Theology Friday

I just finished reading the book of Job. Again. I swear, it is so amazing. Here’s what G.K. Chesterton had to say about it:

The Jews were unpopular … [but] … They had one of the colossal corner-stones of the world: the Book of Job. It obviously stands over against the Iliad and the Greek tragedies; and even more than they it was an early meeting and parting of poetry and philosophy in the morning of the world. … But this mighty monotheistic poem remained unremarked by the whole world of antiquity … It is a sign of the way in which the Jews stood apart and kept their tradition unshaken and unshared, that they should have kept a thing like the Book of Job out of the whole intellectual world of antiquity. It is as if the Egyptians had modestly concealed the Great Pyramid.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, chapter IV: ‘God and Comparative Religion’

Job is Not Just About One Thing

So what makes the book of Job so great? There are so many things, and there is so much going on in it. This makes it kind of difficult to follow, especially on a first reading, especially if you are looking for one overarching theme that is easily discovered. Everybody has their say in Job, and the reader just kind of has to go along for the ride.

And, continuing with the perhaps rather inappropriate metaphor of a long, twisty water-slide, everybody talks about the big waterfall at the end, but maybe this time you almost drowned in the innocent-looking swirly pool, or you thought you were going to tip off when going around that one curve right at the top. Different parts of the book of Job jump-scare you on each separate ride through it.

So what jump-scared me this time?

On Being Gaslighted

Being gaslighted puts people in a terrible spot really. It might not bother a sociopath, because such a person does not have any self-doubt, any respect for the opinions of others, or any sense that it is wise to consider the possibility that we may be wrong. But for a person with a modicum of humility and self-awareness, the natural response to being gaslighted is to turn the spotlight inward and ask yourself, “Am I in fact wrong?”

Then, when careful examination assures you that you are not mistaken, yet the gaslighter is still insisting that you are, you have to betray one of two moral values. You have to either stand up for your own perspective, thus betraying the principle of humble and prudent self-doubt, or you have to betray the idea of truth. The longer the gaslighting goes on, the more frustrating this pinch becomes.

As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice,

the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul,

as long as I have life within me,

the breath of God in my nostrils,

my lips will not speak wickedness,

and my tongue will utter no deceit.

I will never admit that you are in the right;

till I die, I will not deny my integrity.

I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it;

my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live.

Job 27:2 – 6

Now, despite the words “righteousness” and “conscience” here, I do not think that Job is making an arrogant claim to be currently sinless and never going to sin as long as he lives. In other verses, he has shown that he is aware he is sinful. For example, in 13:26 he addresses God, “You write down bitter things against me and make me inherit the sins of my youth.” In 14:16 – 17 he says, “Surely then You will count my steps but not keep track of my sin. My offenses will be sealed up in a bag; you will cover over my sin.” He is aware that “no one living can be righteous before God,” and he portrays God as watching him every moment, waiting for him to make a misstep (10:13 – 14), which is technically within God’s rights but, as Job points out, no one can withstand.

In other passages, Job indicates that if his friends were to rightly point out something that he had done wrong, he would submit to it. But what he’s not willing to do is allow them to accuse him of a bunch of things he knows he has not done: oppressing the poor, living a careless, selfish life, defying God, etc., etc. This has not been Job’s lifestyle, and he knows it.

So I think that when Job uses the word integrity in the passage above, he is talking about epistemology. He will not deny his integrity by “admitting they are right,” not because he’s an arrogant blowhard who won’t take correction, but because he has done self-examination — a lot of it — and the things they are saying are just not true. It might be easier in some ways to just go ahead and “admit” to all the things his friends are accusing him of, but that would be to throw out his entire epistemology, which includes the assumption that certain things are true, and that Job is capable of perceiving and remembering them. Giving up the epistemological point that truth is discoverable and that Job is not delusional, would be to betray his integrity. I believe that in the lines below, he is using “righteousness” and “conscience” as synonyms for “integrity” in the sense of epistemological integrity. I believe that in the lines above, when he says he will “speak no wickedness” and “utter no deceit,” he is saying he will not give up on his idea of the truth being a real thing and his own mind being a reliable guide to it, which he would be doing if he were to agree with all that his friends have been saying about him.

Obviously, admitting you are wrong is not a betrayal of the value of truth in every case. In many cases, valuing truth can lead us to admit we are wrong. But Job has examined their claims for 24 chapters now, and he has realized he is being gaslighted. He even realizes that, following their logic, his not being an evil oppressor creates a logical inconsistency with the idea that God is just. He is willing to take the puzzle rather than deny what he knows to be true. He is also not worried about looking like an arrogant blowhard. They have already called him that and worse. He’s just not willing to give up this last shred of dignity, that he knows what his lifestyle has been like and it has not been one of habitual wickedness.

I’ll let you make your own applications of all of this. The words of Jen are ended.

Quote: Self-reflection in the Gulag

… Following an operation, I am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital. I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts do not dissolve into delirium — and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening. The light has been turned out — so it will not hurt my eyes. He and I — and there is no one else in the ward.

Fervently he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judiasm to Christianity. This conversion was accomplished by an educated, cultivated person, one of his cellmates … We know each other very slightly, and [Dr. Kornfeld] was not the one responsible for my treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share his feelings. He was a gentle and well-mannered person.

It is already late. All the hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is ending up his story thus:

“And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-toothed comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.”

I cannot see his face. Through the window come only the scattered reflections of the lights of the perimeter outside. But there is such mystical knowledge in his voice that I shudder. …

And it so happened that Kornfeld’s prophetic words were his last words on earth. And, directed to me, they lay upon me as an inheritance. You cannot brush off that kind of inheritance by shrugging your shoulders.

But by that time I myself had matured to similar thoughts.

I would have been inclined to endow his words with the significance of a universal law of human life. However, one can get all tangled up that way. One would have to admit that on that basis those who had been punished even more cruelly than with prison — those shot, burned at the stake — were some sort of super evil-doers. (And yet … the innocent are those who get punished most zealously of all.) And what would one then have to say about our so evident torturers: Why does not fate punish them? Why do they prosper?

But there was something in Kornfeld’s words that touched a sensitive chord, and that I accept quite completely for myself. And many will accept the same for themselves.

In the seventh year of my imprisonment I had gone over and re-examined my life quite enough and had come to understand why everything had happened to me: both prison and, as an additional piece of ballast, my malignant tumor.

The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, pp. 309 – 311

The Dia de los Muertos Book Tag

Jyvur Entropy created this tag with Anna Book Critter, and I got it off Jyvur’s blog.

For a tag, you are given a series of prompts around a particular theme, and you answer the prompts, usually with the names of books you’ve read.

Para que lo sepas, I had to restrain myself from naming one of my own books for almost every one of these prompts. After all, the Scattering Trilogy is multigenerational; life-affirming; about rebirth; includes a fair amount of food, etc. Anyway, that’s en mi opinion. But I will do this tag like a normal person and name books by other people.

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

The Day of the Dead is all about remembering and honoring past generations.

Name a book with an intergenerational cast or a strong focus on family.

Pavilion of Women, by Pearl Buck. Buck is a master at sliding seamlessly through time in her stories. In the opening scene, Madame Wu is sitting in her chamber on the morning of her fortieth birthday. Her maidservant comes in to comb her hair, and suddenly we are in this same bedroom twenty-four years ago, on the morning after Madam Wu married Mr. Wu, and the same maidservant has come in, and she is nervous as a cat around her new mistress, because she knows that she just had sex for the first time. Now, twenty-four years later again, the servant is much more at ease with Madam Wu, but she does not know that her mistress has decided that as of her fortieth birthday, she will stop living to keep the Wu household running smoothly, and start living for herself. She just has to get through the party.

Dia de los Muertos is an important Mexican holiday. Name a book that takes place in Mexico or includes Mexican culture. 

I’ve been slo-mo bingeing on books about the archaeology of Mesoamerica. Of course, with books like these, which are about as old as I am, you need to supplement them with current articles, since new discoveries and analyses keep being made.

This holiday is often celebrated with vibrant, colorful imagery and sugar skulls. Name a book with a cover as visually-interesting and colorful as a sugar skull.

I will never stop promoting the art of Trina Schart Hyman.

Food is an important part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Food is set out on altars for the spirits of departed family members.

Tell us a book where food really makes the story!

The No. Ladies’ Detective Agency books. These are written from multiple perspectives, but arguably the main character is Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. Ladies’ Detective Agency, the only female-run detective agency in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is fat (“traditionally built”), and while not unusually greedy, she does enjoy her food and thinks about it fairly often. She always likes to visit the formidable Mma Potokwane, who runs an orphanage, because although Mma Potokwane is sure to ask for some kind of favor for her orphans, she always serves Mma Ramotswe a generous piece of cake, sometimes two.

“Some people very clearly and obviously would like to eat more cake. It might as well be printed on their forehead: Greedy person.” Ah yes, that would be me.

Dia de los Muertos is not only celebrated in Mexico, but also in Central and South America. Name a book that takes place in Central or South America or has a Central or South American author. 

I’ve read a lot of missionary stories, but Bruchko is one of the most remarkable. It takes place among the Motilone, who live in the jungle somewhere along the border of Venezuela and Colombia.

In addition to sugar skulls, flowers and butterflies are also symbols of this holiday. Tell us a book with flowers or butterflies on the cover

Nailed it.

The Day of the Dead is about celebrating life. Name a book that celebrates life. 

The book of Job, in the Bible.

You think I’m kidding? No, listen.

Job isn’t about Job patiently putting up with suffering, proving what a good person he is, and then God rewards him. That’s the caricature, but it’s almost the opposite of the real theme of the book.

The consensus in Ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature was that, since God is just, if anything bad happens to anyone, it must be their fault. This is still, by the way, the essence of human wisdom in many parts of the globe, especially in Hinduism. It is also many people’s instinct when we see a horrible disaster befall someone, to find some way that the unfortunate person brought it upon themselves, or “how this could have been avoided.” It makes us feel a little more in control.

The book of Job exists to subvert this universally accepted bit of “wisdom.”

Job starts out as a model of the good person in the Ancient Near East. He has seven sons (the perfect number!), and three daughters; he offers regular animal sacrifices to God. And he’s rich, as he should be. Everything is making sense, see?

Now we take this model Good Person and visit all kinds of punishments on him. And this must be an expose, right? It must be Justice Falling At Last!

Job’s three “friends” show up, and they proceed to preach some very reasonable, theologically sound sermons just like you could hear in any of the wisdom literature of the day. God is just. He rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Therefore you must have deserved this somehow. If you say you haven’t, you are defying God! Beat that!

Their logic is flawless. And God sides with Job against them. “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

If that’s not life-affirming, I don’t know what is.

It is also a day of remembering loved ones who passed on. Name a book that was either given to you or reminds you of a loved one who passed away. 

Let me tell you about Alice.

I can tell you all about her now, because she’s with the Lord. No privacy risk or anything like that. I’d post a picture if I had one, but I don’t.

By the time I knew Alice, she was in her late eighties. (I was in my late teens.) She mentored me for a few years before she got dementia. She was a sweet, little old German-American lady, with a sly sense of humor. She could do impressions, but used this skill judiciously. Once she said to me, “You want to know why I never married?” And then, for an answer, she quoted the King James verse, but with different punctuation: “I would not have thee, ignorant brethren.” Props to you if you get that joke.

The “brethren” that she “would not have” were certainly missing out, because Alice was a treasure. Perhaps they overlooked her good qualities because of a facial deformity. She had been bitten on the cheek by a horse as a child, and it wasn’t until she was an adult that she was able to afford corrective surgery.

Anyway, one day when I was at Alice’s house, I picked up the book The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. She encouraged me to borrow it. I expected it to be a dry, academic read, because it was on a lofty theological topic. But no, it was written for the layperson, and was very accessible. A page-turner, in fact. To this day I associate that book with Alice.

El flor del Muerto – The flower of the dead. Marigolds are used in massive quantities on the Day of the Dead. These flowers represent the sun and rebirth. Also believe to guide the spirits back home. Name a book about rebirth. 

The Great Good Thing, by Andrew Klavan. Unfortunately, I have lent my copy out, so I can’t show you a picture. This is the story of how Klavan grew up as secular Jew on Long Island, ran away from home, lived as a hobo for several years, became a hard-boiled noir crime writer and a Hollywood success, and then became a Christian at the age of 50. He is now a Christian, Jewish, hard-boiled noir crime writer who also writes YA and fantasy.

If you want to read a novel about rebirth, try Identity Man, also by Andrew Klavan.

Colors are used as a form of symbolism in the decorations and sugar skulls. Some of the colors used in association with Dia de los Muertos are yellow (unity), white (hope and purity), red (blood and life), purple (mourning), and pink (happiness). 

Take a photo of some book spines in the Dia de los Muertos colors!

And a happy Dia de los Muertos to all who celebrate ❤

P.S. Disclaimer about Memorializing Our Dead

If anyone feels uncomfortable with me doing this tag, because, you know, skulls and dead people and paganism, I get it.

Let me reiterate a point I have made before, that pagan practices (especially old ones with deep roots) often fulfill basic human needs that every society needs to fulfill, such as celebration, marking the seasons, etc. In this case, the basic human need is to continue to feel a connection to, and to honor, our loved ones who have died. In a way, it’s part of the mourning process. Modern American society is terrible at this, sorry to say. The only formal time to remember the person is during the funeral and burial, after which the mourners are expected to basically stop talking about the person except to very close friends or relatives. Bringing them up, or continuing to visibly grieve, causes that sin of all sins, social awkwardness. This is pretty harsh, and it does not match well with the way that grieving goes for most people.

There are ways to provide for ongoing grieving, honoring, and remembering that are not ancestor worship. For example, in Indonesia, the Muslims have memorial services at 30 days, 100 days, and a year after the death. The people groups of Kalimantan (pagan and sometimes Christian as well) have a second, larger, funeral ceremony, usually a year later, when they dig up the person’s bones and re-inter them in an ossuary with the bones of the family. The Christians will have about a week or so of viewing services while they wait for people to gather for the funeral; then the graveside service; then that night an additional “comfort” service. Most of these take place at the family’s house, and they mean the house is filled with people, songs, and food. The family is not left alone. The people who attend don’t have to say or do anything special beyond “we share in your grief.” They just have to be physically present. This is also a better social rule than having to come up with something to say.

Christians will also have a vigil at their relatives’ graves on the night before Easter. This might sound creepy – and maybe it is – but sometimes when facing something as awful as death, we have to embrace the creepy and it will actually haunt us less.

So all that to say, while I am not recommending pagan worship, and while Christians are definitely forbidden from trying to contact the dead, I think having something like a Dia de los Muertos is a good idea on a psychological level. And yes, I did get teary-eyed when watching Coco.

Quote: “the center of this world”

Here is how it was with many others, not just with me. Our initial, first prison sky consisted of black swirling storm clouds and black pillars of volcanic eruptions — this was the heaven of Pompeii, the heaven of the Day of Judgment, because it was not just anyone who had been arrested, but I — the center of this world.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (abridged), p. 301

Sobering

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I finally finished reading the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The abridged version is 470 pages long, and it still gives the impression that we are only scratching the surface of all that happened with the camp system in the century since the Russian Revolution. Solzhenitsyn himself writes with regret about the fact that his account is sadly incomplete:

Those whom I asked to take on particular chapters would not do so, but instead offered stories, written or oral, for me to use as I pleased. What we really needed was a well-staffed office. [But] not only could I not spread myself like this; I had to conceal the project itself, my letters, my materials, to disperse them, to do everything in deepest secrecy. I even had to camouflage the time I spent working on the book with what looked like work on other things.

I must explain that never once did this whole book, in all its parts, lie on the same desk at the same time! In September, 1965, when work on the Archipelago was at its most intensive, I suffered a setback: my archive was raided and a novel impounded. At this point the parts of the Archipelago were already written, and the materials for the other parts, were scattered, and never reassembled: I could not take the risk, especially when all the names were given correctly.

I have stopped work on the book not because I regard it as finished, but because I cannot spend any more of my life on it. Besides begging for indulgence, I want to cry aloud: When the time and the opportunity comes, gather together, all you friends who have survived and know the story well, and write your own commentaries … Only then will the book be definitive. God bless the work!

The full list of those without whom this book could not have been written, or revised, or kept safe cannot yet be entrusted to paper. They know who they are. They have my homage.

pp. 469 – 472

No Triumph Here

There are many words that could be used to describe the experience of reading this book. Horrifying, overwhelming, and in parts, inspiring. But I have chosen sobering because that is the overall impression that it left with me. No book about the systematic arrest, imprisonment, degradation, and murder of millions of people — and the suppression of their stories — can end on a triumphant note. Even when the triumph that has happened is that their stories have finally been told:

We could not foresee what it would be like: how for no visible compelling reason the earth would shudder and give, how the gates of the abyss would briefly, grudgingly part so that two or three birds of truth would fly out before they slammed to, to stay shut for a long time to come. So many of my predecessors had not been able to finish writing, or to preserve what they had written, or to crawl or scramble to safety — but I had this good fortune: to thrust the first handful of truth through the open jaws of the iron gates before they slammed shut again.

Like matter enveloped by antimatter, it exploded instantaneously!

Only too rarely do our fellow countrymen have a chance to speak their mind … and former prisoners still more rarely. Their faith had proved false, their hopes had been cheated so often — yet now they believed that the era of truth was really beginning, that at last it was possible to speak and write boldly!

And they were disappointed, of course, for the hundredth time …

When Krushchev, wiping the tear from his eye, gave permission for the publication of [my novel about the gulags] Ivan Denisovich, he was quite sure that it was about Stalin’s camps, that he had none of his own.

I myself was taken by surprise when I received a stream of letters — from present-day zeks [prisoners]. These letters, too, were a single many-throated cry. But a cry that said, “What about us!!??” And the zeks set up a howl: What do you mean, never happen again? We’re here inside now, and our conditions are just the same!

“Nothing has changed since Ivan Denisovich’s time” — the message was the same in letters from many different places. “Any zek who reads your book will feel bitterness and disgust because everything is just as it was.” “What has changed, if all the laws providing for twenty-five years’ imprisonment issued under Stalin are still in force?”

After reading all these letters, I who had been thinking myself a hero saw that I hadn’t a leg to stand on: in ten years I had lost my vital link with the Archipelago.

pp. 451 – 453

Human Psychology is Universal

Though I have never lived under an oppressive socialist regime, many parts of this book felt familiar because human psychology is the same. For example, in an early chapter Solzhenitsyn describes how common it was for people to be arrested because they had been accused or betrayed by a jealous spouse. A man secretly accuses another man who he suspects is having an affair with his wife. A wife accuses her husband so she can get rid of him and live with her lover. This is the same phenomenon we now see on campuses where bitter exes will use the university’s sexual-harassment reporting system to take revenge on each other. And it’s not just about women vs. men: I recently saw a case where a lesbian used it to take down her ex, who happened to be a professor, after the relationship went sour. The problem is that when you set up a bureaucratic “justice” system that can be easily used to ruin people, the temptation to use it on your personal enemies is almost overwhelming.

Here are some other things that felt oddly familiar: When Solzhenitsyn’s book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich came out, the Soviet newspapers grudgingly praised it: “an explosion of newspaper articles — written with gritted teeth, with ill-concealed hatred and resentment: an explosion of official praise that left a sour taste in my mouth” (p. 451). This, in turn, caused former prisoners to assume that the book was not an actual expose, but rather “controlled opposition” put out by the regime as more propaganda.

“The prolonged absence of any free exchange of information within a country opens up a gulf of incomprehension between whole groups of the population, between millions and millions. We simply cease to be a single people, for we speak, indeed, different languages.” (p. 432)

The mildest and at the same time most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbor, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed. (For you could not afford to lose your current job!) And then it was announced at work, at the general meeting, that the person who had disappeared the day before was … an inveterate enemy of the people. And you, who had bent your back beside him for twenty years at the same desk, now by your noble silence (or even by your condemning speech!), had to show how hostile you were to his crimes.

p. 323

May God Prepare Our Hearts

Because if we ever face anything like this, our own character will be our downfall.

Those people became corrupted in camp who had already been corrupted out in freedom or who were ready for it. Because people are corrupted in freedom too, sometimes even more effectively than in camp.

If a person went swiftly bad in camp, what it might mean was that he had not just gone bad, but that that inner foulness which had not previously been needed had disclosed itself.

Yes, camp corruption was a mass phenomenon. But not only because the camps were awful, but because in addition we Soviet people stepped upon the soil of the Archipelago spiritually disarmed …

p. 319

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its divisiveness, its confusion — I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast? Firmer in our thoughts?”

And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!”

p. 313

Quote: A Liar Telling the Truth

Chad smiled a sad, pastoral smile. Rourke looked at him, sympathetically impressed. Man, this guy was good. But Rourke had been on the force for many years, and he was just as good. Rourke tightened the muscles in his jaw. That man across the desk is telling the truth for now, just this moment. But he is a liar telling the truth, and it almost suits him.

So Rourke just sat and watched admiringly. Chad chose his words with care, but with a carefree care. Everything was parsed, but it looked as though it was spontaneously lying about. Shabby chic.

Evangellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, p. 49

Quote: Survive!

One’s own order to oneself, “Survive!”, is the natural splash of a living person. Who does not wish to survive? Who does not have the right to survive? Straining all the strength of our body! An order to all our cells: Survive! …

They lead thirty emaciated but wiry zeks [=prisoners] three miles across the Arctic ice to a bathhouse. The bath is not worth even a warm word. Six men at a time wash themselves in five shifts, and the door opens straight into the subzero temperature, and four shifts are obliged to stand there before or after bathing — because they cannot be left without convoy. And not only does none of them get pneumonia. They don’t even catch cold. (And for ten years one old man had his bath just like that, serving out his term from age fifty to sixty. But then he was released, he was at home. Warm and cared for, he burned up in one month’s time. That order — “Survive!” — was not there. …)

But simply “to survive” does not yet mean “at any price.” “At any price” means : at the price of someone else.

The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, p. 302