Go near, and fall upon him.  And he smote him that he died.”

The pathway to be king of Israel still hasn’t been made clear for David.  Saul has another son named Ishbosheth.  So “Abner, the son of Ner, captain of Saul’s hosts, took Ishbosheth, the son of Saul…and made him king…over all Israel.”  Meanwhile David has become king of Judah and sets up headquarters in Hebron.  “Now there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David: but David waxed stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker.”  We learn that “Abner made himself strong for the house of Saul.  And Saul had a concubine, whose name was Rizpah…”  Abner had taken Rizpah for one of his own concubines.  This may not seem like such a big deal to us now, but in that day it was a very big deal.  Recall how the Iliad starts out.  Agamemnon had to give up his own concubine in order to appease Apollo.  Then, just to prove his power, he decided to take Achilles’ concubine instead.  This was an outright insult and infuriated Achilles.  In 2 Samuel Abner is making a direct threat to the power of Ishbosheth.  Abner can see which way the wind is blowing.  Ishbosheth’s power is falling; David’s power is rising.  So Abner takes a gamble to go over to David’s side.  This is risky business.  Remember what David did to the Amalekite?  David respects the office of king, even if he doesn’t respect Ishbosheth.  By turning to David Abner is taking his life in his hands.

David holds a secret meeting with Abner and they negotiate terms.  David accepts Abner.  Joab does not.  Joab is captain of David’s “hosts” and when he learns about the secret deal he tells David that Abner “came to deceive thee, and to know thy going out and thy coming in, and to know all that thou doest.”  Does Joab really think that?  Does he smell a dirty trick?  It’s hard to tell because Joab isn’t an objective bystander.  Abner had killed Joab’s brother in one of the battles so Joab has an ax to grind anyway.  The secret deal was just the excuse Joab had been looking for; an excuse to kill Abner.  And that’s just what he did.  When David finds out he wants the whole world to know that he had not ordered the death of Abner: “I and my kingdom are guiltless before the Lord for ever from the blood of Abner the son of Ner: Let it rest on the head of Joab…”  These are the new kinds of problems David was to face.  If he thought being king would be smooth sailing he was badly mistaken.  Being a shepherd boy fighting bears and lions taught him courage; killing Goliath had set him up as a major political and military figure; hiding from Saul with a band of outlaws made him something of a folk hero; kind of like Robin Hood.  But was David ready to be king and rule over this raucous country?  Ready or not, the responsibilities wouldn’t wait.  Now David would find out what kind of man he really was.

Monday, April 24, 2017

BIBLE: 1 Samuel (21-31)

The Middle East is a tough neighborhood.  That message comes through loud and clear in the book of 1 Samuel.  It may have been an even tougher neighborhood in David’s day than it is in our own. One of the goals of politics is to bring order to tough neighborhoods. Saul was given his chance and he couldn’t do it.  David was more successful.  Why?  There are at least three good reasons why David was more successful than Saul.  The first is charisma.  David was popular, both personally and as a political leader.  Jonathan was next in line for the throne after Saul but he chose to work against his own self-interest and helped David escape from Saul.  In fact, Jonathan went against his own family and so did his sister, Michal.  She also helped David escape.  Saul was their father.  And they weren’t the only ones who liked David.  A popular song making the rounds was "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands."  This may be one reason Saul became paranoid and set out to kill David; plain old jealousy.

But popularity alone doesn’t prevent people from getting killed.  One of the lessons of history is that the good guys don’t always win.  Sometimes good guys get killed and bad guys seem to prosper.  David was a survivor and that points to a second reason he was successful.  Skill.  He knew how to fight and was good at it.  But knowing how to fight wasn’t enough in this neighborhood.  David also knew when to fight and, maybe more importantly, he knew when not to fight.  He knew when to walk away and when to run and had a knack for living to fight another day.  That’s not easy.  Take two examples.  The first is Ahimelech.  “Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest: and Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David, and said unto him, Why art thou alone?”  Ahimelech is suspicious and rightfully so.  Why is such a powerful man like David coming to Nob?  What is Saul up to now?  David is on the run but obviously he can’t tell Ahimelech the truth.  So what does he do?  He lies.  David tells Ahimelech he’s on a secret mission.  Ahimelech helps David and later Saul finds out about it.  Ahimelech is trying to be one of the good guys and what happens?  Saul has him executed.  Not only him, but all the priests of Nob.  All eighty-five of them.  Talk about tough neighborhoods.  The second example is Nabal.  David has his men go to a rich man named Nabal to ask for assistance, mostly food and drink.  What was the response?  “Nabal answered David's servants, and said, Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse? there be many servants now a days that break away every man from his master.”  Nabal was right.  Many servants were breaking away from their masters.  David was one of them.  He was breaking away from Saul.  So what happens this time?  This time it’s David who is enraged and sets out to kill not only Nabal but all his servants too.  Nabal’s wife Abigail intervenes so David spares Nabal.  But the Lord doesn’t.  Nabal’s “heart died within him, and he became as a stone.  And it came to pass about ten days after, that the Lord smote Nabal, that he died.”  Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  Tough neighborhood.

Which brings us to the third reason David was successful.  Fate.  Whether it was the Lord’s will or whether it was sheer luck, David seemed destined to become king.  But destiny only seems inevitable in hindsight.  One way of looking at history is that things turn out the way they do because that’s how they were meant to be.  In American history Manifest Destiny is a good example.  Looking back it seems almost inevitable that the United States would expand until it reached the Pacific Ocean.  It sure didn’t look that way in 1492.  And during David’s lifetime it sure didn’t look like it was inevitable that he would become king.  The odds were that he would be killed by Saul.  If not by Saul, then by the hands of the Philistines or Amalekites.  But the story of David takes us behind the scenes so we can see the hand of God at work in history.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

BIBLE: 1 Samuel (11-20)

In many ways modern Americans can understand the book of Samuel.  These characters have many of the same concerns we do.  They want good jobs that pay well and provide higher social status.  They want what’s best for their children.  They worry that their government is not doing enough, or it’s doing too much.  They worry about going to war with hostile foreign nations.  These worries are things we can understand.  This is the kind of world we can understand because it’s a world much like our own.  But there are many things in 1 Samuel we can’t understand.  For example, in chapter 11 Nahash the Ammonite comes up and encamps against Israelites living in a town called Jabesh.  The Jabeshites are afraid of the Ammonites so they say “make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee.”  Making a peace treaty isn’t unusual, even in today’s world.  But in today’s world nations don’t make peace treaties by agreeing to “serve” other nations.  It was much worse than that in the Middle East around 1000 B.C.  Here was the response to the Jabeshite request for a peace treaty.  “Nahash the Ammonite answered them, On this condition will I make a covenant with you, that I may thrust out all your right eyes, and lay it for a reproach upon all Israel.”  The United Nations would not approve such a treaty and the modern world wouldn’t stand for it.  Some other country or Jabesh’s coalition allies would intervene.  But in that day there was no U.N. or allied coalitions.  There were only fellow Israelites to call upon for help.  If that failed, well, too bad, you were on your own.  This is one of the reasons the Israelites demanded a king from Samuel.  Having a king would centralize political and military power.  Centralized power would put Israel on a more competitive standing with the surrounding peoples.  Saul rallies the rest of Israel to come to the aid of Jabesh.  During this period Israel seems to have been a loose coalition of tribes, something along the lines of the early American Articles of Confederation.  The tribes were encouraged, but not compelled, to help their fellow citizens.  Saul warned of retaliation against those tribes which didn’t help fight against the Ammonites.  It worked.  “Saul put the people in three companies; and they came into the midst of the host in the morning watch, and slew the Ammonites… And all the people went to Gilgal; and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.”

Saul seems like a good choice for a king.  He’s tall, strong, and handsome.  He’s also charismatic and has already shown he’s a good military commander.  Samuel gives the Israelites the king they asked for.  He also gives them a short history lesson about who they are, where they came from, and why they’re living where they are now.  But even though Saul looks like a king, he doesn’t always act like one.  He makes some serious mistakes that show his lack of leadership.  First he blurs the line between his own duties as king and Samuel’s duties as priest.  When Samuel gets delayed in coming before one crucial battle, Saul goes ahead and performs the sacrifice to the Lord himself.  That’s a serious mistake.  It’s Samuel’s place to make the sacrifice, not Saul’s.  Next he makes a serious blunder in military strategy in the war with the Philistines.  In chapter 14 it says “the men of Israel were distressed that day: for Saul had adjured the people, saying, Cursed by the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on my enemies.  So none of the people tasted any food.”  When Saul says “that I may be avenged on my enemies” he’s putting his own interest ahead of the interest of his troops.  They won the battle but even Saul’s inexperienced son Jonathan could see “How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found?  For had there not been now a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?”  Saul looked like a king but didn’t have the qualities to become a good one.  A boy tending sheep would be Israel’s next king.  His name was David.  The rest of the story describes King David’s long and rocky road to the throne.

Friday, April 07, 2017

BIBLE: 1 Samuel (1-10)

Few people would disagree that the Bible is a great book.  Almost all public and academic libraries have several editions on their shelves.  Many people also have more than one edition in their own private libraries.  Maybe the whole Bible is a great book but does that mean every book in the Bible is great too?  Is the book of Samuel a great book?  Can someone read this section of the Bible on their own, without the help of scholarly aids and commentaries, and come away with the notion that they’ve encountered a Great Book?  Let’s start with the title.  Why is the book called Samuel and not The Story of David?  Without using commentaries we can make a good guess.  Every literate person is familiar with the story of David and Goliath.  Not as many people are familiar with the story of Samuel.  A lot of people don’t know who Samuel is, much less why he’s important.  Samuel is the end of the line of a long tradition in the history of Israel.  He was the last in the line of judges to hold political power before kings began to rule in Israel.  In fact, it was Samuel himself who oversaw the rise of Israel’s first king: Saul.  Next we should ask what kind of book is this.  Is it literature?  History?  Philosophy?  One of the problems in reading the Bible is how it should be read.  My King James Version has The Holy Bible stamped on the cover.  Reading it as a holy book gives different results from reading it as we would read any other book.  But by interpreting the text from a strictly secular perspective we can still make some judgments about it.  The writer of this book tells the story of Samuel in a straightforward and rather spare style, similar to Homer’s storytelling technique in The Iliad.  As secular literature, it’s a good story.  We’re introduced at the outset to a woman named Hannah.  She wants to have a child but so far has not been able to have one.  Hannah goes to Shiloh every year to worship “the Lord of hosts.”  There she runs into a priest named Eli.  Eli knows the joys of parenthood but he also knows its disappointments.  He has two sons of his own but they’re not very good sons.  They’re even worse as priests and Eli knows it.  But he blesses Hannah and soon she conceives and has her own son.  She names him Samuel.  Eli trains him to be a priest and Samuel turns out to be a good one.  It’s a good story, even as secular literature.  But meanwhile this story isn’t taking place in a vacuum.  As in all stories, it needs to be read in historical perspective.  The Israelites are in constant battles with the Philistines.  The fighting in Homer’s Iliad is written with much more detail, but the battles seem to have been much the same.  In those days men fought with spears and swords in a primitive, haphazard fashion.  The Philistines keep getting the better of the Israelites on the battlefield so one day they come complaining to Samuel.  By this time Samuel has taken over for Eli as priest, prophet and judge.  They tell Samuel, give us a king!  We want to be like other nations and have a king to lead us into battle!  The era of theocratic rule by judges is over.  Saul is crowned king and the era of monarchy begins.  This is good as literature, but is it good as history?  The book of Samuel seems to be something of a hybrid, again similar to The Iliad.  There really was a Trojan War and there were real kings and real battles with spears and swords.  We might call the book of Samuel “embellished” history.  Can the book of Samuel be read as philosophy?  It’s certainly not a treatise on ethics or political theory.  But if we think of philosophy as the love of wisdom then we can surely gain deeper wisdom by reading and pondering the lessons it has to teach.  The questions it poses are philosophical as well as spiritual in scope.  Why do good people sometimes have bad children?  Why do bad guys win battles and even prosper in this world?  Why do people worship different gods?  Why do people worship gods at all?  What qualities should we look for in spiritual leaders?  Do we need different qualities for our political leaders?  Should those two roles be kept separate?  What’s the best form of government?  These kinds of questions make the book of Samuel a very good book.  Maybe even a candidate for a great book.            

Monday, April 03, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Summary)

Modern Americans are familiar with the advice that we need to get out of our comfort zones.  One of the lessons readers take away from Anna Karenina is a different piece of advice.  Stay in your comfort zone.  If you don’t have a comfort zone, find one.  If you can’t find one, make one.  Very few characters in this novel live in a comfort zone, even the ones with plenty of money and social prestige.  Many of the peasants seem to live contentedly, if modestly, in their environment.  They live close to nature and aren’t bothered by the problems created by city life in Petersburg or Moscow.  They do their own work on the farm, raise their own children, and believe in their own God.  Life is simple and personal and their problems are close at hand and can be solved.  Tolstoy was romanticizing but that was his vision of a comfort zone.

The main characters in the story lived in the upper echelons of society.  They mostly worked in cities, served on committees, and had to meet the considerable expenses associated with sophisticated urban living; “balls, concerts, dinners, matchboxes, ladies’ dresses, beer, restaurants” and so forth.  In the upper classes children were mostly raised by a governess.  Religion, for many of these urban socialites, was optional.  It was trendy among them to reject the idea of a personal God in favor of the more enlightened views offered by science and reason.  In this kind of environment comfort zones were rare.  There was an expensive club for rich men to find refuge from the worries of city life.  And a few characters lived relatively comfortably amidst all the affluence and luxury and decadence.  The old prince (Dolly and Kitty’s father) was one example.  He was comfortable in his own skin and in being who he was, even if he was considered something of a curmudgeon by his associates.  Lvov found happiness by giving up his lucrative foreign post in order to raise his own children and personally direct their education. 

Most characters weren’t so lucky.  Dolly had to come to terms with her husband’s repeated infidelities.  Sometimes she dreamed of a better life.  But her comfort zone consisted entirely of her relations with her family and her children, excluding her husband Stiva.  Stiva himself found city life stimulating but a little too expensive.  He could only find comfort by living beyond his means.  Levin’s brothers never found much comfort.  Nikolay never achieved anything by his social activism and devoted his unhealthy life to booze.  “Sergey was clever, cultivated, healthy, and energetic and he did not know what use to make of his energy.”  He wrote a book but it didn’t amount to much.  He thought seriously about marrying Varenka but that didn’t amount to anything either.  The main focus of the story centered on two characters: Anna and Levin.  Did they ever find their comfort zones?  The answer is: no, and maybe.  At the beginning of the novel Anna is vaguely unhappy.  By the end of the novel she’s not vaguely unhappy; she’s truly miserable and commits suicide in a gruesome fashion.  No comfort zone there.  At the beginning of the novel Levin is vaguely unhappy too.  He wants a wife and a family.  By the end of the novel he has both.  Maybe more than he bargained for.  He has a son and a big portion of Anna’s family has come out to his farm estate for a visit.  But Levin’s comfort zone doesn’t come from the outside.  It comes from within his own soul.  He finally comes to terms with his relationship to God, to his family, and to his fellow man.  Levin finally accepts his place in the world.  He’s not ecstatically happy but he’s found a deeper sense of comfort in fulfilling his role as a husband, a father, and a productive member of the community.  He makes his own way in the world by hard work and gives up many of his own comforts for the benefit of others.  This isn’t exactly a comfort zone and at the end of the novel Levin has many years of life left.  Unhappiness could be lurking just around the next corner.  But at least for now he’s found a way of life that brings him a certain amount of contentment.  That may be the only comfort zone most of us will ever find. 

Saturday, April 01, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 8)

In Part 7 Anna says “we are all created to be miserable, and we all know it, and we all invent ways of deceiving each other.”  Then she goes on to ask “When one sees the truth, what is one to do?”  Her answer is to leave this miserable life as quickly as possible.  Anna thought she would die at the birth of her second child and that would solve all her problems.  When that didn’t happen she took matters into her own hands and threw herself under a train.  That’s one answer.

It ended her own problems but caused more problems for other people.  Vronsky’s mother put it this way: “No, say what you will, she was a bad woman.  Why, what is the meaning of such desperate passions?  It was all to show herself something out of the way.  Well, and that she did do.  She brought herself to ruin and two good men; her husband and my unhappy son.”  Levin took a different route.  He, too, saw that life was often a miserable affair.  He found out what misery was like when his first proposal to marry Kitty was rejected.  Levin was very unhappy for a while but kept on going through the daily motions of living.  Then the circumstances of life changed, as they always do.  One day he woke up to find he was not only Kitty’s husband but also the father of their first child.  The joy of life had driven away the misery of life.  At least for a while.  Then the circumstances of life changed, as they always do.  Going through the daily motions of living brought back the same old question: “we are all created to be miserable, and we all know it, and we all invent ways of deceiving each other.  When one sees the truth, what is one to do?”  Until he answered that question he would find no peace.  Kitty was aware of Levin’s restless spirit.  Furthermore, she “knew what worried her husband.  It was his unbelief… What does he keep reading philosophy of some sort for all of this year?  She wondered.  If it’s all written in those books, he can understand them.  If it’s all wrong, why does he read them?  He says himself that he would like to believe.  Then why is it he doesn’t believe?  Surely from his thinking so much.”  In Kitty’s opinion Levin brooded too much.  He worried too much about whether there was a God, or not; whether life was worth living, or not.  Going through the daily motions of life could temporarily drive these questions away but couldn’t answer them definitely.  And it wasn’t that Levin didn’t want to believe, didn’t want to affirm God and affirm life.  He did.  But he wavered because the question overwhelmed him.  He couldn’t understand why.  “All the people nearest to him who were good in their lives were believers.  The old prince, and Lvov, whom he liked so much, and Sergey Ivanovitch, and all the women believed, and his wife believed as simply as he had believed in his earliest childhood, and ninety-nine out of a hundred of the Russian people all the working-people for whose life he felt the deepest respect, believed.”  Why couldn’t he believe as simply as they did?  The simple answer was simple.  Reason.  “Reasoning had brought him to doubt, and prevented him from seeing what he ought to do and what he ought not.  When he did not think, but simply lived, he was continually aware of the presence of an infallible judge in his soul…”  The complex answer was, not surprisingly, more complex.  Levin was considering the question as an intellectual problem to be solved.  But this question was not an intellectual problem.  It was much more than that.  It was a matter of life and death.  He knew a peasant woman who had recovered from a life-threatening illness and was now hard at work on his farm, and he pondered the hard effort it takes to live: “Why was it all being done… she recovered, but today or tomorrow or in ten years she won’t; they’ll bury her… they’ll bury her and this piebald horse, and very soon too... and what’s more, it’s not just them; they’ll bury me too, and nothing will be left.  What for?”  What for?  That simple question was totally beyond Levin’s comprehension.  He could never reason his way to an answer. He didn’t know if life overall was good or bad.  Only an “infallible judge” could answer that question and the “infallible judge” in Levin’s soul answered: it is good.