October 29, 2007

Psalm 42

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
By the sons of Korah.

As a deer pants for streams of water,
So my soul pants for you, God.
Thirsted has my soul for God, for the Mighty One of life.
When will I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my bread day and night,
While they say to me all the day, “Where is your God?”

These things I remember and I pour out within myself my soul
For I went in the crowd; I walked with them to the house of God,
With a voice of joy and praise — a festal uproar.

Why are you cast down, my soul, and making an uproar within me?
Wait for God, because I will yet praise him for the salvations of His face.

God, within me my soul is cast down.  Therefore I will remember you
From the land of Jordan and the Hermons, from Mount Mizar.
Deep to deep calls at the voice of your waterspouts;
All your breakers and your rollers have passed over me.

Daily, Yahweh will command his loyalty
And in the night his song is with me, a prayer to the Mighty One of my life.
I will say to the Mighty One, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I walk about begrimed because of the enemy’s oppression?”
With murder in my bones my foes have taunted me,
By saying to me all the day, “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, my soul?  And why are you making an uproar within me?
Wait for God because I will yet praise Him as the salvation of my face and my God.

A few comments about the translation of this rather difficult psalm:

(1) Maskil in the title seems to have to do with understanding and may mean “to give understanding, insight.”

(2) In line 3, God is referred to as “the Mighty One of life,” which means that He’s the living Mighty One.  In line 17, however, it is “the Mighty One of my life,” which may mean “my living Mighty One” or “the Mighty One who preserves my life.”

(3) Lines 7 and 8 are hard to understand. “I pour out within myself my soul” could refer to grief as the psalmist remembers how he used to go up to God’s house.  Or it could be translated “I will pour out” as a pledge that he will remember his tears and sadness when he comes to God’s house in the future.

(4) In his essay, “The Oddness of the Feast of Booths” (Biblical Horizons 90), James B. Jordan says that the word translated “crowd” here, sak, should not be rendered “throne” or “multitude” (or “crowd” as I have it).  Rather, he says, it refers to the booths of Israel at a festival, which identifies it as the Feast of Booths.  I need to think this through some more.

(5) In line 10, the word for “making an uproar” could be translated “groaning” or “making a noise.”  It’s the root of the word for the festal uproar in line 9.

(6) In line 11, “the salvations of his face” are the salvations that come from God’s face lifted up to bless the psalmist, or, to put it another way, the deliverances wrought by God’s presence.

In line 23, however, the wording is different.  It’s “the salvation (singular) of my face and my God.”  It sounds as if “my face” and “my God” are somehow parallel, but the parallel isn’t clear to me. It isn’t “the rescue of my face (which was in danger) and of my God (who was also in danger),” after all.  But perhaps I’m simply thinking as an English-speaker here.  Perhaps what I see as two very different senses of a genitive construction would still be seen as good parallels by a Hebrew speaker.  Perhaps it’s “the salvation of my face and by (another sense of “of”) my God.”

At any rate, the psalmist is praising God for his salvation or even, perhaps, as the one who is both (a) the salvation of his face and (b) his God.  Any help in understanding this last line would be greatly appreciated.  I find the commentaries I’ve looked at singularly unhelpful here.

(7) In line 12, “I will remember you” may refer to memorializing God, of doing what God has commanded so that God remembers and acts.  Perhaps that’s also true of the earlier reference to “remembering.”

(8) In line 13, “the Hermons” may refer to the region around Mount Hermon or to the Hermon mountain range.

(9) In line 14, “waterspouts” refer to waterspouts or gutters (2 Sam. 5:8), here perhaps the gutters of heaven as the water pours down.  In line 15, “breakers and rollers” are waves which roll and break things apart.  I wonder if our English word “breakers” for waves is due to the use in this psalm.

(10) In line 19, “begrimed” has to do with becoming dark and is used here for mourning, probably because in mourning one would sprinkle dust and ashes over one’s head.

(11) In line 20, “murder in my bones” probably refers to extreme pain, the pain of one who is close to death.

(12) Finally, I should point out that Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 are very closely related.  Psalm 43 uses the same refrain that closes Psalm 42, which indicates a clear reference.  Does it mean, as many suggest, that Psalms 42 and 43 were once one psalm?  Maybe, but I’m treating them separately for now.  (If they were one, why did they get split apart?)

Posted by John Barach @ 3:27 pm | Discuss (0)
October 20, 2007

Psalm 41

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
A Psalm.
By David.

Happy is the one who acts insightfully toward the poor.
In the day of evil, Yahweh will deliver him.
Yahweh will guard him and keep him alive;
He will be called happy in the land,
And you will not give him to the desire of his enemies.
Yahweh will support him upon the couch of sickness.
His whole bed you transform in illness.

As for me, I said, “Yahweh, be gracious to me.
Heal my soul, because I have sinned against you.”

My enemies speak evil of me:
“When will he die and his name perish?”
And if he comes to see me, falsehood he will speak.
In his heart, he gathers mischief to himself;
He will go out; to the street he will speak it.
Together against me they whisper — all who hate me.
Against me they plot — evil for me.
“A thing of Belial is poured into him,
And he who lies down will now arise no more.”
Even my man of peace — in whom I trusted, who ate my bread —
Has exalted against me his heel.

And now, Yahweh, be gracious to me and raise me up,
And I will repay them.

By this I know that you are pleased with me,
Because my enemy does not shout triumphantly over me.
And as for me, in my integrity you uphold me
And you stand me before you forever.
Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Israel,
From everlasting and unto everlasting.
Amen and Amen.

A few comments about the translation of this psalm:

(1) In lines 1 and 4, the word translated “happy” is often translated “blessed.”  But the idea is that people are proclaiming this person to be truly happy, as in Genesis 30:13.  Of course, this true happiness comes from Yahweh’s blessing, so the two ideas go together.

(2) Line 16 sounds a bit awkward in English, but it tells us both that they are plotting against the psalmist (“against me they plot”) and that what they are plotting is harm that will befall him (“evil for me”).

(3) In line 17, “a thing of Belial” is hard to understand.  “Belial” sometimes means “worthlessness” or even “destruction,” so that this could refer to something evil, some destructive illness.  But the term translated “thing” may also refer to a word, perhaps a charge that David himself is worthless, and that charge is seen as sinking into his inner parts.

(4) In line 19, “my man of peace” is a man with whom David was at peace, a close friend.  He exalts (or lifts up) his heel to crush David (… as if it was David who was a serpent?).

(5) The psalm is a chiasm with five sections.  It opens and closes with sections dealing with the happiness of the man whom Yahweh delivers and supports and whom Yahweh does not give over to his enemies so that they triumph over him.  The second and fourth sections are a prayer for Yahweh to “be gracious” (the same phrase is used in each section), though with a contrast: the second section speaks of the psalmist’s sin, but the fourth section asks for the opportunity to repay his enemies.

The center section is an extended description of the behavior of his enemies as they come to David and speak all kinds of nice words, words of hypocrisy and falsehood, and then go out and blab to everyone in the street the harmful words they have been saving up in their hearts.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:41 pm | Discuss (0)
October 16, 2007

Psalm 40

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
By David.
A Psalm.

Waiting, I awaited Yahweh,
And he bent down to me and heard my cry.
And he brought me up from the roaring cistern,
From the slimy mud,
And he set upon a rock my feet;
He established my footsteps.
And he put in my mouth a new song,
Praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
And will trust in Yahweh.

Happy is the young man who has made Yahweh his trust,
And has not turned to the proud and those turning aside to a lie.
Many things have you done, Yahweh my God — your wonders;
And your thoughts toward us — there is no stating them to you in order.
I will declare and speak:
They are too numerous to count.

Sacrifice and tribute you did not desire.
Two ears you have dug out for me.
Ascension and sin offering you did not ask.
Then I said, “Look!  I come.
In the scroll of the book it is written about me.”
To do your will, my God, I delight;
And your Instruction is within my innards.

I have announced your righteousness in a great assembly.
Look!  My lips I will not hold back.
Yahweh, you yourself know.
Your righteousness I have not hidden in the midst of my heart.
Your faithfulness and your salvation I have spoken.
I have not concealed your loyalty and your trustworthiness from a great assembly.

You yourself, Yahweh, will not hold back your compassions from me.
Let your loyalty and your trustworthiness continually preserve me,
Because surrounding me are evils till there is no number.
Overtaking me are my liabilities and I am not able to see.
More numerous they are than the hairs of my head,
And my heart has left me.

Be pleased, Yahweh, to deliver me!
Yahweh, to my help make haste!
Let them be shamed and confounded together —
The ones seeking my soul to destroy it.
Let them shrink back and be disgraced —
The ones wishing me evil.
Let them be desolate because of their shame —
Those saying to me, “Aha!  Aha!”
Let them be glad and rejoice in you –all those who seek you.
Let them say continually, “Great is Yahweh!” — those who love your salvation.

But I am oppressed and needy.
My Master thinks about me.
My help and my deliverer are you.
My God, do not delay.

A couple comments about this translation:

(1) In line 3, the “roaring” of the cistern (or pit) is the sound of many waters in a deep place.

(2) In line 14, the verb has to do with organizing something.  It can refer to an army being arrayed against someone, but that doesn’t fit the context here well.  It may also be used for comparison (“There is none like you!”), which is possible here.  But sometimes it refer to an orderly statement or argument, and that seems to fit the context best.

(3) In line 18, the word for “ears” neither singular (“ear”) nor plural (“ears”) but rather dual, a form that doesn’t exist in English but does in Hebrew: the psalmist is speaking of his two ears.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:10 pm | Discuss (0)
October 10, 2007


Category: Bible,Bible - OT - Genesis,Hermeneutics :: Permalink

It’s come to my attention that there are some people who teach that we shouldn’t identify something in the Old Testament as a type of Christ unless the New Testament makes that identification explicit.  So it’s okay to say that the rock in the wilderness was a type of Christ because Paul says so in 1 Corinthians 10.  But it’s not okay to say that the story of Joseph is a type of Christ because the New Testament never says so, even though it should be clear to any Christian reading Genesis that Joseph is rejected by his brothers, goes down to the pit, rises again in glory, ascends to the throne at the right hand of the king, is reconciled to his brothers, and ends up feeding the world, so that all the nations are blessed in him.  In spite of how much that sounds like Christ, this view says, the New Testament doesn’t say explicitly that Joseph is a type of Christ and therefore we shouldn’t either.

Here’s a question I have for such people: When God says in Genesis 3:15 that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent, do you think that’s talking about Christ’s victory over Satan?  Surely the answer would be “Yes.”  I don’t think that’s the only thing that promise refers to.  It includes other victories over enemies, other crushings of the heads of serpents, such as Jael’s crushing the head of Sisera or David’s crushing the head of Goliath.  But surely that promise ultimately points to Christ’s victory over Satan, the crushing of Satan’s head.

But where does the New Testament ever make that typology explicit?  There are certainly passages which talk about Christ triumphing over Satan (e.g., Col. 2:15), but they don’t allude to Genesis 3:15.  In Revelation 12:9, we hear about the “great dragon,” who is “that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan,” but even here we don’t hear that Christ crushed his head.  Instead, we’re told that war broke out and Michael won the victory and cast the serpent to the earth.

The only fairly clear allusion to Genesis 3:15 that I can think of in the New Testament is in Romans 16:20: “And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.”  But here it’s the church which has Satan crushed under its feet.  Granted, the church is the body of Christ, and so this may be (and I think is) a fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, but it certainly doesn’t state explicitly that Genesis 3:15 is speaking about Christ.

Furthermore, the only explicit connection to Genesis 3:15 here in Romans 16 might be the term “crush.”  After all, Genesis 3:15 says nothing about feet, and Romans 16:20 says nothing about the serpent, its head, or its bruising of someone’s heel.  In fact, you’ll search the entire New Testament and never once find any reference to the serpent bruising someone’s heel, let alone Christ’s heel.

If you can find another passage in the New Testament that explicitly indicates that the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 is a type of Christ, please point me to it.  But I don’t think there is one. 

On the principle of the people I mentioned in the opening paragraph, then, we may not say that Genesis 3:15 is speaking of Christ.  But surely it is.  And just as surely, then, the principle must be wrong.  If it is the case that we may not identify something as a type unless the New Testament does, then Genesis 3:15 doesn’t speak of Christ.  If Genesis 3:15 does speak of Christ, then we may indeed draw typological connections even if the New Testament doesn’t.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:41 pm | Discuss (14)
October 9, 2007

The Virtual Pastor

Category: Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

Brian McLaren raises some questions about the new technology that allows people to “minister” without actual contact with people:

Many of us have thought to ourselves, Ministry would be great if it weren’t for the people, and increasingly it has become possible to “have a ministry” without ever having to actually live, in your flesh, with people in their flesh. In fact, vicarious ministries (via books, radio, TV, or whatever) have a higher status in the minds of many than the work of actually being with people who argue, fail, disagree, react, sin, attack, have emotional breakdowns, get sick, call you at 2 a.m., betray you, try your patience, and eventually die and leave you in grief.

But as McLaren argues, such “ministries” damage people, including the pastors who “minister” from afar in this way. Worth thinking about in our technologized age.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:32 pm | Discuss (2)

Psalm 39

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’Ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
For Jeduthun.
A psalm.
By David.

I said, “I will guard my way
From sinning with my tongue.
I will guard my mouth with a muzzle
While the wicked one is before me.”
I was mute with silence;
I was quiet even from good.
And my pain was stirred up.
Hot was my heart within me.
In my meditating, the fire burned.
I spoke with my tongue:

Make me know, Yahweh, my end,
And the measure of my days — what it is,
That I may know how frail I am.
Look, as handbreadths you give my days,
And my lifespan is as nothing before you.

Surely, entirely vapor is every man standing firm.
Surely, as a shadow does a man walk.  Selah.

Surely, for vapor they clamor:
He heaps up and does not know who will gather them.

And now, what do I await, my Lord?
As for my hope, it is in you.

From all my rebellions deliver me;
As the reproach of a fool do not set me up.

I am mute; I will not open my mouth
Because it was you who did it.
Remove from upon me your plague;
From the opposition of your hand I have come to an end.

With rebukes for liability you discipline a man,
And you melt, like a moth, his treasure.

Surely a breath is every man.  Selah.

Hear my prayer, Yahweh!
And to my cry give ear!
To my tears do not be deaf,
Because a resident alien I am with you,
A sojourner like all my fathers.
Look away from me and let me be happy
Before I go and am no more.

A few comments about the translation of this psalm:

(1) In line 3, “I will guard my mouth with a muzzle” could be rendered “I will keep a muzzle for my mouth.”  The verb usually refers to guarding or protecting something, not just to having something on hand, however.

(2) In line 13, the word translated “frail” means “ceasing.”  It’s likely, as Alexander argues in his commentary, that the point isn’t that the psalmist wants to know how frail he is in general, but that he wants to know specifically when his life will actually end.

(3) In line 17, the word translated “shadow” normally refers to an image, but it’s related to other words that refer to shadows.  The idea here may be that a man is merely an image of himself, just a shadow of the real thing.

(4) In line 18, the verb for making a noise is related to a noun which can refer either to a tumult or to wealth or riches, an ostentatious display, probably because the wealthy like to make a lot of noise about their riches.  So the psalm moves from making a noise to heaping up wealth in a way that may seem awkward to us, but doesn’t in Hebrew.

(5) In line 26, the word for “plague” refers to an affliction but is also related to the word for “touch.” The affliction or plague here is seen as Yahweh’s touch.  The same word is used for leprosy in Leviticus 13.

(6) In the last two lines, all the phrases are found in Job.  “Let me be happy” may mean “let me have some comfort” (as it’s sometimes translated in Job 9:27 and Job 10:20.  The related word in Amos 5:9 isn’t easy to translate.  Many versions (and Holladay’s lexicon) render it as “to flash, flare up.”  The KJV, viewing it in the light of its use in this psalm and in Job, translated it as “to strengthen.”  In any case, it seems to have to do here with a brief period of happiness or comfort or strength before death.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:14 pm | Discuss (0)

A Moment of Silence

Category: Theology :: Permalink

Josh Gibbs rebukes the god of silence whom our society honors from time to time:

Where the Church says, “Let’s petition our God,” the world has scooped God out and insisted on leaving the void empty. “We will do nothing for ten seconds. That will have to be enough,” says the world.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:14 am | Discuss (1)
October 3, 2007

Children & Sleep

Category: Family :: Permalink

In 2004, the National Sleep Foundation published the results of its study on children and sleep, based in interviews with 1473 adults with small children at home.  The study found that 47 percent of toddlers and 36 percent of preschoolers woke at least once per night and needed an adult’s help in order to get back to sleep.

For some reason, however, many parents seem to think that their children ought to be sleeping straight through the night without waking up at all or that if the children do wake up, they should be able to get back to sleep without needing Mom or Dad to help them.

But as Elizabeth Pantley points out, “If up to 50 percent of the population does any particular thing, I don’t see how it could be considered anything but normal” (The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers, p. 143).  What’s strange is not that the children wake up and can’t get back to sleep without an adult’s help.  What’s strange is that the parents think this situation is strange.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:46 pm | Discuss (6)

Authority in God’s Kingdom

Category: Theology :: Permalink

The kingdom of God does not arrive like the 82nd Airborne, but rather arrives the way yeast works through a loaf of bread. Because it does not happen instantaneously, there is room for those who doubt the Word of God to scoff in the meantime.

As the history of the church has unfolded, there have been two main competitors to the biblical theology of dominion. The first is to fear the maturity it represents, and to flee from it and all attendant responsibilities. This is the tack taken by most contemporary evangelicals, who only real cultural hope is for Jesus to return any moment now and snatch our bacon out of the fire. The other false option is the attempt to seize power, rather than to grow dominion. The one who wants power wants it now, and so he grabs it.

The one who wants to labor for dominion is one who does exactly what Jesus said to do. Jesus taught us that authority flows to those who take responsibility through service, and it flees those who try to evade that responsibility, whether through flight or through grasping. But the least will become the greatest. — Doug Wilson, “The Yeast of True Service“ (paragraph breaks added).

Posted by John Barach @ 2:25 pm | Discuss (0)

Psalm 38

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

A Psalm.
By David.
For memorializing.

Yahweh, do not, in your wrath, reprove me,
Nor in your anger chastise me.
Indeed, your arrows have descended into me
And your hand has descended upon me.

There is no sound place in my flesh because of your indignation;
There is no peace in my bones because of my sin.
Indeed, my liabilities go over my head;
Like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.
My wounds stink, they have putrified,
Because of my foolishness.
I have been agitated, I have bowed down greatly;
All the day I have gone about begrimed,
Because my loins are filled with burning
And there is no sound place in my flesh.
I am numbed and crushed greatly;
I roar from the groaning of my heart.

My Lord, before you is all my longing,
And my sighing is not hidden from you.

My heart pounds; my strength has abandoned me;
And the light of my eyes — even they are not with me.
My lovers and my friends stand away from my plague;
And my neighbors stand afar off.

Those who seek my soul lay snares for me,
And those intent on my harm speak destructive words,
And deceits all the day they utter.

And I myself am like a deaf man who does not hear,
And like a mute man who will not open his mouth.
And I am like a man who does not hear
And there are in his mouth no objections,
Because for you, Yahweh, I wait —
You will answer, my Lord, my God! —
Because I said, “Lest they rejoice concerning me”;
When my foot slipped they magnified themselves against me.

Indeed, I myself am about to stumble,
And my suffering is before me continually.
Indeed, my liability I will declare;
I am anxious because of my sin.
And my mortal enemies are strong,
And multiplied are my deceptive haters.
And those repaying evil for good —
They oppose me for my pursuit of good.

Do not abandon me, Yahweh!
My God, do not be far from me!
To my help make haste,
My Lord, my salvation!

A few comments on this translation:

(1) The note in the title, “for memorializing,” indicates that this psalm is intended to call God to remember the suffering person who is singing this psalm.  It memorializes that person so that God remembers and acts.

(2) When the psalmist says that he has gone about “begrimed,” the Hebrew word has to do with darkness. He has grown dark, probably from the dust and ashes he has spread upon himself in mourning.

(3) The word I’ve translated “indeed” is sometimes tricky.  It’s the same word that I’ve translated “because” and that’s often rendered as “for” in many translations.  The term can cover things that we use a bunch of different words for in English, including causality (“because”) as well as emphasis (“indeed”).

It’s hard to tell sometimes exactly what the word means or what the flow of thought is in this psalm.  Sometimes the line introduced by this word seems like a reason for the previous line, and so I’ve used “because.”  But at other times, the connection isn’t clear to me, and so I’ve translated this word as “indeed” on the assumption that the word is used mainly for emphasis.

(4) In line 34, David says, “I am ready for stumbling.”  The word translated “ready” seems to have the sense of being prepared.  It’s in the passive voice here, but the active voice of this verb has to do with getting something ready, making something ready, and the passive voice often has to do with something being stable.

I don’t think David is saying that he’s stable so that he won’t fall.  The context would seem to indicate otherwise.  It’s possible that he means (as a quick read of the English might suggest) that he’s on the verge of stumbling.

But I wonder if this particular verb would be used for “being on the verge of” something or if the verb suggest, rather, that David is prepared to stumble and fall, perhaps in the sense that he is expecting it and is willing to declare his liability and so forth.  His stumbling will not take him by surprise because he knows what he has done to incur liability (which, by the way, seems to be the sense of this particular Hebrew word, which is often translated “iniquity”: the focus is often on the guilt incurred, rather than strictly on the act performed).

(5) In lines 38 and 39, David uses two parallel phrases which could be translated “my enemies of life” and “my haters of falsehood.”  The first one probably means “the enemies of my life.”  The second one indicates that these people who hate David act falsely or deceptively in their hatred.

[Revised: April 14, 2009.]

Posted by John Barach @ 12:14 pm | Discuss (0)
October 1, 2007

Angela’s Ashes

Category: Literature :: Permalink

I picked up a copy of Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes some time ago and have had it sitting on the shelf until recently.  I’m about twenty pages from the end right now, and I’m sorting through what I think about it.

The book won the Pulitzer Prize in memoirs and received high praise from a lot of people, and I can see why.  McCourt writes fairly well, there’s a lot of humor in the book, and the story he tells is interesting.  It’s largely the account of his childhood in Limerick in the 1930s and ’40s as the son of a man from Northern Ireland who was given more to drinking his pint or twenty than to bringing home the wages and caring for his family.  The second and third paragraphs sum the book up fairly well:

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all.  It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and wimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years (p. 11).

There are passages that are heartbreaking, and throughout you have McCourt’s distinctively Irish voice.  He writes so that you can hear the accent.

And yet I wonder….

My own memories of my childhood are sparse, perhaps unusually so.  I remember certain events vividly, but there aren’t many of those memories.  Some of my memories are a bit warped because I’m an adult rememberin things that happened when I was a child.  For instance, I remember walking through bookcases in the adult section of the library when I was about five years old and the bookcases towered over my head.  In my memory, those bookcases must be fifteen feet tall but that’s because I’m six feet tall now and I imagine them towering over my grown-up head.  In reality, they were likely about seven feet tell and I was only three feet tall.  Similarly, the intervenous needle that I got when I was eight or so has grown in length because I remember the length of it by looking at my hand and my hand has grown considerably since then.

I remember some things that I’m pretty sure didn’t happen and were probably only dreams (e.g., the backyard covered with candy wrappers that my sister and a friend had thrown there when they were pigging out on candy).  In some cases, I’m sure I remember what I’ve been told about things I did or said: I remember the story; I don’t remember actually doing or saying those things.

Of many other events, I remember bits and pieces: being six years old in the winter and freezing my hands as I scrambled up a snow-covered hill on my way home from school, having forgotten my mittens at school, for instance.  I remember that part, and I remember my mother having me run lukewarm water over my hands.  But that’s it.  I don’t remember if it was sunny or overcast; I don’t remember whether we ever found those mittens again.   I have only parts of those memories left, and if I were to write a memoir about my childhood it would either be very brief, full of scattered pieces of memories, or I would have to embellish it significantly.

And now I come back to Angela’s Ashes.  All the way through this memoir, I kept wondering how McCourt, who was in his sixties when he wrote the book, could possibly remember all the details he records.  He reports on whole conversations that took place when he was three years old, for instance.  He describes buildings and people and their accents and the way he felt and so forth.  Now perhaps, as my memory of childhood may be unusually sparse, his was unusually good.  Perhaps some of the stories he tells were ones that his parents told him about his chlidhood, so that he’s remembering their account rather than the actual events.  Maybe.

But I kept suspecting that McCourt was embellishing the stories he told, that he wasn’t simply reporting on what he remembered or even what others told him but that he was making things up in order to make the stories more interesting.  We all probably do some of that when we’re telling stories about things that happened to us, just as the fish that got away seems larger than it probably really was.  Most of us are probably wittier and have better comebacks in our stories than we do in real life.  And I suspect that McCourt has told these stories often in one form or another — and especially in this play — that they’ve gradually grown in the telling, especially as he found that people chuckled at the things he was saying.

In his review, Orrin Judd raises similar questions:

What then are we to make of the recent torrent of memoirs wherein authors recall entire conversations including tones and nuances, scents, sounds, shadows and so forth from when they were mere children?  Obviously we just can not accept them as non-fiction.  There was a time when every young writer was expected to start his career with a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, then, having gotten that out of his system, he could move on to writing genuine fiction, coming back in his dotage to retell the story of his early life in a memoir that was understood to be so far removed from the time of the events that it was inherently untrustworthy.  No one took these memories seriously, but the aged author had earned the right to put his own gloss on the misty past; only petty minds demanded total accuracy from these literary lions.  Now, however, everyone who picks up a pen writes a memoir of some kind or another, recreating their callow youths with such exacting specificity that it is impossible to believe a word they’ve written.  The only reason for this trend would seem to be the truly frightening level of voyeurism we’ve sunk to in recent years.  Like the glut of “reality” TV shows, the craze for memoirs appears to be based on the assumption that a story is more interesting if we think it’s true.  One would hope that this is not necessarily the case and that in due time authors will return to writing coming of age novels which may leave us guessing what is fact and what is fiction, but have the honesty and the decency not to pretend that fiction is fact.

None of this means that Angela’s Ashes isn’t worth reading, but it would probably be better to approach it as if you were sitting in a crowd listening to a gifted storyteller spinning yarns about his youth in order to make you laugh and sometimes cry.  You don’t necessarily believe everything he says, but you can still enjoy the stories.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:45 am | Discuss (3)