Book Review: Sight in the Sandstorm by Ann J. Temkin
Some of my favorite seminary memories involve occasional visits to Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis on Friday evenings. I and several friends would partake of the service, respectfully aware of our status as visitors to another faith's practices, but also perhaps eager to hear a word that would help broaden our sense of the divine presence and help us remember that we were and are part of a larger human community that knows that presence in a different way.
The Friday night service was a little more informal, with a duo or trio of musicians on acoustic guitars and djembe leading the songs, and the rabbi teaching from the floor, close to the gathered community. We seminarians came to treasure the insight of Rabbi Talve (some of us would eventually take a class on Jewish-Christian dialogue with her co-teaching), as well as her encouragement to us to be at our best in our own faith tradition while also remembering to "get out of the way" of what God wishes to do. The time after the service always featured breaking the challah and enjoying fellowship together. The warmth and peace that I experienced at this synagogue helped shape my sense of God and my relationship with other faiths, as well as my love for St. Louis and the diversity that makes up its population.
In her book Sight in the Sandstorm: Jesus in His World and Mine, Ann J. Temkin invites the reader into a similar journey of shaping and reshaping. Temkin's story is one of living between two worlds: the Judaism of her father and the Christianity of her mother, and all that came with that in the first half of the 20th Century. Her family settled in the United States in 1937, and not only kept up with what news they could find regarding the horrifying events in Germany that would start a few years later, but also dealt with the anti-Jewish discrimination they'd find in their new homeland as well. Temkin's family life was one of mixed faith: celebrating Christmas like many of her friends, yet at the same time cultivating a very different understanding of Yeshua bar Joseph, the man born and raised within Jewish tradition.
This book is Temkin's exploration of some of the stories about Jesus from the perspective of that worldview. Every chapter features at least one Gospel account, fleshed out to give a better idea of what it would have been like for a small band of Galilean Jews to wander the countryside interacting with others, how Jesus might have understood himself and what may have informed his teachings and interactions, and how the disciples and others may have reacted to him. The resulting stories are filled with insightful details regarding customs, dynamics between the factions of the day, and why much of how Jesus approached tradition and relationships would have seemed so scandalous, off-putting, or inspiring, depending on the point of view.
Interlaced with these accounts are snippets from Temkin's own life, the inclusion of which seems to have a twofold purpose. First, she simply wishes to show how her understanding and experience of faith has developed in her own life. Second, the stories she chooses help provide a more contemporary example of the same issue addressed by Jesus. One example is her experience of a plane hijacking and their eventual rescue at the hands of the Cuban government (this was in 1971, a decade after the Missile Crisis) coupled with Jesus telling the parable of the Samaritan, inviting his audience to rethink who one's neighbor could be. Another is a story spanning several chapters of her and a group of friends organizing a vibrant ecumenical evening liturgy in a Catholic church and its opposition by higher-ups coupled with stories of Jesus interacting with Temple authority.
I found both Temkin's own stories and her imaginative re-telling of Jesus' stories well-written, insightful, and enriching. That said, Temkin basically has written two different books, and each seem to distract from the other.
I think that her versions of the Gospel accounts could easily stand alone as a creative piece of historical fiction about Jesus' life much like Alan Green's The Silent Years. She draws so well from what we know about the cultural climate and religious traditions of the day that a separate work could be informative for anyone seeking a greater understanding of what Jesus' time might have been like. The imagery is vivid and would make for a great book for personal or small group use.
Temkin's own life story is equally captivating and would serve as a memoir of diverse faith and family experiences, which could give hope and assurance for many unsure of where to turn next in their own disillusionment with organized religion. Her recounting of the hijacking and her group's clash with church authority were so engrossing that I found myself skipping over the Jesus interludes to read what happened to her next!
The concept of Sight in the Sandstorm is well-taken and worth attempting, but for me the execution didn't seem to work. Ultimately, I believe that anyone who reads it will gain something from each set of stories. If I ever hear that Temkin is writing follow-ups to flesh out one or the other, I'll know enough about its potential quality beforehand to give it a look.
(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own.