The Painter of Biblical Life — Perception & The God of Old (James Kugel)

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I ripped through The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible by James Kugel. It’s a great, great book aimed at the middle brow with lots of scholarly grist. As I’m looking at it, the book stands out as being primarily about perception. Kugel wants to get at the Bible’s different “sense” of things, how the biblical authors looked at life’s relentlessness reality through the prism construct of their God (pp.1-3).

God is a “report on the way things look, on the way it happens.” The sense of God throws human vision into extraordinary relief (p.64). The difference between ordinary reality as sensed versus super-natural reality in the world seems to be the intensification of sensation and the sudden shifts in perspective both brought by the latter. Religious sensation makes everything appear brighter, sharper, and harder than in ordinary sensation (pp.140-68).

The figure of God gets bigger and more remote. The human person appears smaller and smaller. The world appears full of cracks. (pp.61, 63, 35-6). The key sense is “stark” (pp.66-7, 140, 191). The pagan gods are doll-like and spindly. The human figure has been reduced to a few traits, small, simple, and easy to grasp (182). Painted in primary colors without wrinkles or shadows, the whole scene is compared by Kugel to an animated cartoon (pp.154-6, 161, 181-6).

Described by Kugel in its crude form, this theo-aesthetic of stark impressions and fleeting apparitions lends itself to its own ethical insistence. In a world thrown into such harsh relief, the only thing that matters for the puny human person is very simple –to do right, to avoid evil, to be righteous (p.184).


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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