30 December 2008

deconstructing theodicy

David B. Burrell, Deconstructing Theodicy (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008).

One nugget that I spotted at SBL Boston is this small examination of Job by Notre Dame philosophy professor, David Burrell.  What especially stood out to me is captured in the subtitle: "Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering".  Although I would hesitate to use nothing here (it is a vast overstatement, especially from a professional philosopher), this gave me the indication that the perspective here would certainly be on the right path (N.B., Job is about wisdom, for those wanting to play the home version).  It would certainly follow that if Job's suffering was the vehicle for the discussion of wisdom, there most likely is something to be said to the puzzle of suffering . . . let's not count it out just yet.  The book is light by weight (only 125 pages of text), but does contain some heavy thoughts.

The first four chapters provide an overview and brief reading of Job.  I must say that Burrell gets it completely right on this (perhaps some more seasoned scholars will find a few minor divergences), seeing Job appropriately as a narrative meant to carry a discussion of true wisdom in the world.  Burrell is careful to respect the genre here, and allows the storytelling to emerge along with the discussion.  For example, "The prologue has completed its task once Job's palpable affliction has brought this archetypal figure down to earth" (26).

Further, Burrell sees the speeches given by Job's friends for what they are meant to represent - poorly constructed theology packaged in pithy statements designed to give comfort to themselves rather than discuss the pain of Job: "Eliphaz purports to know all about the ways of the Lord, yet axioms distilled from traditional narratives carefully avoid addressing Job's plight" (28).  Going from bad to worse, he captures the words of Eliphaz in ch. 22 with, "Prefacing with, 'Is not your wickedness great?  There is no end to your guilt' (22:5), he goes on to rewrite the life story that God had recounted to Satan to laud Job" (38).  These are all necessary points to understanding the narrative which most readers simply do not understand.  Overall Burrell gets the narrative reading right, though it would have been good to see a bit more emphasis on Job's repentance in ch. 34 than is given here.

As for the rest of the book, you are either interested in the subject matter or you are not.  There is not a whole lot to endear those who do not already have a desire to follow the issues which are presented.  Chapter 5 is an essay presented by A. H. Johns, "A Comparative Glance at Ayyub in the Qur'an".  Though some will find value here, from my perspective as a biblical theologian I did not find much fruit for understanding Job.  Chapter 6 then goes to examine classical commentaries on the book (Saadiah, Maimonides, Aquinas, and Gersonides).  I confess that I do not quite understand why these four alone without other regard for church history.

The final two chapters discuss Job's contribution to theodicy.  Burrell suggests that Job has little to offer in terms of theodicy, speaking now from a biblical-philosophical perspective.  And he means this to be understood in the classical and common way of understanding theodicy.  What he does note, however, is the role of the narrative in exposing such pat answers to suffering as a lack of wisdom and understanding: "For the only ones who attempt to explain Job's plight are his friends-turned-tormentors" (123, emphasis in original).  But what then is the proper theodicy in which to place Job?  Though Burrell does mention, ". . . there is literally no distance at all between creature and creator if the very being of every creature is a 'being-to' its source" (133), he does not present a solid theodicy on its own.  And this is not the main point of the book, I understand, but to simply place Job in proper context.  This decision, though, leaves the reader a bit lacking in the final pages.

For a fuller treatment of the nature of theodicy, see W. Hasker's recent work.

This would be a good addition for those looking to teach/preach/explain Job's message, but otherwise holds to a quite limited field of interest for the latter half.

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