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

Who is Jesus??

Andrew Conard asked an interesting question over at Thoughts of Resurrection a couple days ago.  He heard someone ask, “Who is Jesus to you?”  So, he wrote,

Jesus is my Lord and Savior. He continues to teach me about what it is like to live as one of his followers in a kingdom that is not of this world, but is coming into the world.

He then got an interesting response from someone who attends the church he serves,

I think this is very similar to what most mainline Christians (including myself) and especially those who grew up in “the church” would declare. However, I would throw out these questions:

  1. What is a “Lord” in modern terms and vernacular? We don’t have Lords anymore.
  2. What is he a “Savior” from? A big ravine? Democrats? Republicans? Stupid people?

So in short, perhaps this needs to be modernized. So we say that he is our CEO and saves use from our sinful wrong lived lives???? Just at thought.

Man, there are a ton of questions here that have been kicked around quite a bit in recent years.  After the “seeker sensitive” movement, some have suggested that it’s more important to keep the Scriptural language and simply train people in that new vocabulary.  Others have suggested that “relevance” dictates the need to modernize the language we use.

I would simply want to offer the reminder that relevance is relative.  The word CEO, for people immersed in the language and world of business, makes a lot of sense.  CEO, for someone in a remote tribe, probably would be meaningless.  If that tribe had a chief, then perhaps Jesus as Chief would make more sense than Lord.

In addition to this question, we might also ask ourselves whether or not the individualistic language of, “Who is Jesus to you?” might preclude answers that include Jesus’ relationship to the Church.  Then again, one could argue that we might just be who we are only in relationship to the numerous socially interconnected ties that we hold.  In other words, maybe our individual subjectivity is more communal than individualistic thinking sometimes like to believe!

In any case, I agree that Jesus is Lord and Savior.  I also believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God and the crux of the overarching story of the world: creation, fall, and redemption.  I also believe Jesus is the Son of God who is always in a mutually self-giving and loving relationship with the Father and the Spirit.

Wright On…the Bible

During the recent Lambeth Conference, Bishop Tom Wright presented this piece, The Bible and Tomorrow’s World. It is a really helpful look at, you guessed it, the Bible!

I’m reading through it, and I had to stop to write down some thoughts midway through.  I find it incredibly interesting that Bishop Wright sees the “left” and “right” making the same mistakes, because they both begin with the assumption of some form of Deism.  He writes,

The real problem with the Deism that infected so much of the western world in the eighteenth century and dominates it still – thank God for our brothers and sisters from elsewhere who didn’t have that problem! – is that it lives by serious reaction against the whole notion of God’s kingdom coming ‘on earth as in heaven’.

Then, he goes on to say,

That is why the Left, which prefers a detached Deism so it can get on and do its own thing, disregarding instructions that seem to come from a distant God or a distant past, gets it wrong, and why the Right, which wants an authoritarian command from on high, doesn’t get it.

In other words, both the left and right hold ot a form of Deism.  For the left, the God of deism is disconnected spatially and chronologically, thus making God somehow in need of updating or at least in need of some serious help to get things done in the world.  On the other side of things, the gap between God’s spatial distance is filled by Scripture.  The problem there is that Scripture isnt’ God’s incarnation, Jesus is.  It’s amazing that both scriptural idolatry and idolatry of human effort both are attempts at bridging the gap between a Deistic God and the distanced world.

Wright, instead, sees things in this way:

The God of scripture is with us in the world, his world, the world in which he lived and died and rose again in the person of his Son, in which he breathes new life through the person of his Spirit. Scripture is the vehicle of the kingdom-bringing ‘authority’, in that sense, of this God.

He does go on to simplify what he’s trying to say:

Basically, I believe that scripture is the book through which the church is enabled to be the church, to be the people of God anticipating his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven

I’ve just started reading this article, and I’m very interested in seeing where he goes next.  I’m impressed with the way God’s incarnation in Jesus is central, the Spirit’s ongoing work isn’t diminished, and there is a strong place for the Church in the purposes of Scripture.

Happy Go-Lucky Religion for the Masses

Since my book budget is largely going toward stuff I have to purchase for D.Min. classes, I’ve been checking out a lot of stuff from one of my local libraries. On the recommendation of good ole Nathan Mattox, I borrowed The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. I really loved this book. It was funny, insightful, and even inspiring. Go check out BWIII’s thoughts on it if you want an in-depth review.

Now, I’m working through two others. The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart, and Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysts by George Makari.

So far, I’m more into the book on Liebniz and Spinoza by Stewart. That’s the reason for this post. Spinoza wanted to create a society that maximized freedom and limited the clerical and religious abuses that he observed in his world. Interestingly, one of the ways he wanted to do this was by creating a religion for the masses, a “popular religion” for the work-a-day dolts (he did sort of frown on the everyday people who didn’t pursue a life of contemplation) who needed something to make them good freedom-loving, open, and peaceful folk. Stewart writes,

The essence of the creed Spinoza proposes to sell to the masses is the belief that “there is a Supreme Being who loves justice and charity and whom all must obey in order to be saved, and must worship by practicing charity and justice to their neighbor.”

My question is this. Does our Christian faith sometimes simply elevate things that we’d all pretty much agree upon without a commitment to following Jesus of Nazareth, the particular person whom we believe to be the incarnation of God? What are we missing if we end up with a Christian faith that only emphasizes being good, just, open, kind, and happy? Just wondering.

Blazing Pulpits

Burning BushOne of my good friends, and sometimes commenter on this blog, has loaned me an excellent CD set on the Old Testament by Amy-Jill Levine. It is really terrific, even if I crave driving to listen to more of it! Dr. Levine’s lectures have given me new insights on several passages I’ve heard my entire life.

In the episode of the burning bush, I’ve always identified with Moses. After all, he was hearing God’s call to mission. However, after hearing the lecture on this particular episode, I’ve decided those of us who are pastors might better relate to the bush itself.

Let’s be honest, desert shrubs aren’t anything spectacular. They’re kinda dry, they sit there, and they do whatever they can to soak up nutrients from the sun-parched soil. Set ablaze by God’s divine fire, however, they become something important – something worthy of our attention. Aflame, yet not consumed. Burning alive. How’s that for a image of ministry? I think Wesley would like it. Remember this, “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”

Far too often we’re dry shrubs, failing to realize our call to be burning bushes while living hand-to-mouth searching for the stuff of life. What would it take for us to be transformed, catching the attention of would-be Moseses (Mosi?) in our community?

What does God’s fire do to the bush, ever-aflame, but not consumed? I can’t imagine this is comfortable or comforting to the bush itself, even though it isn’t consumed. Is it like Jeremiah who writes, “If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (20:9).”?

What sets you on fire? What is in you like a burning fire in your bones? What would it take for you to share that with God’s people?

Live Like You’re Dying

This is the first Ash Wednesday sermon I ever preached. May God bless you as you contemplate your mortality and cling to the hope we have by trusting in Christ.

In our world, we prefer to deny death. Death is simply not something we like to talk about. We even disguise the word. We say things like, she “passed away,” he’s “no longer with us,” or they “didn’t make it.” With modern medical breakthroughs and modern science, life spans have increased by 60% since the 1900s. Our culture has even retreated into a battle against aging – there are creams to smooth out the wrinkles that come as we age and if that doesn’t work, then by all means, botox is a viable option! Yet no matter how we may disguise aging and no matter how many decades we add onto our lifespan through healthy eating, exercise, or visits to the doctor, it remains that each and every one of us will die.[1] On one hand it is not unreasonable or even unchristian that we spend so much time in our battle against death. After all, Paul himself refers to death as the final enemy in 1 Corinthians (15:26). Yet on the other hand, there are many ways in which our culture’s choice to deny the inevitability of death impedes our lives. Denying death leads to a loss of life.

A basic Christian spiritual exercise is to acknowledge death. Ash Wednesday is a time where our worship reminds us of this truth. As I put the ashes on your head or hand here in a few moments, I will say to each of you, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This isn’t to be morbid or gruesome. It is simply to acknowledge the reality that each one of us will die. Yet, our awareness of death should remind us to really live.

Sometimes we can remember particular times in our life because of the music that stands out in our minds. The summer I worked as a chaplain at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington, KY, there was a song that stood out. Each day, I was confronted with death. Death of the worst kind – family shootings – death from abuse – cancer – heart attacks – accidents – death, both unexpected and drawn out. There are songs which we’d never sing in Church that describe things we deeply stand for and believe in. One day on my way into the hospital, Tim McGraw’s song, “Live Like You Were Dying” came on the radio. The first verse was eerily familiar with the experience and response of the patients I saw nearly every day:

“He said I was in my early forties
With a lot of life before me
When a moment came that stopped me on a dime
And I spent most of the next days
Looking at the x-rays
Talking ‘bout the options
And talking ‘bout sweet time
I asked him when it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How’s it hit you when you get that kinda news?

A man is diagnosed with a terminal illness – a man is faced with the news that is ultimately true of all of us. Even though our “real end” might not be as soon as this man, it is nonetheless equally true. When we live in denial that we will all die, we deny the call each one of us has to truly live. McGraw’s song goes on as the man describes what he did in face of the tragic news. As Christians, we are likely not called to, “go sky diving, Rocky Mountain climbing, or to ride bulls for 2.7 seconds!” However, there are many significant lessons we can learn as the song continues:

I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, I gave forgiveness I’d been denying…I was finally the husband that most the time I wasn’t, and I became the friend a friend would like to have. I finally read the good book, and I took a good hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again…

    The dying man then makes the most important point of the song, “Someday, I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”

    Ash Wednesday serves as the reminder that we should live like we are dying because in fact, we are all dying. Today is the first day of Lent and begins the time of repentance in preparation for Easter. Many Christians give up something during Lent, perhaps a favorite food or drink or maybe even television. But more and more people are choosing to add something to their lives instead of giving something up. That’s my challenge to you – live like you are dying – love deeper – speak sweeter – give the forgiveness you’ve been denying – become the wife or husband, or father or mother you haven’t been – become the friend a friend would like to have – spend time each day reading God’s word and praying.

    Do these things because the Gospel promises that existence doesn’t end with death – it ends with life. Living like you are dying brings new life – because we live in response to God’s Spirit and the power that raised Jesus at Easter. Easter, which lies at the end of Lent, is God’s answer to death – God raised Jesus Christ from the dead as the answer that death is not the end for Christians. By the power of Christ, we’re enabled to take good hard looks at our lives. Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us that God allows u-turns. We can turn from our destructive ways through the power of Christ and live our lives fully in view of the life giving resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “Live like you are dying” and you will live a life worth living.

    In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

    [1] Many insights for this section of the sermon were gleaned from Tortured Wonders by Rodney Clapp, Brazos Press 2004

    Advent with Eugene Peterson, No. 2

    I’m still hanging out with Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places during Advent. It has been a great, albeit slow, read. To get Peterson, sometimes you really have to slow down and absorb what he’s trying to say.

    In the following passage, I didn’t have to slow down. In fact, I wanted to speed up and fly right by!! In this passage, Peterson is talking about the idolatry of trying to live our faith disconnected from the places where we find ourselves, especially the workplace. Rather than risking everything and trying to find creative ways to live faithfully within our jobs we instead, “fantasize about jobs in which we can wholeheartedly work, in the wonderful phrase, ‘to the glory of God.'” He also argues that we look to the Christian marketplace to fulfill our need for a deeper faith.

    “…what we do is look around for ways to affirm and cultivate our new life in Christ outside our workplace. And we soon find, quite to our delight, that there is a lot to choose from. A huge religious marketplace has been set up in North America to meet the needs and fantasies of people just like us. There are conferences and gatherings custom-designed to give us the lift we need. Books and videos and seminars promise to let us in on the Christian “secret” of whatever we feel is lacking in our life: financial security, well-behaved children, weight-loss, exotic sex, travel to holy sites, exciting worship, celebrity teachers. The people who promote these goods and services all smile a lot and are good-looking…(p. 125).”

    Peterson then suggests that when we get caught up in this discipleship via consumerism, “we have become consumers of packaged spiritualities.”

    “This also is idolatry. We never think of using this term for it since everything we are buying or paying for is defined by the adjective “Christian.” But idolatry it is nevertheless: God packaged as a product; God depersonalized and made available as a technique or a program. The Christian market in idols has never been more brisk or lucrative (p. 125).”

    Well…ouch. I’ve asked my family to buy me Amazon giftcards this year so I could buy tons of great “Christian” stuff to read. Hey, a new prayerbook would deepen my prayer life. A new commentary would certainly spark a renewed interest in Scripture. Doggone-it, my faith in Christ will be deeper and stronger in the new year because of these purchases…

    Idolatry, huh? I suppose at times, God as a technique or a program is much more attractive than a living and active God.  Maybe this Christmas when I’m opening my new commentaries, prayer books, and emergent manifestos on leadership (w/apologies to Tim Keel, whose new book I can’t wait to read), I’ll remember that God doesn’t fit in a package. Maybe I’ll look up long enough from my new cache of books and catch a glimpse of the manger. Maybe then I’ll remember what I really need is an ongoing relationship with the living, active, Creator God, who is too big for words and much too big to wrap.