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The book of Job as an account of the work of formation

suffering_job-705x500In my thesis–The Story Work of Formation in Christian Community:  A Constructive Engagement Between Faith Development Theory and Narrative Theology–I argue that narrative theology provides an important framework for understanding how Christian character is formed in community.  However, I also argue that other discourses are needed if we are to fully appreciate how the process of formation in Christian community is influenced not only by the narrative of scripture (read in community), but also by our experience as biological and social beings–that is by the process of human development.

In Chapter 3 of my thesis I draw upon the work of Sussanah Ticciati, Job and the Disruption of Identity: Reading Beyond Barth (2005).  The work of self is work that happens in community, but as Ticciati’s reading of Job suggests, it is also a profound inner journey in which we encounter the otherness of God and ourselves in ways that transform our relationship with all that is.  It is the work which seeks to validate the truth of our experience in relation to our conventional images of God and the speech of others.  At the end of the chapter I explore how James Fowler’s account of faith development might intersect with the work Job does which leads to a more authentic relationship with self, God, and community.

 Here then is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of my thesis…

Fowler’s Proposal Regarding Disequilibration

In Faithful Change, Fowler says that the need for change in our lives comes from at least three sources.[1]  First, he says, we experience developmental changes because we are bodies.  As embryos our bodies take form according to a genetic code and when the fetus emerges into life outside the womb, we begin a journey of physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual growth and change.  Our bodies include the potential for the realization of the full range of human capacities.  Our bodies gradually mature, take their adult forms, and then eventually begin an inevitable process of gradual decline toward death.  These processes and changes that go with being a human body, says Fowler, are integral to our spiritual lives. 

A second source and type of change Fowler identifies is what he calls healing or reconstructive change.  Because as a species humans are fragile during the challenging early phases of growth and because we are shaped by the “characters and the patterns of interaction already in process on the stages where our life dramas begin,” we inevitably grow into adulthood with emotions that are wounded or distorted in some degree.[2]  And so at age thirty, forty, or fifty, Fowler says, we may find that we need to look at the ways in which we have involuntarily learned to hide these wounds from ourselves and others.  We may enter a time of trying to “find our own deeper hearts’ yearnings.”  These are times, says Fowler, when “we must heal or rework some of the underlying patterns of our emotional or relational lives.”[3]  Thus, Fowler observes, healing involves change.

Third, Fowler notes, we experience changes that come through participation in the broader range of social, economic, and political processes of our societies.  Fowler calls this third source of change in our lives change due to disruptions and modifications of the systems that shape our lives.  Fowler cites examples such as the terrible dislocations and losses that come with wars and economic downturns as well as the kind of changes that come with new technologies which require us to learn new skills, perceptions, and attitudes in the workplace or society.  Fowler suggests that these kinds of changes may even cause us to reexamine and rework our convictions and the deepest elements of our belief systems.

Fowler goes on to explore what all these types of changes mean for faith through the framework of faith development theory.  Fowler contends that attention to all these dynamics of faith makes clear that “the patterns and contents of our faith, themselves, must also inevitably evolve and change.”[4]  Fowler envisions two significant kinds of change in faith:  stage change and conversion.  Fowler sees conversion as a dramatic shift in terms of the content of faith (values, powers, and stories), but his primary focus is the more incremental kind of change that is impacted by variables such as biological maturation together with psychosocial, cognitive and moral development.  I have been proposing throughout this thesis that Fowler offers a way of  thinking about structural dimensions of story work that come to bear on how we listen to the story of the other and discern God’s presence in that space.  But now I want to consider the implications of this in relation to Fowler’s proposal regarding disequilibration in the transition between stages.

Fowler’s structural approach to faith leads him to see the process of development as tied to tensions between the equilibrium of one stage and the equilibrium of the next.[5]  Thus, Fowler claims that “in any significant time [in] the transition in our sense of selfhood and faith we engage in a protracted time of dis-ease and disequilibration.”[6]  Fowler goes on to say that:

Such periods are precipitated either by interruptive events and experiences, or by the realization that many of the ways one has been living and making meaning no longer ‘make sense.’  The maintenance of selfhood and faith in meaning and plausibility is profoundly relational.  The pressures for change come both from within and from without—from internal processes of trying to ‘keep our balance,’ and from external influences that impact and threaten the balance we try to maintain.[7]

While Fowler’s proposal is related to the process of faith development in individuals, I believe his discussion here has implications for my thesis question.  I believe that Fowler’s explanation regarding why the “transition in our sense of selfhood and faith” can bring about a sense of disequilibration sheds light on what is at stake when we listen to the story of the other.  What is at stake is the equilibrium of the way we construe our sense of self and the world through the biblical story.  Listening to the story of the other can, in fact, be disruptive because it represents an implicit challenge to the ways one has been (is) living and making meaning through the biblical story.  Because “the maintenance of selfhood and faith in meaning and plausibility is profoundly relational,” listening to the story of the other can create “pressures for change” which may not be plausible or desired according to the current way of approaching faith.

We might say, then, that personal story work in which we listen to the story of the other, while causing disequilibration, is a necessary part of faithful change.  But this is the account of personal story work understood through Fowler’s structural approach to faith.  How might we bring this perspective into constructive engagement with the content-driven approach of narrative theology?  In what follows I propose to do this in three ways.  First, I want to consider more broadly how the experience of displacement shaped the communal story work of Israel.  Second, I want to examine more specifically some characteristics expressed in the story work of Israel.  Third, I want to note some continuities between the method of this thesis and Walter Brueggemann’s narrative approach to scripture.

Displacement and the Story Work of Israel

In Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann claimsthat it is the crisis of displacement that decisively shapes the self-understanding of Judaism that emerges in the exile and thereafter.  Brueggemann explains the impact of the experience of displacement in terms of the development of the canon:

Whatever older materials may have been utilized (and the use of older materials can hardly be doubted), the exilic and/or postexilic location of the final form of the text suggests that the Old Testament materials, understood normatively, are to be taken precisely in an acute crisis of displacement (italics mine), when old certitudes—sociopolitical as well as theological—had failed.  Indeed, the crisis of displacement looms as definitive in the self-understanding of Judaism that emerged in the exile and thereafter.  With the failure of long-trusted institutions, the faith community that generated the final form of the text, and that was generated by it, was thrown back in a singular way on the textual-rhetorical possibility for life-space.  In acute dislocation when appeal could no longer be made to city, king, or temple, it was to this text Israel increasingly had to look.[8]

If the corpus of writings contained in the Old Testament represents part of the story work of Israel, Brueggemann helps us see how that story work was profoundly shaped through the experience of displacement.  Both in the experience of displacement and in the encounter with the other, the story work of Israel was shaped.

New materials such as Lamentations gave expression to the anguishing impact of displacement from Jerusalem.  The exile prophets provide an interpretive framework through which to make sense of the experience of displacement in relation to Yahweh.  Brueggemann says there is no doubt that the community that produced the Old Testament was shaped in its liturgic practice and in its theological self-understanding through its encounter with the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures.[9]  Space does not allow for a more  thorough treatment of specific examples Brueggemann provides of how listening to the story of the other shaped the story work of Israel (i.e. names for God, cultic practices, wisdom literature).  What is important to bring into the context of this study is Brueggemann’s claim that the crisis of displacement was the central crisis in the self-understanding of Judaism and that that crisis is reflected in the story work we find in the Old Testament.

Brueggemann offers another aspect of Israel’s story work that relates to the question of this thesis when he notes that the story work of Israel was dialogical.  In this Brueggemann follows the consensus of current biblical scholarship in arguing that the Old Testament should be read not as the evolutionary development of Israelite religion in a unilateral direction, but rather as side-by-side renditions of faith that evidence “profound and ongoing contestation about the character of God, the nature of faith, and the identity of Israel.”[10]  We might say that listening to the story of the other, for Israel, represented a willingness to keep alternate accounts in dialogue with each other within the community of faith.  The communal story work as it is represented in the canon of scripture represents the ability to hold in tension the imperial interests of order and structure and the prophetic concern for the marginalized.  In Brueggemann’s words, the text itself bears witness to “the unsettled, open-ended pluralism” of Israel’s testimony.[11]

But what are the implications of the disputed communal story work of Israel for the question of this thesis?  I would contend that if we are to bring a Fowlerian analysis to the story work of Christian community, it will require making space for disputed expressions of witness and testimony—not unlike what we find in the communal story work of Israel.  Of course, just because these ongoing contestations about the character of God, the nature of faith, and the identity of Israel are preserved in the canon should not leave us with the illusion that the story work was not messy and even violent.  What is important to note in the context of this thesis is that the Christian community that finds in the story work of Israel a narrative framework for their own story work will make room for these unsettled disputations.  In so doing, the canon represents an acknowledgement that story work is dialogical.

Even though Brueggemann claims no desire to be postmodern, “except as the polyvocal character of the text itself indicates such an interpretive perspective,” it is worth noting the points of convergence between his narrative approach to scripture and the proposal outlined in Chapter Two following McClendon.  Brueggemann’s narrative approach to scripture allows him to draw from the gains offered by historical-criticism without according to this method the status of innocent objectivity.  Thus, Brueggemann articulates a critique not unlike that of McClendon with respect to the foundationalist epistemology of modernity:

…the Cartesian program, fully embraced by much of biblical scholarship, was not as innocent, objective, or decontextualized as it supposed itself to be, for this scholarship made easy, common cause with certain modes of power that it left unchallenged.  As Hans-Georg Gadamer has argued, the Enlightenment has ‘a prejudice against prejudice.’  It cannot tolerate intellectual or theological claims and affirmations that run against its thin objectivism, which is itself an acknowledged intellectual, theological claim.  In principle, the metanarrative of modernity, with its vigilance against authority, made Old Testament theology as a normative enterprise impossible.  The emancipation of the Bible from dogmatic authority, which received its major impetus in the Reformation, was lost in a practice of reductionistic criticism.  It is fair to say that, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Old Testament had ceased to be a part of Scripture with any authoritative claim for the church.[12]

While this is a secondary point in the context of the focus of this chapter, I do think it is worth noting that Brueggemann’s postliberal inclinations in his reading of the text provide further weight to the judgments made in the work of Chapter Two.  More importantly in light of the proposal of this chapter is the fact that in Brueggemann’s theological account of the Old Testament we find a basis for understanding the communal story work of Israel as reflecting profound ongoing disputes regarding the character of God, the nature of faith, and the identify of Israel.

The Story Work of Displacement in the Book of Job

In Job and the Disruption of Identity,  Sussanah Ticciati makes the case for the book of Job to be read as a story of transformation of self before God.[13]  In verse nine of the prologue, Ticciati finds the question which provides the hermeneutical key for the entire book:  Does Job fear God for naught?  Ticciati’s thesis is that this question sets up the structure of the entire book which, though often interpreted in terms of the question of theodicy,[14] should be read as a story of formation in which Job wrestles with the communal tradition (as represented in his friends) and with God (in the whirlwind speeches).  What follows is an overview of Ticciati’s reading of Job.

Ticciati builds her interpretation on a critique of Barth’s commentary on Job which offers the key motif of transformation of self before God.  However, Ticciati argues that Barth’s reading of Job closes down the text because he is concerned with questions which do not emerge from the text, but rather from the concerns of his own theological context—namely, the Protestant concern of justification before God.   Ticciati argues that Barth’s approach is inadequate to provide an account of the disjunctions in the text between the prologue (1:1-2:13) and the epilogue (42:10-17).  Ticciati proposes that allowing the text to be situated in the human context offers interpretive possibilities which are closer to the concerns of the wisdom genre—particularly that of the dissenting tradition to which Job belongs.[15]  To this end, Ticciati expands upon Barth’s theological reading by drawing upon biblical-scholarly as well as psycho-philosophical sources.[16]

By insisting on the genuinely historical nature of Job’s relation to God in the prose narrative, Ticciati does not intend to argue that Job is a historical figure.  Rather, her argument—in contrast to Barth—is that we must read the story of Job as a human story because this is the context that concerns the wisdom tradition.  When we read Job primarily as a theodicy, the function of the poem is usually rendered as a justification of God.  The problem with this approach, argues Ticciati, is that the prologue of the book does not set this up.  On the contrary, the prologue sets the book up as a testing of Job.  The text calls us to see Job not just as a literary figure or a type for our theological questions, but rather as a psychologically and socially complex human being who must be situated within the currents of history.  As such, Ticciati’s proposal opens up the text so that we are able to see Job’s displacement not just as an existential displacement caused by suffering, but as a deeply personal psycho-social displacement in relation to his image of God.

Ticciati suggests that the transformation of Job’s identity before God involves a movement from a more simple expression of faith and image of God to a more complex view of God that emerges in the poetry section and is embodied in the epilogue.  This is not a transition from wickedness to righteousness.  The text makes clear in the prologue that Job is a person of character and integrity.[17]  However, Ticciati sees the possibility that Job’s piety in the prologue is driven by fear in that the text hints that Job’s sacrifice of burnt offerings is a scrupulous attempt to appease God.  Ticciati sees Job’s prologue relationship with God as based on a sense of contractual obligation.

Ticciati also suggests that while God is pleased with Job, the dialogue between God and the Satan in the prologue contains implications that there are depths to the relationship that have not been plumbed through the expressions of external piety.  That God allows for a testing of Job cannot be read as an arbitrary act of a capricious God.[18]  Rather, argues Ticciati, when we read the defective prologue-piety in the critical light of the epilogue, we see that disruption of the prologue equilibrium is necessary for Job to encounter depths of God he has not known.  In other words, we are able to read Job as a story of formation.

In Ticciati’s reading of Job as a story of formation I find possibilities for convergence with Fowler’s structural account of faith development.  First, in Job’s fear-based prologue piety I see characteristics of Synthetic-Conventional faith (Stage 3).  Job conforms to communal norms of piety—blamelessly.  Yet, there is more to God than the equilibrium of this stage.  Job’s prologue piety is disrupted by experiences of tragic loss and personal suffering.   Although we see Job’s friends initially willing to sit with him in silence honoring the mystery of his suffering (Stage 5 qualities), the narrative section of the book makes clear that over time their speech is guided by conventional images of God which have been transmitted by the communal tradition.[19]  They can only imagine that Job has sinned, because their faith is pre-critical conformity to external authority which understands suffering in terms of the doctrine of retribution. Characteristically for Synthetic-Conventional faith, Job’s friends take their understanding of God to be absolute and it is from this position that they offer an authoritative judgment.

Job’s story work unfolds as he begins to name the ways his experience calls into question and is in tension with his own conventional belief system and that of his community.  The view of a God who blesses the righteous and curses those who are evil no longer makes sense.  He is convinced of his own integrity and yearns for vindication.  Yet, his community of reference can only reinforce the synthetic-conventional understandings of God.  Job’s displacement is external (in relation to his community of reference) and internal (in relation to the dissonance between his images of God and his experience).  Job begins to express an impulse toward questioning God and the conventional responses of his friends—a deconstructive move characteristic of Stage 4.  Yet, Job recognizes that God is not mortal that he might be brought to trial (6:32).  There is no external court of appeal or as Job says, “There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand on us both” (6:33).  The tension in the text at this point might be correlated to the tensions that Fowler describes between the equilibrium of Stage 3 and Stage 4.[20]

Ticciati proposes that since there is no place outside himself to which he can appeal for answers, “his wrestling can therefore only take the form of self-scrutiny,”[21]  Ticciati explains:

Such wrestling, in a movement of self-examination, should lead to the God who is truly transcendent, because also immanent, i.e. the Other who is inextricable from our internal otherness.  This may be, then, what constitutes a real preparation for the judgment of God, and thus a life lived continually in the acknowledgment of our responsibility before the ever-present judgment of God.  In Joban terms, could this self-scrutiny be the form of Job’s truly ‘for naught’ relation to God?[22]

So Ticciati reads the text as a “movement of self-examination” through which Job encounters his own otherness as well as the otherness of God.  In the text, this encounter with the otherness of God is expressed essentially through the poetics of the Whirlwind speeches.  In taking the risk of contending with God, Job has moved beyond the fear-based equilibrium of the prologue.  He has also embraced the conflict that comes through self-differentiation from his primary community of reference (as represented by his friends).

Ticciati observes that through this disruption of identity Job is able to encounter God in the mystery and wisdom of creation—a transforming encounter through which “he finds a way of relating to the world in which its human structures do not function as a protective hedge (as they do for the friends), but are the framework within which a deeper relation to God becomes possible….”  Job’s deeper relation to God is one that is characterized by openness to paradox and mystery as we encounter this in “the gratuity of God’s creation.”  In the epilogue, Job, who has always been concerned with the plight of widows and orphans, embodies a movement toward “an inclusive community of being” (Fowler’s Stage 5) as he welcomes all his brothers, sisters, and former friends to come and feast with him in his home (42:11).

[1] Fowler, Faithful Change,  9-11.

[2] Fowler, Faithful Change, 10.

[3] Fowler, Faithful Change, 10.

[4] Fowler, Faithful Change, 11.

[5] Fowler claims that “each stage represents a widening of vision and valuing, correlated with a parallel increase in the certainty and depth of selfhood, making for qualitative increases in intimacy with self-others-world.”  See Fowler, Stages, 274.

[6] Fowler, Faithful Change, 71.  Fowler claims that the transition from one stage to another is expressed in different ways, but involves four interrelated aspects: (1) disengagement, (2) disidentification, (3) disenchantment, and (4) disorientation.

[7] Fowler, Faithful Change, 71-72.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 74-75.

[9] In Old Testament Theology: An Introduction (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), Brueggemann says, “The issue for Old Testament theology is the question of the extent to which Israel appropriated such material, the extent to which it radically transformed the material, and the extent to which it rejected the material that it found inimical to its own theological commitments.  The answer to these questions determines the extent to which the Old Testament reflects common theology that was generic in the ancient Near East and the extent to which Israel’s faith is distinctive and without parallel in its cultural environment” 6.

[10] Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, 10.

[11] Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, 1.

[12] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 14-15.

[13] Susannah Ticciati, Job and the Disruption of Identity: Reading Beyond Barth (London: T & T Clark International, 2005), 1; also see David B. Burrell, Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008).

[14] See for example James Crenshaw,  Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[15] Like Ecclesiastes, the book contains no overt reference to the Yahweh of the Deuteronomic tradition or to the Torah.  See Michael Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in its Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 380.

[16] It is worth noting that Ticciati’s approach to the text parallels the method we find in McClendon which sees the task of theology to be “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.”[16]

[17] Job 1:8

[18] Ticciati, 53-78.

[19] We hear this expressed, for example, in the speech of Eliphaz in Job 15:9-10.

[20] See Chapter One, 11.

[21] Ticciati, 100.

[22] Ticciati, 100.

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