The unseen and unaccountable old joker

Blake - The examination of Job, Satan pours on the plagues of JobA few weeks ago, I drew attention to Catherine Keller’s very creative and provocative book Face of the Deep – a reflection on Genesis 1.2 (‘… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep …’). Keller’s work is a profound and unsettling reminder that ever since the beginning there have been untamed elements which threaten to pull creation apart. And as much as we try to find in Holy Scripture an explanation for such a situation, there is, at the end of the day, none forthcoming.

The Book of Job, more than any other in holy writ, attends to the problems of suffering in the most prolonged and existential way. (One recalls, with some gratitude, what Jean-Paul Sartre made of the book.) But if one approaches that ancient book seeking answers to such problems, one will invariably be disappointed. Indeed, what one encounters there is a kind of gallows humour, what Germans call Galgenhumor. Chapter after chapter feeds a pregnant sense that at any moment now one will become more acquainted not only with Job and his comforters – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite – but also with Terry (Jones), John (Cleese), and Michael (Palin). Even the structure of book is a kind of mocking of the deep suffering of one described in the prologue as ‘blameless and upright’, although clearly lacking some discernment in the area of supportive spouse selection. Actually, the prologue is quite outrageous. It might even be ‘the most brutal scene’ in literature – God and Satan playing poker with Job’s life and with that of his family. And the book’s epilogue is equally ridiculous: it reads like a Hollywood script, a crude and tacked-on happy ending which ‘simply ignores all the questions that the rest of the book poses’ (Susan Neiman). It all seems dishonest. It all reads like one big comedy, and it offers no consolation at all for those who wish to find meaning in suffering.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is, quite simply, the best commentary I know on the Book of Job. Melville has, I think, an astonishing sense of what Job is about, and he refuses the pretty ending as if the end might justify the cost of the game. He writes:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.

Keiji Kosaka - Reconciliation in the Midst of DiscontinuityOf course, one of the ways that the Book of Job challenges the sense of life’s meaninglessness – even while adding to such – is by lifting our attention to God’s rhetorical questions recorded in the eleventh-hour chapters, an onslaught of questions which themselves seem only to add to the sense of torment that Job experiences. But what this barrage of questions does accomplish, I think, is to remind us of just how ‘inscrutable’ (to borrow St Paul’s words in Romans 11) the ways of the Lord finally are to us, an inscrutability which ought to give us considerable pause when we ponder life’s apparent meaninglessness.

A sculpture by Japanese artist Keiji Kosaka reminds us that nowhere is such inscrutability and sense of meaninglessness more apparent than in God’s work of reconciliation wherein God experiences in God’s own life the very questions of isolation and meaninglessness which threaten us, which threaten the cosmos, and which perhaps are a threat to God’s existence too – a God who seems to be in danger of being either crushed under the weight of chaos or squeezed out of the world entirely. In no way at all does the cross resolve the problem of evil. Rather, it deepens it, makes it even more confounding, more leviathanic.

The deep work of the cross – central to the church’s proclamation – remains ever a mystery to us. We proclaim it in faith, confident only of our inability to understand its totality and of the promise that accompanies its action – that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’, holding at bay those untamed elements in creation, and holding all things together.

5 thoughts on “The unseen and unaccountable old joker

  1. If there is anything more meaningless and mysterious than suffering, it is the assumption that an explanation of suffering would bring some kind of relief or consolation. Like if someone tells me that the Shoah is part of a great plan, or that a child dying of AIDS serves some wider purpose, I’m supposed to feel better? The very idea is not just ludicrous, it’s horrific. Job’s friends are the great explainers of suffering (i.e., they’re theodicists) — and we know what God thinks of them: they’re liars (Job 42:7). Better the shock of being shown a crock or a hippo to demonstrate that I’m not the only one who is so marvellously made, i.e, that I’m not the centre of the universe. An awareness of the sheer contigency of the world, including my world — that, however, might make me disabuse me of any sense of entitlement, might humble me and make me “Wow!”, might even, inshallah, open my eyes to creation as an unfathomable exhibition of God’s disturbing, saving grace.

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