March 31, 2012

With Ink the Ocean Fill

Last Sunday at our local Mennonite church, we sang "The Love of God," a hymn I've always enjoyed for the wonderful third verse, with its convoluted syntax: 

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
  And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
  And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
  Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
  Though stretched from sky to sky.

By a weird coincidence, I got an email from my dad the next day, commenting on the origins of the verse. He'd learned about it from my uncle, who goes to church with Jeremy Nafziger, a writer interested in church music. Here are Jeremy's comments (used with permission):

Frederick Lehman, the author and composer, sounds like he should be a Mennonite, but alas, he was a Nazarene minister. Early in his ministry (around 1900), he heard a preacher end his sermon with lines similar to the third verse of this hymn. The lines had been found scribbled on the wall of an insane asylum after the inmate’s death; Lehman says that "the general opinion was that this inmate had written it in moments of sanity."

Lehman later used the words, slightly altered, years later as the third stanza of "The Love of God."

It turns out, however, that the lines from the asylum wall came from a long poem written in Aramaic in the 11th century by a Jewish rabbi in Worms, Germany. (Note—the author was Rabbi Ben Isaac Nehorai, in a poem called "Hadamut," written in 1050.)

And that may not even be the original—the Koran, written in Arabic four centuries earlier, contains this passage: "And were every tree that is in the earth (made into) pens and the sea (to supply it with ink), with seven more seas to increase it, the words of Allah would not come to an end; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise" (XXXI:27).

And you can go further back than that, to the Gospel of John, to find another similar passage. In the last verse of the book, we read: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."

So in this one hymn, we see the story of all God's children signing the covenant that "shall forevermore endure."

March 16, 2012

Book on Fire reviews

Couple nice reviews from Reading Envy and Beyond the Stacks:

Reading Envy

A book thief lands in a fantastical version of the legendary Alexandria to steal from his ultimate library, and falls in love with a librarian working there. I’m not sure if the author loves libraries or librarians more, considering that his previous book, The Book of Flying, was along similar lines, but I have to admit it works for me. I almost feel embarrassed to say how much I enjoyed reading this book, but I can’t really explain why. I was already enamored with Alexandria after reading the Durrell quartet, and this made it so much worse! 

The writing is very descriptive, and I’m tempted to say overly so, except I don’t feel it is. Most of the time if I pick up a book that spends half its time describing smells and food, it reads like filler, but here it serves to place the reader into his vision of Alexandria. I found myself drawn in and living in the world as I read, which doesn’t happen often as an adult. (I also ended up hungry!) 

There are elements of the writing and of the storytelling that are the same elements I love in Catherynne Valente’s writing, and anyone knows me knows that is high praise indeed. After reading a little more about the author himself, I feel like you can see glimpses of his real life experiences tucked into this book, as far from reality as it seems. 

Beyond the Stacks

There is a book out there for everyone. A book that speaks to your very soul, that can make you weep in utter heartache and cry tears of joy and amusement. For me, this is the book. This is my book. I found myself reading slower, rereading passages again and again, just to savor every last morsel from this exquisite feast of the imagination.