Auditions for the Voice of God

In an attempt to help my ESOL students master the pronunciation of the past tense, I explain the difference between “voiced” and “unvoiced” sounds. I put my hand on my throat to show them how to feel for the vibrations. I will carry the looks on their faces forever. I think I can sum up the look  as: “You English speakers are weird.” Which is, of course, true.


Which brings me to the Bible. When I was a child I thought God spoke a special God-language, similar to English, but using words like “Thou,” and “Thee” and “Hail” and Shalt,” and that most intriguing of Biblical words: “begot.” Jesus certainly spoke that way. When I was in college, The Good News for Modern Man was published, revealing that Jesus spoke in language as cool as yours and mine. I admit to a vague disappointment.


During the “English-Only” in schools debate, Ma Ferguson, governor of Texas, was reputed to have said, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Which brings up the disturbing audio image of Jesus speaking with a Texas accent. Everyone knows he spoke with a New York accent; I heard it myself every Sunday.


Mark Roberts of says: …I do think the language of Jesus matters. Knowing which language or languages Jesus spoke helps us understand his teaching with greater accuracy. Moreover, it reminds us of one salient fact that almost everyone affirms: Jesus did not speak English. [Note: almost everyone.]


Fine, but what did it sound like?


Jews and Hindus regard the sound of words as sacred, or more sacred, than the meaning. The sound of the word is the life of the word. After chanting a Hindi chant, the worshiper apologizes to God for any mispronunciation.


Our chance to hear Jesus or Isaiah is long gone. We must make due with the written word. A poor substitute for hearing, but we work with what we’ve got.


For audio Bibles, James Earl Jones is by far the most popular God-voice. His voice is deep, rich and resonant, with a Mid-West accent. Cary Grant just wouldn’t cut it. Claire Bloom does the voice-over for the Old Testament for BBC. Her English pronunciation is impeccable, but strangely detached.


For other female voices, I vote for either Emma Thompson or Maya Angelou. Should the Bible be read with a crisp, open voice, with subtle intonations and all the t’s distinct, a la Thompson? Or the lower, smoother, melodious voice of Angelou? How differently we would hear the words.


Which would you take more seriously:

Jones intoning the King James version: “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or

Thompson reading a modern translation: “Don’t murder anyone” ?

What about, “He maketh me lie down in green pastures…” I’d prefer Thompson with her controlled emotion savoring the poetry…Wait a minute. Am I doing auditions for the voice of God?


Did Jesus pronounce his t’s (or the Aramaic equivalent)? Was his voice high or low, smooth or crisp? What were the intonations? Was his voice fire-and-brimstone or gentle, sarcastic or straight-forward? Was he smothering a laugh when he said some things? Did his voice crack with grief? All of the above? How do we know? We don’t.


Years ago, my cousin was struggling with mental illness. On his closet door he had a sketch of Jesus with his head thrown back, laughing. Now that’s a laugh I’d like to have heard. I’ll have to settle for listening for it in the laughter I hear around me.


For me, the most memorable sentence in the New Testament is, “Jesus wept.” No words spoken, no “Thou” or “Thee” or “Thine,” no Texas or New York accent. Jesus wept.


Maybe it’s the coming Christmas season, but if you ask me, God speaks in words of the King James Bible with an 18th century British accent and Handel’s music as score. The voiced sounds of “Messiah” fill us with joy and sorrow and calls for justice. After the last note, we are left in the unvoiced silence of God’s true voice.

What I Learned about God after Being Hit by a Car

This week I attempted to write down what I’d learned about Life and God and Stuff from my brushes with death this past year. I wrote meaningful, deep thoughts. Reviewing them I realized I could make a killing as a writer for Hallmark cards.
As I was writing, I watched a a gull trying to fly into the wind, flapping forward, gliding back. That’s what it feels like trying to describe what I learned about God. So I guess the answer to the question is, “Not too much.”

However, during my attempt to write about God, I realized why writers writing about God often end up writing about their gardens and plants and nature. And mountains, seashores, sunsets, aging, forest trails, their dogs, and sunrises. Deep thoughts are chimeric, God is not.

Now religion, religion I love writing about. I relate to those clusters of people who see Mary’s image or Jesus’ face in unexpected places. Conventions of born-again christians and churches of atheists are fascinating. As are the people we make into messiahs: Ayn Rand, Jim Jones, Steve Jobs, pre-election Barak Obama…people whose ideas excite us and we follow them happily into the future. Religion is our Play-dough of Meaning.

But God? Sitting here on Back Cove in Maine, I find I cannot distinguish the sound of wind in the trees from the sound of the tide coming in. The squat arborvitae next to the porch is doing a bizarre dance, but is not quite keeping time with the wind’s pulsations. Does arborvitae have its own internal rhythms? Yesterday, Jeannine did a charcoal sketch of me, but must have changed her mind; she sketched an old lady. I wonder why. This morning I read about 65 things I didn’t know before about growing potatoes. I often wonder why Ace can race through our forest leaping over fallen trees, winding through underbrush, but cannot figure out how to unwind his leash from a lamppost. Is it true puzzlement or passive-aggressive protest against leashes? And right now, across the water, little dots of people are quahoging. Which, I am told, is different from clamming.

See how much I still have to learn about God?

The Garden at the Center

Members of the Church of Latter Day Saints believe that the Garden ofEden was originally located in Jackson County, Missouri. Mormons have taken a lot of ribbing recently, so I won’t give my opinion on the likelihood of that being true. However, research continues, trying locate the exact spot where Adam and Eve screwed everything up. Major consensus is that the Garden was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in ancient Mesopotamia.The Garden of Eden was very likely in or around Baghdad, Iraq.

Of course the Garden of Eden may not have been at all. However, more important than where it may have been, is what it may have been. When I think of the Garden, I see two naked people trying to hide behind a scrawny bush. But how did the authors of Genesis see it in their mind’s eye? What did the Garden of Genesis look like? Streams and waterfalls? What trees, fruits, flowers, animals did the authors and listeners imagine? What birdsongs, rushing water? The smell of rosemary? We know about the apple tree. Probably figs and olives and nuts, pomegranates. There would not have been waves of grain; that happened after The Fall.

The Garden stories look back to the time when we transformed ourselves from hunter-gatherers, eating what was given, into agriculturalists, toiling to coax food from dirt.

Simply gathering all the food we need from trees and bushes sounds great. No worries about draught or tomato blight or Japanese beetles or grubs or frost. Paradise.

When my friend Ladda was a girl, she walked to school from her home in Bangkok, plucking breakfast off fruit trees on the way. Now Bangkok is a congested hell of pollution and traffic. In many areas walking is impossible. Our friend Koi was killed in a rickety open cab used by people who cannot afford cars, a common occurrence. “Pave paradise, put up a parking lot,” says Joni. Or worse.

We know the life of hunter-gatherers was no picnic, but we do look back, long for, the beauty and harmony of a life we imagine existed before everything went wrong.

Genesis was written by Jews exiled in Babylon. The Persians had been building gardens there since 4000 BC. The authors heard about those gardens of ancient Persia: cool oases of trees, flowers, walkways, and graceful buildings built for royalty. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon is called one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, if it existed. Is that what they imagined, envied,  as they wrote in exile the story of their beginnings?

In Goshen (this Goshen, not that Goshen) we are struggling to build a garden on the steep slope on the south side of our barn. We wheel in dirt and leaf compost from other parts of the land, patch together holding walls of stone and logs, experiment with drainage. Plot the size and shape of each step. We drag a hose over to water plants, we weed, we build a fence to keep deer out and put row covers to keep birds off. We read seed packets. Not what I think of when I think of paradise….until. As the summer ends the slope is green, illuminated with the colors of flowers and vegetables. The smells of rosemary and tomatoes and dirt. We eat peas out of the pods; the cherry tomatoes are eaten before they get to the kitchen. We eat pickled beans and beets in winter.

Our garden is a rarity in the history of the world; if it fails, we go won’t starve. When we imagine Paradise, we are the royalty; we are not the hungry slaves cranking water from the Tigris up the steep slopes of the Hanging Gardens.

Did the Garden of Eden exist? What grew there? How did Adam and Eve spend their time if not weeding?

 If it did exist, it is a rubble of rock buried in desert now. What matters is the Garden those writers passed down to us. The longing for the beauty and harmony that was snatched from us. And that its loss was somehow our fault. The only thing that Adam and Eve had to do in the Garden was NOT eat an apple.  That’s like saying, “Don’t think of an elephant.” What a set up!  The odds were against us from the beginning.

We inherited the sense of its loss, and the hope of reclaiming that harmony. So we dig and plant, weed until our fingers hurt.  Because the Garden is here somewhere, if only we had eyes to see.