By Joanne Kendall
Originally published in the December 2015 issue of 1666 Coffman Newsletter
While 1666 library readers continue to explore books marked with neon yellow-labeled “166Six Picks,” a stop on the second level of the library to examine the books in Section XII, Shelf 4 is certain to surprise the curious. Here is what you will discover.
Books on this shelf, a beginning collection labeled “Sacred Texts” and “Writings on Sacred Texts,” represent several of the world’s religious traditions. Perhaps for the first time ever, a reader can hold and read an edition of the Torah. The black-bound copy is edited by a widely recognized scholar and former Rabbi at Mount Zion Temple on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul.
A curious reader can also find a translation of the Bhagavad Gita edited by Eknath Easwaran. This edition of the central work of the Hindu spiritual tradition has been highly praised by Huston White, a respected scholar of world religions. Included in this edition are two other works of Hindu scripture, the Upanishads and the Dhammapada.
Our own biblical scholar and newer 1666 neighbor, Fred Gaiser, reminds us that
sacred texts have a long, long historical tradition, worth exploring for reasons few of us think about. Fred’s comments below and your own explorations of Section XII will categorize you as an intrepid, curious reader.
Fred writes: “Many, if not most of the earliest writings we know are sacred texts. Hieroglyphics means “god’s words”—a later designation, of course, but a recognition of the nature of these writings (or characters). And what about the pre-writing pictographs, many of which are clearly religious icons of some sort? If we go back far enough, we find cave paintings that most regard as having ‘religiousa significance (homeopathic magic?)—not texts, of course (or are they, in a world that has no written language?). In the ancient Near East, there are many writings of religious significance, including the Cyrus Cylinder, of great importance for biblical and world history. Just for fun, poke around on the Internet for ‘ancient writing,’ ‘history of writing,’ and similar terms. It’s a fascinating journey.
Why do we care? These early sacred texts provide insight into ancient human history and art for all people. We don’t need to be Druids to marvel at the wonders of Stonehenge or, later in history, Roman Catholics to appreciate the beauty of a Gothic cathedral. Many World Heritage Sites are religious in nature. Similarly, we don’t have to profess a particular religion to be interested in its texts. It’s not all beauty, of course. We can find difficult stuff in sacred texts, even ugly or violent stuff—including in the Bible and the Qur’an. All the more reason to understand these texts, whether as believers or not, to put them in their proper place. In his book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses—written primarily for Christians—church historian Richard Jenkins does not try to rehabilitate such verses, but he argues that religions, knowing their past, have to “mature” in order to survive.
While there are no cave paintings in the Coffman library, there are other materials of great cultural and religious significance. We can find the context and background, for example, of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s famous quotation from the Bhagavad Gita when he saw the explosion of the first atomic bomb in the Nevada desert, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”; or similarly of the Bible’s “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In the present world, the Qur’an has become culturally and politically important. What does it actually say? We can find it in its entirety in the two-volume Norton Anthology of World Religions, along with helpful commentary. A wealth of other resources are to be found in those volumes, including significant classical devotional writings and material from the early Rabbis that are the basis for the Rabbinical Judaism of today’s Jewish communities.
So, yes, take a look at these sacred texts. There are rich treasures in our 1666
Coffman Library collection.
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