Kevin Watson on Social Holiness

Kevin Watson is a personal friend and colleague currently working on his PhD at SMU.  We met each other when we were roommates getting our pastoral licenses at OCU, and this has ended up been a true blessing in my life.  If you are a United Methodist (or just curious), please, please, please go read his post on the distinction between social holiness and social justice.   Overall, this post is an excellent corrective for those who use John Wesley’s quotes poorly.

Kevin is such a strong voice on the priority of faith and holiness in the Christian life, and I eagerly anticipate reading his work for years to come as it informs my ministry in countless ways.

Prooftexting Wesley @ Deeply Committed w/Kevin Watson

Pick a Preaching Style, Any Style

Lately, I’ve been reading through Brian D. Russell’s work on missiological readings of Scripture.  I can already see how these articles will seriously affect the way I teach and preach in the future.

As I was reading, I found this interesting quote from Erwin McManus.  Brian asked him if there was a particular style of sermon that connected best with others, and this was his enlightening response:

Brian, in a lot of ways, I think what it comes down to is one simple thing: Does the person listening view you as the kind of person that they would like to in some way become? If the answer is no, no new approach of preaching is going to help you. If the answer is yes, it’s amazing how much people will adapt to your style.

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 3

Job responds out of a moral imagination shaped by the bitter and difficult experience of crushing suffering. The sheer terror of these events shakes Job’s moral imagination to its core. We might even ask whether Job’s moral imagination was the reason he was chosen or if it was shaped by the sheer force of his suffering. In other words, which came first, the suffering or the moral imagination that enabled and shaped his response?

Instead of being able to easily embrace the friends version of what is happening, Job begins in Chapter 3 with a profound lament, cursing the day of his birth (3:1), longing for non-existence (3:13-15), praying for the grave (3:21-22), and utterly lamenting the omnipresent nature of his groans and sighs (3:24). He responds first to Eliphaz as he reminds him of the realities of his suffering: worm-eaten flesh (7:5), swift days that end without hope (7:6), and even utter hopelessness in the face of his suffering (7:21). He then replies to Bildad desperation over being unable to even communicate or perhaps even contend with God (9:3-5). He despairs the invisibility of God’s movements (9:11), and he is filled with bitter loss when he looks at himself in comparison to this inaccessible and overpowering God (9:15-21).

However, in Chapter 10, Job begins to shift from lament over God’s inaccessibility to give free utterance to his complaint (10:1). Somehow, he begins to form a complaint and argument against the unfair treatment he has experienced. He asks God if he oppresses (10:3), he asks if God can see (10:4), and he begs God to leave him alone and allow him to depart to the land of gloom and deep darkness (10:18-22).

Finally, in response to Zophar’s accusation, Job comes back with sarcasm, in effect saying, “You guys are so brilliant. When you die, wisdom will die with you (12:2).” Job then restates his innocence (12:4) and describes God’s power once again (12:13-25). Finally, we see him resorting to the only recourse he can imagine. As Carol Newsom so helpfully points out, Job can only imagine justice and accountability through a divine court of law. Job’s only recourse that doesn’t effectively diminish the suffering he faces is by telling his broken testimony in front of witnesses.

The friends, unlike Job, simply can’t imagine a suffering that is not for the good of the righteous sufferer. They seem to have no difficulty imagining suffering that wears down the unrighteous and grinds the unjust into dust, but they are struggling with the picture of the righteous sufferer. One can easily see that this is a common theme in exilic literature. If we did something wrong, then exile is punishment for that wrong. However, if we have been righteous and we’re still in exile, then what is the response.

I think there is a definite tension between the moral imaginations of the friends and Job that can be extrapolated to the national level of exilic suffering. I would suggest that the friends are saying the suffering necessarily suggests there has been a serious breach of relationship with God, whereas Job seems to hold fast to the idea that he is suffering unjustly. In the face of utter injustice, the only response his imagination will allow is the recitation of his suffering in such a way that God hears as if through a court of appeals. Somehow, the only response he can imagine is the spoken testimony of what is taking place.

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 2

Job’s friends, in Newsom’s argument, aren’t simply the “bad guys” who come in from the outside to blast Job with accusations of wickedness. They are, like us, holistically formed by the stories and narratives of the culture in which they reside. Newsom shows how they seek to resist turmoil by imposing very particular narrative structures on reality as they experience it: 1.) These friends introduce narrative structures that seek to find teleological resolution in the turmoil that Job is facing. In fact, they hope the “good” that comes from Job’s suffering can somehow transcend the utter suffering he experiences in the beginning. 2.) They urge Job to seek God through particular religious practices and traditions, in the hopes that Job can resist and be transformed by the turmoil that he is facing. 3.) Finally, they offer poetic “iconic narratives” that will give a narrative structure to the moral order of the world in such a way that turmoil and suffering are weakened.[1]

Job’s friends use the skills of persuasive speech, embracing and offering powerful metaphors to help Job “wade through” his suffering. In chapter 5, Eliphaz seems to assures Job that in spite of his suffering, he will see redemption from death (5:20), rescue from war (5:20), hidden from the scourge of the tongue (5:21), and eventual restoration including safety, many descendents, and old age (5:23-27).

In chapter 8, Bildad too offers a hopeful future, including hope for a great end (8:7), the acceptance of God (8:20), and triumph over enemies (8:22).

Zophar then responds with chiding. He suggests that Job deserves even more suffering than he recieves (11:6). He is confident that God knows iniquity when he sees it, and that our stupidity regarding our iniquity is no excuse for avoiding suffering (11:11-12). Altogether, Zophar’s moral imagination comes across as the culmination of the common wisdom of the friends.

Again and again the friends are unable to embrace the possibility of meaningless suffering. They are convinced of a causal relationship between sin and suffering, and they believe that suffering is purposeful. If, as David Clines suggests, Job is a book written by the privileged for the privileged, then the friends are the epitome of those who seek to legitimize suffering for others.[2]

Presumably, this moral imagination also serves as a defense mechanism with the friends thinking, “If we can diagnose Job’s problem, we can then avoid it in our own lives!” At this point, I want to propose a dual-level theodicy. Those in positions of power should not be able to force meaning on those who are suffering. Yet, those in power should also give a privileged place to the theodicy of those who are suffering, because meaning might just be the only thing they have left.

In this dual-level theodicy, the suffering are privileged to either make meaning or not, but it lies in their hands empowering them in the midst of their despair. The privileged are thus given a burden to alleviate suffering, not to ignore it by imposing meaning from the top-down.

It seems that if we follow the friend’s example with the sufferers of our world, we are tempted to act as people complicit with the suffering. In effect, we are tempted to say, “It’s a mystery why you’re suffering, but it’s for your own good. Trust God and stay strong, but keep suffering.”[3]

[1] Newsom, Carol A., “Job and His Friends: A Conflict of Moral Imaginations,” Interpretation. (1999), p. 240

[2]David Clines, “Why is There a Book of Job and What does it do to you if you Read it?” in W. A. M. Beuken, ed., The Book of Job; BETL114 (Leuven: LUP, 1994)

[3] This follows the thinking of Walter Brueggemann, “Theodicy in a Social Dimension,” JSOT 33 (1985): 3-25

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 1

In the next few posts, I’m going to post a paper I wrote as the final for my Job Exegesis paper at Drew University this summer.  It will be broken into a series of posts over the next few days.  Hope you enjoy a subject that really challenged and stretched my own imagination and understanding.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

We live in a world that experiences suffering on a global scale. Simply watching the news, reading the newspaper, and viewing online news content awakens one to the fact that there are terrible things happening around the world. Dictators seize power, ethnic and religious groups pose great threats of violence to one another, and unexpected tragedies fill our minds. It’s enough to wonder what to make of the world in which we live. The book of Job is an epic work for such a time as this.

Job’s story, his interaction with the divine council, his friends’ response, and even God’s final reply provide an incredibly vivid backdrop for exploring some of the most difficult questions we face.

One of the ways the book of Job interacts with the tough questions of life is by exploring a variety of traditions and cultural discourses. Carol Newsom does a terrific job describing the way that the difficult dialogue between Job and his friends is more than simple difference of opinion. Newsom describes it as a conflict between two spectacularly different moral imaginations. On one hand we have a presentation of the moral imagination of the friends,

“The imagination of the friends is anchored in integrative narrative patterns and practices of piety that allow one to experience not only a grounding sense of order and security but also the hope of transformation. A person who has suffered calamity even as great as Job’s can, without compromise to integrity, embrace the perspective of the friends for the work of rehabilitating a life.”

Then on the other hand, we find the moral imagination of Job

“At the heart of Job’s imagination lies the enigma of bodies broken for no reason. By insisting on speaking of and for such bodies, Job is drawn to the language of justice and accountability as it can be imagined in a court of law. From this perspective, the only narrative that does not falsely rehabilitate that brokenness is the narrative of testimony.”

These two approaches are diverse, and in Newsom’s words, incommensurable.[1] We not only have two different approaches to suffering, but two completely different ways of experiencing the world and thinking imaginatively about the moral consequences of suffering. The friends see the possibility in suffering of rehabilitating a life, while Job wrestles with the utter despair of bodies broken for no reason.

[1] Newsom, Carol A., “Job and His Friends: A Conflict of Moral Imaginations,” Interpretation. (1999) 239-253